No Longer a Team, but a Family, Nicole, October 2015

It's not every day that you have the opportunity to participate in a dragonboat festival in another city while travelling and that is exactly what I was in store for during my recent trip to San Francisco, California in September. As a dragonboater, you are exposed to such an incredible community of people who love to paddle and incidently also love to eat and have fun! While training with a team in Toronto in the winter of 2014, our coach was asked if anyone was interested in paddling with a team from San Francisco that was attending the annual Toronto International Dragonboat Festival but didn't have enough paddlers. I jumped on the opportunity and had quickly been in touch with the coaches, Kathy and Ross Britt! I had no idea what I was getting into but I was so excited to meet a team from out of town and help them adjust in any way I could. I was invited to their Pasta Feast (a big pasta and bread dinner the night before a dragonboat festival to carb-load our bodies) the night before our race and this was the first face to face encounter with the team. As soon as I walked into the home they had been renting in Toronto, one of the first things I thought was, there is so much food, which yes there was a ton, but in all seriousness I was blown away by the diversity that this team thrives off of. There were people of varying ages, ethnic and racial backgrounds and it amazed me to say the least and everyone got along so well. I felt instant happiness and as we wrapped up the evening with some housekeeping discussions for the weekend ahead and ate our last scrap of pasta, we were summoned back to our homes and instructed to get a good night sleep with no additional night time energy expenditures permitted!

Saturday morning came and went and we had done amazingly well and I was again, so impressed by the performance by a boat, not only so diverse, but with new members who had not even trained with the team prior to this festival! Not only did that shock me, but it left a lasting mark in my mind about the cohesiveness of this team and the synergy that runs seamlessly throughout. We enjoyed a lovely team dinner in downtown Toronto and then hit the hay to rest up for Sunday's eventful races. We had placed in the Hospital Championship and to our surprise, the Healers beat out the Mount Sinai champions. What a magical accomplishment to have been a part of, a visiting team winning the championship race in their respective division! It was an amazing end of the weekend with this team and as everyone left the island I was so sad to say goodbye to this team and wondered when I would have the honour to paddle with them again. The following year I contacted Kathy and asked if I could join them for a summer/fall regatta in San Francisco and to my delight, she said YES and opened her home to me which was so wonderful and generous! I was over the moon to be able to travel down and join the team again in their hometown to paddle!

I arrived at San Francisco International Airport in the morning and it was gorgeous outside, hopped on the super shuttle and as I got to my home for the week, I was greeted by a sweet little angel, Zoey! It was the warmest welcome I had ever received and instantly I fell in love! Zoey is unlike any other dog I have met, so calm, happy, gentle, loving, quiet but most importantly is the team's cheerleader always attending practice and giving her never ending love and support! I was happy to be in San Francisco and felt right at home! I was fortunate enough to explore the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf by bicycle, ride the streetcar down Market Street, visit the local team pub, drive up to the Twin Peaks for a beautiful view of the city and went to a winery for some yummy wine tasting with some familiar faces I had met in Toronto which was so much fun! Thank you all - you know who you are! That week we had two practices at Lake Merced where local teams come to practice regularly. One component of practice that stood out to me, in addition to the jokes, fun, hard work and quirky personalities, was when Coach Ross swapped our paddling sides. I have yet to be on a team that encouraged paddlers to train on both sides and that was something that I truly enjoyed and admired. I am definitely stronger on my right side and when you practice on one side and are placed on the other, you feel more off balance than an elephant on a tight rope (I don't know what that's like, but I imagine very unbalanced) but as you continue to work on that side, it begins to feel more natural and seamless - so thank you Ross! Being in the boat with this team for the first time after a year was such an amazing feeling and I was incredibly excited to reunite with some familiar faces and meet those I didn't get the chance to last year.

