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The Dragon Invasion of Turkeyfoot Lake Could Net About $20,000 For Breast Cancer Awareness

For the fifth year in a row, Turkeyfoot Lake was the site of the annual dragon boat races. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on the event over the weekend that raised funds for breast cancer awareness and research – and raises the spirits of breast cancer survivors.

The dragon boat races on Turkeyfoot Lake went from the serene to the spirited. Dragon boats are 40-feet long with enough space for 20 paddlers to sit two across. The name comes from the ornate dragon that’s painted onto the stem of each boat, just ahead of where a drummer sits to keep the pace. That’s important so that the paddles enter the water at the same time.

“They keep pace for the rest of the boat,” says Cat Rose, the drummer for team Mov’n Dragons. “Everybody watches stroke in the front of the boat. And that’s how we keep our race pace. [If] we get out of sync, we don’t do well. It may be a competition, but it’s also camaraderie and friendship, and it builds on that a lot.”

Good for the body and spirit
Camaraderie was the buzz word among the three-dozen teams that participated on Saturday under names like the Kentucky Thorough-breasts, The Boobie Traps and Paddle Your Assets. Many of them have been practicing since the spring, and they say the act of paddling itself can be good for building up a survivor’s strength.

That's contrary to conventional wisdom, says plastic surgeon Dr. Doug Wagner. He helped the Northeast Ohio dragon boat races get off the ground more than a decade ago by purchasing a boat for one of his patients, Jessica Mader. Dr. Wagner says she had seen dragon boat races while recuperating in Canada, and returned home to assemble the Dragon Dream Team.

“They started off with about 20 or 25 breast cancer survivors paddling. Now, I know they have over a hundred on the team. They have three boats. They travel internationally to compete. In fact, part of this fundraiser is to allow them to go to Florence, Italy, next year to compete in the international dragon boat races.”

Going for the gold
That’s considered the Olympics of dragon boat racing. Saturday’s event near Akron drew hundreds of spectators to cheer on the paddlers, who ranged from survivors to supporters like Salomon Rodezno from Cleveland.

“I think this is a destination – something to look forward to that’s positive. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity.”

His team stayed competitive throughout the races, but by the finals, a handful of teams were left, including Lee Runkle’s. She beat breast cancer over a decade ago and has been with the Dragon Dream Team since its inception.

“When I’m in the boat, I just kind of go to my place and put all my power into my stroke and winning. It’s something I’ve never experienced before; I was never very athletic. And at age 45, I joined this team and I’m an athlete.”

The final three-boat race of the day saw the Dragon Dream Team slice through 250 meters of Turkeyfoot Lake in 75 seconds. A breathless Lee Runkle and teammate Toby Bothel were ecstatic.

“Last year we won! We paddled all the way – everything we had!”

And they’ll try to do it again at the Cleveland dragon boat races on Aug. 12 at Wendy Park on the east side. Organizers expect that Saturday’s event will at least match last year’s total of raising $20,000.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.