Dragon Boat Champion a 'RowBust' Cancer Survivor
I'm sitting in a third-floor office in T Building with a woman who's about to impress me (though I don't know it yet), and a man who can't keep his enthusiasm in. The man is Dr. John Makaran, Chair of the School of Applied Science & Technology. He's the one who called this meeting, because he thinks she's got a story worth sharing. The woman is Marita De Vries. She's a part-time professor in the school, teaching Practical Electronics to students in the Electrical Techniques and Electrical / Electromechanical Engineering programs.
She's also super-woman, but she tries not to show it.
Just over two years ago, Marita was diagnosed with breast cancer. That's where the story starts. It ends with an astounding series of victories in an unconventional sport, and an inner transformation that has her looking and feeling better now than she has in all her adult life. So I ask for the details, and Marita, who is not shy about overcoming one of the most devastating experiences of her life, begins immediately to share.
She starts with the best news: only a few months ago, she became a national champion as part of a dragon boat team called 'Rowbust.' It's an all-women team of breast cancer survivors from 33 to 73 years old. The name is a bit of a misnomer since the members don't row ("We actually paddle. There's a difference") and while all of them have experienced breast cancer, a couple have come through other cancers too. Of course that's all, as Marita makes clear, quite beside the point.
The point is, they're all national winners. On the Canada Day long weekend, the team won gold at the Canadian National Dragon Boat Championships in Welland, Ontario.
"It's such a rush," Marita sighs, recalling the experience. "Now I know how an Olympic contender feels. It's hard to explain what it's like, to be in that boat. You just have to be there."
In fact, some people were there: about two thousand other competitors to be more precise, but the 20 women in the boat – including a drummer at the front and steersperson, or sweep, at the back – didn't care.
"We're all fearless, and extremely competitive," Marita says with a wicked smile. "You just put yourself in that frame of mind."
Sponsored by the Athletic Club, the Rowbust team has continued to grow since its inception in 2000 by Dr. Annette Richard, and with it breast cancer awareness has also grown. It was because of member Linda Kuska that Marita joined. At a chance meeting during a Braz for the Cause gala, the two women started chatting. One thing led to another, says Marita, "and before I knew it, she was asking 'would you be interested?' and I thought, 'sure, why not?' I had no idea what I was getting into!"
She began training with the team throughout the winter, which meant an intensive cardio and weight program and poolside practice twice a week. After the spring thaw, that stepped up to three times a week on Fanshawe Lake, which meant being up early ("I hadn't been up at 6:30 a.m. in a long time!" she exclaims) and being motivated.
"It didn't matter how I felt," Marita says. "I'd be there."
That determination led to her first competition at Toronto's Outer Harbour for the Toronto Women’s Annual Dragon Boat Regatta, which was both a racing victory and an emotional one.
"That race showed me how far I'd come," she recalls. "The adrenaline was just pumping, and I thought 'My God, this is my first real race.' I started crying and laughing at the same time."
"It was amazing."
Her results were amazing too. In less than 10 minutes (specifically, 9m 32.2s), she and her team travelled 2km against Lake Ontario's current, paddling at roughly 60 strokes/minute to win. John and I tease each other: that's double the distance from his office to the D-E-F Tim Horton's and back, and we probably couldn't do that trip twice in quite as short a time.
Marita scolds us, and then the tone in the room changes dramatically. It's time for her to talk about her cancer. She starts at the date: June 19, 2009. Two days before Father's Day. The day after her daughter's birthday. The day her life changed. She remembers it now just as clearly as if it were yesterday.
When the doctor told her, so matter-of-factly, she had cancer, Marita's fears were confirmed and her head began to spin. How would she tell her husband? What would this mean for her future? What about her 7-year-old daughter and her 12- and 15-year-old sons? She couldn't leave them; she couldn't let them lose her. She made up her mind, with the same fierce determination that would later characterise her dragon boat competitions. She was going to beat this. She was going to win.
"I remember my daughter asking me, 'Are you going to die mom?'" Marita recounts. "I told her, 'Well, it's not in my blackberry, so no, I don't think so!'"
After two surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy, and a week of twice-a-day radiation trials, she was well on her way to victory. She was in chronic pain, she had developed lymphedema (swelling caused by a compromised lymphatic system), and the chemo had left her with neuropathy (damage to the peripheral nervous system) and aches in all her small bones – face, fingers, feet, ribs… but the lab results came back with a message of hope: the cancer was finally gone.
Slowly, Marita went from being unable to walk a block, to sharing in her team's national championship gold win, along with two silvers, another gold, and a first-place crystal cup at qualifiers and local dragon boat festivals this past summer. Her children, she says, have shared the journey with her.
"They've grown up a lot in the last two years of my illness. I think we all did."
She also credits her husband for his extreme support and patience ("He has shared my ups and downs with grace and love"), and her colleagues at CTV, where she worked as a technician when she was diagnosed, for taking care of her family when she couldn't. These, she says, are the unsung heroes in hers and every survivor's story.
Two and a half years later and 35 pounds lighter, a new Marita De Vries is an outspoken advocate for cancer care and a fit, fun-loving athlete with a remarkable ability to look at the positive in any situation. And with four medals under her belt in her first year of dragon boating, she has nothing but positives to look forward to.
There's time on the clock for one last question, so I ask what she thinks her future holds. Her answer betrays a degree of pride and self-satisfaction, and says a lot about her new take on life:
"I'm pretty sure I'll have abs of steel by next summer!"
Marita De Vries works as a Technologist and teaches part-time at Fanshawe College in the School of Applied Science & Technology. She is a featured author in the new publication Go 2 London, and regularly blogs about dragon boats, cancer, and life in general at http://maritablogsherstuff.blogspot.com.