Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
The KC Pink Warriors competitive dragon boat team is gearing up to start its third season with practices three days a week on Wyandotte County Lake in Kansas City, Kan.
Thirty-four cancer survivors currently comprise the all-female team, and it all started after Michelle Steger first received her breast cancer diagnosis in 2016.
Following several months of treatment, Steger attended a breast cancer fair in Tampa, Fla., and discovered the sport that she said changed her life.
“I was feeling really good, and I was ready for something big, something new in my life, but I didn’t know what,” Steger said. “I met a lady (at the fair) who said, I needed to join her team, and I said, ‘I’m sold. I don’t know what it is, but you said team, I’m in.’
“A couple weeks later, I went to my first dragon boat practice with the Pink Dragon Ladies in 2017 in Tampa, Florida, and I was welcomed with open arms by complete strangers, and I was sold immediately,” she said. “Then, I got on the boat and, as they say, ‘the dragon bit me,’ and I never looked back. It absolutely changed my life and turned something really, really, awful into something really, really good.”
Steger spent seven months with the Pink Dragon Ladies until her husband, Lt. Col. Jason Steger, was reassigned to Fort Leavenworth.
“I was completely heartbroken to leave my team and the sport that does not exist here, so I kind of tucked it away in the back of my mind,” Steger said. “We moved here in 2018, and I had breast reconstruction surgery, which put me out for a while, but during that time I was still devising a plan to start a team here.”
Another year of social media outreach, word of mouth and establishment as a non-profit organization led to the KC Pink Warriors holding their first official practice April 6, 2019.
Betty Welch, spouse of retired Lt. Col. Bill Welch, The Research and Analysis Center operations research analyst, and two-time breast cancer survivor, was one of the 14 women at the very first practice.
Bill Welch learned about the team through Steger’s husband, who was also assigned to TRAC as a senior military analyst.
“Bill e-mailed me. I had to Google, ‘What’s a dragon boat,’ so I watched the video, and I went, ‘Yep, that’s for me.’ Before (Bill) got home, I had e-mailed and joined the team,” Betty Welch said. “I love the water. I’ve loved the water my whole life … so I naturally got excited and joined and became addicted to it.
“I’ve never been on a team sport, not even in high school,” she said. “I just love the camaraderie, the training together, the sweating together. …Win or lose, you do it together.”
Sandy Ely, TRAC management analyst, also a breast cancer survivor, joined the team in early 2020.
“I work with several of the ladies’ husbands who work at TRAC, so I found out through them about the team,” Ely said. “I loved the fact that they are focused on health and fitness.”
The Breast Cancer Society began establishing dragon boat teams in 1994 after research by Dr. Don McKenzie, physician of sports medicine and exercise physiologist, revealed that not only did repetitive motion of the upper body not cause lymphedema amongst breast cancer patients, but it helped to break up scar tissue and increase range of motion.
Because of that, Steger thought it would help other cancer survivors, too.
“Kansas City cancer patients and survivors deserve the same opportunity I had in Tampa,” Steger said. “They deserve to turn the devastating diagnosis and treatments of cancer into something amazing and positive for both themselves and their families.”
In July 2019, Ellie Hite, spouse of retired Maj. Jason Hite, became the first non-breast cancer survivor to join the team. Hite is a survivor of cervical cancer and two different types of thyroid cancer.
“When (Steger) asked me to be on the team … I squealed at her,” Hite said. “Michelle did a great job of educating me on the benefits it had for (breast cancer survivors), and why it was so important to them. It does transfer over into other cancers … and what they’re going for in their recovery, too.
“The sport itself, it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s a very technical sport,” she said. “It’s a very fluid, very graceful, very beautiful type of movement in the boat, and it’s amazing to see.”
Kyle Tarvin, spouse of retired Col. David Tarvin and a colon cancer survivor, joined the team in early 2021.
“I love being physically active. Being a part of a team, it’s motivating and fun. This is a great group of women who really lift each other up,” Tarvin said. “Just like any team, the most important aspect is synchronicity and being together. That’s how you gain anything (on the water).
“I think that is a great metaphor for life — there is a rhythm and a flow to life,” she said. “I think that’s another thing that cancer has taught me — I can’t control what happens. You can only control how you deal with it. The interconnectedness of everything brings that home to me.”
The women agreed that knowing that everyone on the team is a cancer survivor is powerful, too.
“It’s interesting because we all have different experiences and the same. Sometimes things we discuss on the boat would probably freak somebody else out,” Welch said. “We just learn from each other’s experiences.”
Ely said she loves the sisterhood it creates.
“You just feel like you’re part of something bigger,” Ely said.
Tarvin said it gives her a greater appreciation for the importance of strength.
“It’s not just physical strength. It’s the respect we all have for each other because we’ve all gone through a battle,” Tarvin said. “No matter what stage your cancer was or what cancer you had, you’ve all had to turn and face your mortality and take a look at it and what that means to you.”
KC Pink Warriors’ first race of the season is in August in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The team also plans to participate in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in New Zealand in 2023.
For more information, visit www.kcpinkwarriors.org.