A local breast cancer survivor, Meredith Cosburn was encouraged by her friend Barbara Stewart, a member of the Toronto Dragons Abreast dragon boat team, to do what she had done to help with her own recovery—join a dragon boat team. The closest team was in Cobourg so Meredith contacted Dorothy Hampson, founder of the Cobourg Survivor Thrivers.
In October of 1999, Meredith had recruited her co-worker Sherry Vaughn from Liberty Mutual Insurance and 4 others to form the beginnings of a team. An article in the Peterborough Examiner called for 16 more breast cancer survivors to join them.
The first team meeting was held on November 18, 1999. Dr. Rowsom, then chief of surgery at PRHC, Len Minty an experienced and enthusiastic paddler willing to coach, and members of the Survivor Thrivers and Dragons Abreast team attended the meeting complete with a video and encouragement to start a Peterborough team. The hope was to compete at a Toronto race in the coming spring.
Several women attended that meeting and by January 2000, the Peterborough and District Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat Team (PDBCSDBT) had 27 members. All that was still needed was a boat.
Dr. Rowsom, was instrumental in helping the team overcome this hurdle. He and three other doctors, Dr. R. Chenoweth, Dr. J. Scott and the late Dr. R. Jaroszonek, each donated $1,000 for a down payment towards a dragon boat. A story about the team published in the Peterborough Examiner sparked enough interest for Liberty Mutual to provide the rest of the money needed to pay for a dragon boat built by Glenn Fallis of Voyageur Canoe. The Holiday Inn then donated wharf space and the Chamber of Commerce offered free parking. Lawyer Bill Lockington volunteered free legal counsel to incorporate the team and operate under the hospital’s umbrella
“This is a good focal point for breast cancer survivors. You combine the physical fitness advantages, the overall wellness and the rise in awareness for this and it’s a great thing. Quote from “~ Dr. John Rowsom, surgeon at The Medical Centre, Peterborough~
Fundraising and raising awareness began right away with a float in the 1999 Santa clause parade, followed by an event at Portage place in January 2000 which included a “loonie toonie walk”, where anyone wishing to donate money would stick their loonies or toonies to the tape on the floor. A benefit dance was held on April 1 at Trentwinds.
During the winter months, thanks to the generosity of the YMCA, Len Minty arranged for the team to start practicing at the side of the pool using special, smaller practice paddles. The team’s goal was to prepare for the real thing—dragon boat competitions in Pickering and the Toronto area.
“Dragon boat racing is the avenue breast cancer survivors have chosen to get support and to support themselves. It’s a curious choice, but it’s really growing.” ~Quote from Len Minty, Former Survivors Abreast Coach~
Survivors Abreast’s first race was in Pickering on June 10, 2000. They finished their 1st 500 meter race in 2 min 39 seconds, and to their surprise, Dr Rowsom was waiting for them on the dock. They attended the festival at the Toronto Islands on June 24 and 25 and after only 3 months of paddling, the team crossed the finish line in 4th place out of 8 teams, only 10 seconds behind the winning Toronto team.
In October of 2000, the team hosted its first pink ribbon ball which raised $21,850. That money was donated towards the purchase of diagnostic imaging equipment for the breast assessment centre which officially opened at PRHC in September 2000, one of the first in Ontario.
Inspired by Len Minty and Meredith Cosburn, June 16th 2001 marked the beginnings of Peterborough’s Dragon Boat festival. Referred to as Liberty Mutual’s “Day on the Water”, this community event sponsored by Liberty Mutual was organized by a few members of Survivors Abreast, the Canadian Canoe Museum (with Peterborough Green Up) and the Peterborough Family YMCA. It brought together 35 dragon boat teams including 4 survivor teams racing a 400 metre course, scores of canoeists to compete in events for families with children, and participants in the 3rd annual Great Kawartha canoe-a-thon featuring a course from Lakefield to Little Lake. Just over $25,000 was donated to the Breast Assessment Centre.
The following year, Peterborough’s Dragon Boat Festival took on a life of its own and has since grown to be a successful annual community event.
In the beginning, the Draggin’ Dawgs dragon boat team was a supporter team made up of spouses, sons, daughters & friends of Survivors Abreast team members who had been touched by breast cancer. Susan Miller, was inspired by her friend and breast cancer survivor, Lee Anne Willshaw, to be captain of the team. For several years, this dedicated group raced in Peterborough’s festival and sometimes travelled to out-of-town festivals with Survivors Abreast, racing or cheering them on from the shore.
Survivors Abreast travelled to Vancouver in 2005 in celebration of the Abreast in a Boat team’s 10th anniversary and of Dr Don Mackenzie who founded the breast cancer paddling movement. This festival proved to be the very first International dragon boat festival for breast cancer paddlers. A second one was held in Australia 2 years later. These led to the formation of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission (IBCPC), a commission of the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). A formal bidding process was introduced for the 2010 International festival, and Peterborough was chosen over 2 teams from England, 1 from Italy and 1 from New Zealand. 66 teams came from all over Canada, the US, Australia, England, Italy and South Africa. Survivors Abreast was awarded three Peterborough Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence awards that year. One for tourism, Health and Wellness and Marketing, and one for Promotions. The International festival has been held every 4 years since 2010. Survivors Abreast travelled to Sarasota in 2014 and will be attending the International festival in Florence Italy in 2018.
To date, the festival has raised over $3.1 million dollars in support of equipment that enhances breast cancer detection, treatment and care at PRHC. The team was awarded a Civic Award for community betterment in 2007 and in 2008 Survivors Abreast was presented with a Peterborough This Week Philanthropy Award.