University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Strength, Sisterhood, Survival

Karen Meyer ’70 embodies Dragonheart’s paddle-strong ethic

Karen Meyer


Strength, Sisterhood, Survival

Karen Meyer ’70 embodies Dragonheart’s paddle-strong ethic

By Jon Reidel G’06

The thought of participating in an intense physical activity with dozens of other women, much less in a sport she’d never heard of before, was the furthest thing from Karen Meyer's mind when she met with her oncologist during treatment for breast cancer. Six years later, the former vice president for UVM State and Federal Relations can’t imagine not being part of Dragonheart Vermont Sisters, a breast cancer survivor dragon boat team that recently won a national championship in the popular ancient Chinese sport.

Meyer, UVM Class of 1970, and fellow UVM employees Penni Cross, research review administrator in the Research Protections Office; Pam Blum, assistant dean for finance and administration in the College of Education and Social Services; and Dr. Kim Dittus, assistant professor in the College of Medicine, all came to the sport while in recovery, and credit Dragonheart with inspiring them to remain active and overcome the disease.

“I was talking to my radiation oncologist about fitness and being well and he says, ‘You’ve got to join these dragon boats,'" says Meyer, who is currently on the board of directors for the UVM Foundation. “I’d never heard of it before, but I trusted my oncologist. It was a very compliant time in my life when you do what your oncologist says. It really is a story of recovery and joy and the people we all hang out with are just remarkable. Every one of them has inspired me to be healthy and active. The challenge of competition and the incredible satisfaction of improving and winning is amazing. For many people, that’s not a chance you get in your fifties and sixties.”

Invented 2,500 years ago in China by a group of people who believed it would ensure prosperous and bountiful crops, dragon boat racing is practiced by fifty million people today. The emergence of the breast cancer survivor division in the mid-1990s can be traced to a Canadian sports medicine physician who debunked the myth that women with breast cancer shouldn’t participate in strenuous upper body activities. Linda Dyer of Philadelphia brought it to Burlington in 2004 after borrowing a boat from a team in Boston and starting Dragonheart. The club eventually bought four boats of their own, naming them Lady, Champ, Sittin’ Pretty and Jill in honor of one of Dragonheart’s first team members who succumbed to the disease. “Jill sat with Linda many nights dreaming about how to make this happen,” says Blum.

Dragonheart’s fifty members practice three nights a week in a boat that weighs eight hundred pounds and train year-round for racing distances ranging from two hundred to two thousand meters. Crews consist of twenty paddlers, one drummer, and one steer person. “We train hard and have added winter training with a trainer,” says Cross. “Many of the women on the team are in the best shape of their lives.”

The workouts paid dividends in September at the 2013 USDBF Club Crew National Championships, where the Dragonheart Vermont club won championships in five divisions. The winning teams qualified for the the 2014 Club Crew World Championships in Ravena, Italy in the spring. "We get funny comments like, 'I can’t believe we’re racing against our grandmothers,'" says Meyer. "And then we beat them."

While Meyer, Cross and Blum consider Dragonheart an incredibly supportive group, they also value the reprieve it provides from the omnipresent thoughts associated with having breast cancer.

“We never talk about cancer,” Meyer says. “It’s just not something we do when we’re out there. I joke that we’re a non-support group, support group. It provides a needed break, because there is tragedy. We used to have sixty members, but we’ve lost some sisters along the way. Everyone on our team vulnerable, but so is everyone in life. Part of our gig is that we’re showing off how to live this way and not succumbing to the worry of the disabling effects of cancer and cancer treatment, and to carry on.”

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