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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Overcast
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TeamSurvivor's new dragon boat: Smoke on the water
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Credit:David Medaris

Tsssssss. You can almost hear the water turn to steam as 20 women launch TeamSurvivor Madison's new dragon boat.

The craft is that hot, even if there's no actual steam rising around it. At last, the six-year-old team has a bona-fide dragon boat in which to train for competitions such as the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival, Aug. 22-23.

Built by longtime Madison boatwright Jim Caldwell, it measures 40 feet, eight inches long and about 46 inches broad at its widest point. "Dry, it weighs about 600 pounds," he says. With 20 paddlers paired up on 10 benches, plus one drummer on the bow and one person steering with a special oar anchored to the stern gunwale, "we're going out at about 32 hundred pounds."

Compared to the voyageur canoe in which the team had been practicing, the new boat is "a real quantum leap" in terms of scope and scale, Caldwell observes. On loan from Carl's Paddlin', the voyageur canoe is a fine and hearty craft, but its geometry and performance differs significantly from the dragon boat.

An affiliate of the national TeamSurvivor organization, TeamSurvivor Madison was established in 2003 to provide low-cost fitness activities such as walking, biking, swimming and triathlon training for women diagnosed with cancer. The aim is to help them build confidence and stamina.

"In past years, the first time some of these women had been in a dragon boat was when we got to the festival," notes Diane Stojanovich, president of TeamSurvivor Madison's board of directors. Now these women can become more adept at moving a dragon boat through the water.

Still, the goal "is participation, not competition," Stojanovich emphasizes. The team's results are incidental to completing a race.

During one recent Wednesday-night prac- tice, it is clear that the new boat has already advanced the team's esprit de corps. It registers on the faces of these women, all cancer survivors, as they launch on the pond behind Rutabaga Paddlesports.

Some, like Stojanovich - who has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma - are in remission. Others are in treatment, or living with cancer. All are here to share in the therapeutic benefits of exercise, determined to improve the quality of their lives.

They are a tough bunch, and spirited - twice winning the spirit award at the Pride of the Fox dragon boat races in St. Charles, Ill. "Most of the women in our chapter are pre-Title IX," Stojanovich points out. Now, they are taking to organized sport like dragon boats to water.

"It really is a beautiful metaphor," Stojanovich observes, "moving forward on this journey that we all share as cancer survivors. You sort of check the diagnosis on the shore. There's no discussion about cancer, or very minimal. You get in the boat and your focus has shifted."

TeamSurvivor Madison has a longer-term goal, Stojanovich adds: "We want to put dragon boating on the map in Madison" by hosting a dragon boat festival here in 2010.

When Caldwell heard about these ambitions, he jumped at the chance to build the dragon boat. Accompanying the team to a dragon boat festival, "I took a good look at the boats they were using and figured it wouldn't be that hard to build," he remembers.

With a major contribution from WPS health insurance, TeamSurvivor Madison ordered a kit from Toronto-based dragon-boat purveyor Great White North. Caldwell gathered resin, fiberglass cloth and other materials and set to work in an Oregon workspace. "Three months later," he says, "we had a dragon boat." And TeamSurvivor Madison's dragon boat team is ready to breathe fire.

Trek Bicycle Stores sponsor the second annual Chocolate Chase, a benefit ride for TeamSurvivor Madison, on Saturday, Aug. 30, with rides of four, 10 and 20 miles starting at 9 am from Pioneer Park off Old Sauk Road. Details at teamsurvivormadison.com.

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