The strength of survivors: Paradise City Dragon Boat Team subject of new short film, ‘Paddle Together’

  • A scene from “Paddle Together” features the Paradise City Dragon Boat competing at the 2017 Boston Dragon Boat Festival.  CONTRIBUTED/SMALL FORCES

  • Westfield resident Lisa Butler (right) is seen here in a still photo from “Paddle Together.”  CONTRIBUTED/SMALL FORCES

  • Betsy Powell, the founder and coach of Paradise City Dragon Boat Team, at the Northampton Community Boathouse, Monday, July 20, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Betsy Powell, the founder and coach of Paradise City Dragon Boat Team, at the Northampton Community Boathouse, Monday, July 20, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Four dragon boats toss over 200 pink roses into the Connecticut River in remembrance of those who have passed away from breast cancer, during the Springfield Dragon Boat Festival, Saturday, June, 25, 2016. FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Dragon boats are typically decorated for competition events with Chinese dragon heads at the bow of the boat and tails at the stern. FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • The Paradise City Dragon Boat team paddles down the Connecticut River during a practice on Wednesday, May, 11, 2016, in Northampton. —FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer 
Published: 7/22/2020 1:00:06 PM

It wasn’t until after her battle with breast cancer when she entered remission five years ago that Westfield resident Lisa Butler started to grapple with the traumatic experience of her illness. She found healing through a community of cancer survivors who are part of the Northampton-based Paradise City Dragon Boat Team.

“I had been in survival mode, and, when I finished my treatment, that is when my cancer diagnosis actually hit me,” she said. “I felt very alone because everyone was like, ‘Yay, you’re done.’ But I was just starting a very personal and emotional journey. A friend had brought me to the team … I started off with a paddling class, and I knew immediately that it was a place for me where people understood immediately where I was at.” 

Dragon boat racing is an ancient water sport that was founded in China and is popular throughout the world. Dragon boats are essentially fiberglass canoes that move through rivers and other waterways with the strength of 20 paddlers as well as a steer person and a drummer creating a beat for the crew to set their paddling to a rhythm, Butler said. 

“You’re coming to an intersection between survivorship and sportsmanship,” she explained. “You’re getting fit by cardio, flexibility, strength training, balance — and it also helps you sharpen your mental focus because you have to be paddling together at the same time. The team accepts any cancer survivor at any level. Some people are just out of having cancer treatment. Some of our members are doing it while in the midst of cancer treatment.”

The 40-member team is composed of both cancer survivors and cancer survivor supporters from across western Massachusetts communities, including Northampton, Leverett, Hadley, Chicopee, Amherst and Belchertown. Founded in 2016, just two years later the team took home a gold medal at the 2018 Boston Dragon Boat Festival in the cancer survivor category, said Betsy Powell, the team’s founder and coach.

Powell, a Northampton resident whose partner is a survivor of cancer, has been a rowing coach since 1980 and was previously the coach for the Cancer Connection’s rowing team. She started a Springfield dragon boat team in 2013 that was also composed of cancer survivors before founding the Northampton team three years later.

“I really saw the impact of that on people and how easy it is to do dragon boating compared to rowing,” Powell said of her decision to start the Paradise Dragon Boat team. 

Paddling all the way to PBS

The Paradise City Dragon Boat Team is now the focus of a short movie, “Paddle Together,” by the Chicago-based company Small Forces, that is part of the 2020 PBS Short Film Festival and includes 25 independent short films available to view on the PBS website and via social media channels.

“The platform, Small Forces, who made this mini film about us, is very deep in my heart,” Powell said. “My hope is that when people watch the video, they can understand that dragon boating can bring cancer survivors back to activity at the same time as finding support, camaraderie and friendship with the people who are going through the same difficult cancer journey.” 

Powell said Small Forces shot footage for the short film in 2017, during which time the team took home a bronze medal at the Boston Dragon Boat Festival. 

“People are still bawling when they watch it, even if they’ve seen it 20 times,” she said of the film. “We were barely a year old and very small at the time the video was made, which made it a bit challenging to leverage the opportunity to get our name out there more. But right now, the timing of this video being in the competition on PBS is a great time for us to really reengage with that video and help people learn more about what we’re about.” 

The team hasn’t been able to practice paddling at its usual location on the Connecticut River, but team members have been training indoors via Zoom workouts twice a week during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’ve been trying to get together in small boats but are limited to only 10 people in a group. We make sure we don our masks and we are socially distancing,” Powell said, adding that the team is planning its first socially distanced meeting in person later this month. 

Looking forward, the team is hoping to participate in the 2022 IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival in New Zealand, which aims to bring 6,000 cancer survivors from across the world to race their dragon boats in the festival, Butler said. 

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com. For more information about the Paradise City Dragon Boat Team, visit paradisedragons.org. To watch the short film, visit pbs.org/filmfestival/films/paddle-together. Audiences can vote for their favorite film in the online festival until July 24.  

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