The days were drawing near and last minute food prep and organizing was happening at the house and it was refreshing to see that although, yes inevitably stressful, both Kathy and Ross have a passion for this sport and genuine love for the people on the team and the way that they carry this team comes from a foundation of love, eagerness, drive, excitement, hard work and a hunger, not only for good food, but for fun and an outstanding performance. On Friday morning we woke up at the crack of dawn, drove to Treasure Island which is where the festival was held and got our tent all setup and organized. We got the team banners and flags flying high so everyone knew where the best team on the island was! I must say that organization and planning ahead are definite strong points on this team. It saved us so much time the following morning when setup is the last thing on your mind when you have an 8am heat. It took a few short hours and we had our team cheerleader there with us for support and encouragement, - thank you Zoey! <3 The ladies paddled 4 boats over to the marshalling area (amazing muscle work going on in those boats) and we caught a gorgeous sunrise and a view of the San Francisco skyline in the process. Worthy of mention is that no matter how early it was, the energy, excitement and enthusiasm is always present on this team and that keeps you going the whole day through! We had the day to rest and reconvened later that evening where we had the infamous Pasta Feast at the Kaiser Permanente Hospital, sponsor and organizer of the San Francisco International Dragonboat Festival (not regatta :p). Many paddlers are staff in some degree at Kaiser Permanente and that is how the team was born but if you know someone who is employed with Kaiser who paddles, you also have the privilege of joining this team too! We went through the lineup, the races and teams (and I must note that I found out about the women's team that was racing this weekend and was thrilled to have been a part of that too)! Kathy also shared a moving speech with us and gave a beautiful shout out to her other half for his commitment and dedication and devotion to this team, never taking a break or stepping out of his role in all his years as head coach - way to go Ross! Once our tummies were full, our bright green wristbands were on, we had a strict 8pm deadline to head home and get some shut eye.

I couldn't believe how fast Saturday came and the nerves were starting to get the best of me as we arrived on the island. The task matrix for the weekend was posted so each of us knew what our duties were and the lineup and race times were being created on the whiteboards and ready to be hung up on the rope in the tent. In no time at all we were , warmed up and started marshalling for our first race of the day! Warm ups I really look forward to on this team because you don't feel burnt out after, you feel stretched, refreshed and ready to go as you use your paddle in creative ways to stretch and loosen up, pat down your body and get the heart beat up slightly with some jumping jacks for the win - thank you Brennan! As a member of this team, and any team nonetheless, but this team in particular, you feel the drive inside of you to perform better than your best each and every second you are on the water. You know that each individual is feeling the same push to reach far, dig deep and pull hard and get that boat up and out of that water! I haven't had that feeling in a long time and although it is an anxious time for you all, you remind yourself that everyone cares so much about not only the race but about each other and you do not want to let them down. We paddled hard, did our best and put our all into it and regardless of first, third or fifth place standing, your teammates will not dwell on it but celebrate what we did and move onto the next one and continue to achieve what we can. When you feel like stopping, giving up and throwing in the towel (well, paddle in our case ;)) you remember that the person in the seat behind you, in front, at the back and next to you is feeling the pain, exhaustion and breathlessness that you are so you keep that paddle going strong with each stroke. When you screw up as an individual that's when you dwell. You're disappointed in yourself and blame yourself for that one stroke missed or off pace which makes the world of difference. But you know you are on a good team when you share your mistake with your teammate and they tell you something that makes you laugh and helps rebuild your confidence!

After that initial race came and went, we debriefed and held onto our motivation for the next one, a yummy breakfast was waiting and it goes without saying that the food we had was on another level of awesomeness. Let's just say the team was well taken care of and nourished with very nutritional, healthy, fresh and vibrant food! A big thank you to those who took time out of their busy days to cook, prepare and buy all of the goodness that we had! All of the food was prepared with various dietary needs accounted for as well which again, stresses how thoughtful and considerate the members of this team are. I have never seen so much food at one festival before so we were very fortunate to have what we did and it kept us well energized throughout the very hot and sunny day!

We raced our final race and then one with the women's boat and I have to say how much stronger we felt the second time through! Boat A felt the power and the surge and it was incredible! Happy, cheerful, exciting vibes are always a good thing after a race! In addition to the success of that race, my oh my, the women's boat was on fire! I am so proud of the ladies, they gave it their all as their hammered away their paddles during that race! The High Healers are a force to be reckoned with and I want to thank you incredible ladies for having me paddle with you!

We had a wonderful day and I was sad that day one was complete as I knew there would only be one more day with this team that I was growing closer with and only beginning to scratch the surface with in our races! After a day of races, your head hits the pillow and you are KO'd for the night which means a good, solid sleep!

