Homer Lake Is Home: Breast cancer experiences unite Prairie Dragon Paddlers

Members of Prairie Dragon Paddlers pose for a team photo.

Photo Courtesy of Prairie Dragon Paddlers

Members of Prairie Dragon Paddlers pose for a team photo.

By Gwyn Skiles, Staff Writer

At Homer Lake in Champaign County, a passerby might hear the beating of a drum and see a long, thin boat painted with pink scales and filled with women paddling. 

The Prairie Dragon Paddlers is a dragon boat racing team composed of breast cancer survivors. 

Founder and executive director Kelly Bradham first had the idea to start this team after hearing about the work of Don McKenzie,  a sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist. Prior to McKenzie’s research, exercise was believed to provoke lymphedema in breast cancer patients; however, McKenzie proved exercise does the opposite.

“I just happened to find out about this, so I traveled to Vancouver to see a dragon boat race, and I saw my first woman there who was in a pink life jacket,” Bradham said. “I did research for about two years before I ever called a group of women and asked to get our own team started.”

In 2016, around 35 women formed a team and quickly developed a sense of comradery and synchronicity, Bradham said. They race against other breast cancer survivor teams all over the world.

The shared camaraderie between the women is member Andrea Betzler’s favorite part.  

“My favorite part is definitely the sisterhood,” Betzler said. “We rarely ever talk about cancer — we try to bring happy things into the group. But when people are going through the worst time of their lives, Prairie Dragon Paddlers is there.”

The excursion and energy when paddling is something former captain and original member, Stephanie Harpst, valued in addition to the comradery. 

“I had a really tough day at work one year and the last thing I wanted to do was to go out to practice,” Harpst said. “All that stress I put in the exertion and focus of being in the boat, with all these women cracking jokes, I knew it was what I needed to do.”

The Prairie Dragon Paddlers support their teammates while also helping to provide funds for breast cancer research, Bradham says. So far they’ve donated to the Cancer Center in Illinois.

Original member Diane Salfelder said community service is a large part of the Prairie Dragon Paddler’s mission.

“Our mission is to continue to bring support to breast cancer survivors, to educate people and make people aware of what survivors go through,” Salfelder said.

In addition to donating funds, the team also receives donations. The Prairie Dragon Paddlers are one of Illini 4000’s beneficiaries. 

Marie Hubbard, vice president of Illini 4000 and junior in Engineering, said donating to the Prairie Dragon Paddlers means a lot to their organization.

“They’re one of the only beneficiaries that are close to campus, so we get to meet the people that our money goes to,” Hubbard said. “If we weren’t able to have that relationship with them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

The Prairie Dragon Paddlers work with their competitors as well, secretary Pat Lacey says. The Indy Surviveoars in Indianapolis are their sister boat.

“The Indy Surviveoars have been around a few more years, and they very generously came over and showed us how to get in and out of the boat and what to do when you’re in it,” Lacey said.

The Prairie Dragon Paddlers weren’t able to paddle this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so new member Kathy Metcalf hasn’t paddled. 

“I have done all the things we’ve been able to do, but we haven’t been able to get on the water,” Metcalf said. 

Despite their canceled season, Salfelder said the sisterhood pressed on. She said she looks forward to traveling to New Zealand in March of 2022 to compete in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission. 

In addition to competing, the team will explore the culture of New Zealand and bond over shared experiences, Salfelder says. 

“As an original New Zealander, I’m excited to introduce my team to the New Zealand and Maori culture,” Salelder said.

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