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Hundreds compete in dragon boats to support breast cancer care

Published On: Jul 06 2013 06:50:27 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 06 2013 08:15:00 PM CDT
LA CROSSE, Wis. -

A new addition to Riverfest took place Saturday.

The Big Blue Dragon Boat races is sponsored by Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse.

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat and Viterbo's director of global education painted the eyes of a dragon display to officially mark the start of the event.

Proceeds from the event will go to support Mayo's Center for Breast Cancer.

Organizers were hoping for at least 20 teams to race Saturday, but ended up having 30 for a total of 600 participants.

"It tells (us) that our community is exceptionally supportive of all of these wonderful events that go on, especially to support a good cause, and we really live in a community that really embraces wellness, and I think this really appeals to a lot of different individuals," said Lori Freit-Hammes, co-chair of the event.

Dragon boat racing dates back thousands of years and has now somewhat become known as a way for breast cancer survivors to band together and promote their physical health.

Among the participants were a couple dozen breast cancer survivors.

For the survivors racing, it's not so much about winning or losing. It's about coming together and supporting each other.

They said "survivor" is a proud nine letter word to live by.

"I think that it's changed me, but I think it's changed me in a really positive way," said Susan Hessel of La Crosse.

Hessel has been a survivor for about five years now.

"I'm a breast cancer survivor from 2009," said Hessel. "I had chemotherapy, I had radiation, I had the kitchen sink -- surgery -- and I did well."

She's on the Crews in Blue Breast crew 1 team. It's one of two dragon boat racing teams filled with breast cancer survivors and supporters.

"One of the things that's really important is to show that there is life after breast cancer," said Hessel.

Hessel has never tried dragon boat racing, but she said the race is much like her battle with breast cancer.

"You've just gotta keep on trucking one foot in front of the other or one paddle moving in the water," said Hessel.

With a steady drum beat and one paddle stoke at a time, she and her team made it to the finish line, proving that together, they can accomplish anything.

"It's just great being part of a group and being part of camaraderie, and showing what we can do instead of being afraid because we can't do something," said Hessel.

The breast cancer survivors were also honored in a special ceremony Saturday.

Each survivor received two pink carnations -- one for them and one in memory of someone else.

The survivors then placed the flowers onto the Mississippi in honor everyone that has been affected by the disease.

Participants also raised their paddles to form a tunnel and gave a high-five to the survivors as they passed through.

In case you were wondering breast cancer survivors finished third in their division.

News 8 also teamed up with the La Crosse Radio group to compete for the great cause.

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