We had a bit more leeway on Sunday so we could rest our heads a bit longer which was nice, but for me, the anticipation of getting there and being surrounded by encouragement, love, fun conversations, good food and incredible people got me up and ready for the day without hesitation! I really wanted to maximize my time with the team and couldn't wait to see everyone again! Breakfast was being set out, hot and fresh and ready to go and we had some time to eat right away which is great! It is true that food brings people together but interacting with the members of this team is so effortless and you don't need the enormous mounds of food we had to chat with them! Everyone is so friendly, helpful, sweet and happy! It sure is a happy place to be and that says something about the people here and the type of environment that has been established amongst this team. Despite many of us being quite beat from the day before, everyone still made an active effort to smile, kept their spirits up and tapped into their energy reserves for Sunday too! We paddled strong on Sunday and the Gold Boat wrapped up the weekend with a silver medal and Boat A had a respectable photo finish in their final! It was a tough day of paddling and we were all burnt out but that Healers energy remained as we cheered on the high school teams that are coached by our members and the teams visiting - Team Lifescan and Aero Dragons from Canada and the US respectively. It was awesome to have some home blood around too and I learned a lot about what is involved in hosting a team from out of town and now I look forward to the opportunity to host this amazing team in Toronto some day! The Healers have developed fantastic relationships with these teams who host them when they go out of town because when you visit a new place, it can be overwhelming to get a grounding of where things are and get what you need to make the weekend memorable and successful!

Following Sunday's great finish, I joined Brenda and her sweet family at the winery on Treasure Island and it was so much fun! A very good way to hydrate after a weekend of physical intensity! We were nice and sweaty and tasted some yummy wines from California and then enjoyed a nice meal to end the day on a high! Thank you so much Brenda for having me hang out with your amazing family, another reason why the people on this team are so fantastic, they welcome you and make sure you have a great time!

This experience has been a blessing, an honour and a privilege and one I will always cherish! The Dragon Healers are filled not only with exceptional and hard working paddlers, but herein lies a group of people, a family where each member brings something special and unique to the table (and the boat)! There are doctors, teachers, students, administrators, support staff, health professionals and honourary healers who contribute far more than they know. Those people are also bakers, planners, organizers, leaders and all are inspiring in their own way. There is not one person who I encountered in this family that I wasn't amazed and influenced by! I can say this, I miss the Healers terribly and I cannot use enough words to express my gratitude to each and every one of you! Thank you for being so welcoming, loving, helpful and encouraging during my stay, and I know for sure that that was not my last trip to visit and paddle with this team. I came as a visitor, meeting new people and seeing friends from last year's festival in Toronto, and I left being part of a family! Something like this is so rare, and is to be treasured! Thank you for having me paddle along with you all and if I could, I would thank all of you personally as you contributed so lovingly to my time with the Healers!

Continue to pour your heart and soul (and muscle) into this incredible family and being the amazing team that you are! I want to especially thank Kathy, Zoey and Ross for hosting me and taking such amazing care of me while I was there! I learned the public transit system so well because of you guys! You have raised an amazing baby (the Healers) and I am so proud to have been a part of it this weekend, you both are fantastic! Thank you Tony and your lovely wife for also hosting me and exploring the city! Thank you to the coaches: Ross, Kathy, Stacey, Colette, Jacky (forgive me if I missed you). Thank you Emily for getting me back to the city after day 1 and making sure I knew where to go and what to do (and just as important, what to avoid)! Thank you Chuck for the paddle glove (it was a lifesaver) and for all of you who shared your wax - it meant a lot for my hand not to slip/slide all over the place, seriously! Thank you Annie for helping prepare me for attending the festival and getting me all ready for it - you are a gem! Thank you Michelle for bringing me to Treasure Island to setup camp - you are very sweet! Thank you Vanessa, the left to my right who helped keep me focused, laughed with me like two crazy people and is one incredibly strong and incredible paddler! I couldn't have asked for a better person to share a seat with! Thank you to Boat A for having me join your boat, I loved the energy and excitement, eagerness and hard work that you guys bring to the water! Thank you to the ladies boat, keep struttin' your stuff in those high heals - you ladies are so strong and inspiring! Thank you to the chefs, all of the food was incredible and amazingly tasty! Thank you to the boat captains for all your hard work, focus and devotion! Thank you to the drummers who kept our heads in the boat, lost their voices and led us so well throughout each race! Thank you to everyone who setup camp, setup food and cleaned and organized! Thank you to everyone who ran around all day and hardly had a moment to sit down and relax, your hard work and determination does not go unnoticed and is very greatly appreciated!

I would be happy to have any of these folks come up to Toronto and only hope I can be the host, friend and family that you all were for me! I hope I get to see you all sooner rather than later!

Paddles Up Healers!

-Nicole Sapalovski 
Honourary SF Dragon Healer