Healer Newbie No More, Priscilla, July 2014

Before the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival, I wasn't quite sure what to expect but I knew that our team effort would be strong and we would have a fantastic time. What I didn't know was that by the end we'd be sporting major golden bling and a few tears would be shed.

From the start, I felt the magic on our team the first night when there were interesting food and drink experiments in the kitchen with some of our youngest and oldest Healers. The fact that we had such a diverse group of paddlers, from every walk of life, was always a huge draw. But whether we would coalesce with 8 unknown paddlers was still a question.

I should have had better faith that Kathy's homemade pasta sauces would fuel us for the weekend like a secret elixir. It was surprising to find out that our "Toronto-based Healers" hailed from 4 different teams but meshed together very nicely with ours. Since this was my first race with the Healers, I will admit that I also benefited just as much from going through our race strategy.

The stress was nearly palpable as we prepared for the races, but hearing Brennan lead us through our familiar stretches helped some of the anxiety. After spending a couple days with a seemingly mild-mannered Tony, I was slightly startled by his utter command of the boat. There was nothing to do but to quickly obey his firm, clear orders.

Our first race was incredibly frantic, and I did all that I could just to keep up with the rest of the boat. We finished second against a university team but didn't realize the drama we missed when 3 boats crashed into each other at the start of the race. I was grateful that we were much more disciplined and experienced than that.

The conclusion seemed to be unanimous that even though we had a decent time, the pace was too hurried to be sustainable. I watched our two young strokes, Collete and Amy, work out and rein in control of our team beautifully by our next race. The guidance and reassurance that Coach Ross provided helped to calm our nerves and produce a similar result the next heat but with a more controlled and less painful effort.

Later that night for Rob's birthday surprise dinner (several members of Rob's and Michael's family appeared), I was so touched that all our new Toronto Healers also joined. It really felt like we were one team.

The next morning we had more time to relax so I made breakfast with the assistance of everyone who had the misfortune of hanging around the kitchen (thanks to Brennan, Lawrence, Bill and Tony!). Thought the 6am walk the previous morning was nice, I was grateful for the quick and easy cab ride to the ferry.

Since we don't usually practice sprints, Ross led us through some visualization exercises for us to feel how many strokes it would take us to finish our next Hospital Cup race. Though it felt fast, I was confident that with Collette's voice back, she and Amy would set the perfect pace. We had been warned that our toughest competition, Mount Sinai, would be keen to keep their title. What we didn't realize was that they were the champions six years running.

As we waited in the final marshaling area, our coordinated cheer seemed to draw anxious glances from our competitors. Slightly weaker team cheers tried to echo our ferociousness, but we had clearly instilled fear in their hearts. Our politeness, too, to the volunteers did not go unnoticed as they seemed especially supportive of the team from very far away.

Reminders to keep our focus in our boat were needed as the adrenaline began flowing. It was all I could do to hang on to my paddle and keep up the pace with the rest of our boat, but there was simply no choice. Thankfully, the increased pace and all-out exertion ended before we knew it. With this sprint, there was no chance to use my peripheral vision to check out the competition, though we felt confident we'd finished in the top 3 at least. Fast forward to the awards ceremony: third place was announced, and it appeared Mount Sinai was unseated as champions. When "Healers" were not called for second place, we whooped and cheered in a fairly undignified manner. There was no containing our jubilation, but then the scary thought that perhaps we were actually in fourth place crept in. Luckily, our celebrations were not premature, and it turns out we'd actually won by 0.03 seconds with a photo finish!

High from our win, we quickly replenished our fuel tanks before our final race where we faced Mount Sinai again. Our newly-formed team sailed confidently into our finally heat and left every bit of ourselves on the water. I was jealous of the more experienced paddlers who knew to watch for the last buoys and were able to lift their paddles a few strokes early. This time, there was far less doubt about our win, which was announced soon after we left the water. Spirits were extremely high as we collected our second set of gold medals.

Now utterly spent, we faced our final challenge of waiting what felt like hours for the ferry. I caught Tony admiring his photos, patted him on the back, and asked him if he was proud of our team. He responded emotionally, "it's not every day you win two golds!" I could feel the passion of a few close races and vindication and began tearing up myself. Lawrence noticed this and asked if I, too, was getting emotional. At that point, I couldn't help it and started crying tears of joy with Tony for our hard-won successes.

We also felt like celebrities as people in line noticed our championship cup and "San Francisco" shirts. They began snapping away and pointing us out to their families as having traveled so far, using our own funds, "just to paddle." Later that night, utterly exhausted, we began a new tradition of experimenting with exotic sausage varieties and beers to top off our Toronto trip.

Before our trip, I thought that I might spend some time staying with my many relatives (and saving some money) during the Long Beach race. My assumption was that I'd get plenty of team bonding during the race day. However, Kathy was right (as usual!) in that it was important to really get to know my fellow paddlers off the water. Seeing the Healers in civilian, pleasant-smelling clothes for once helped me appreciate what Brenda called our "bad news bears" persona: That we were all indeed unique individuals off the water but on the water we paddled with ONE STROKE.