Karen Shelstad never thought she’d be in the gym six days a week, much less be part of a world-champion dragon boat racing team heading to Hungary and Italy this July for an international competition.
She also never thought she’d have breast cancer.
But it was that cancer diagnosis, in 2011, which brought Shelstad, BMus’77, to this point – in great physical condition and a survivor, instead of a patient.
“When you go through the chemo and radiation, you lose a lot of physical strength, and I wasn’t thinking about anything afterward but trying to build myself up,” said Shelstad, who was told by a friend a few years ago about the Rowbust Dragon Boat Racing Team in London.
Not your average sports team, the more than 60 members of the local Rowbust team are all survivors of breast cancer. Having faced down the dragon of cancer, they now race heavy boats festooned with the beasts.
“Everyone’s cancer treatment is different, and mine was pretty aggressive, so by the time you’re done, you’re pretty weak,” said Shelstad. “I started with walking and now I can get in a boat, race two kilometres and win.”
Modern international dragon boat festivals grew out of long-standing traditions in China. The idea to build teams of breast cancer survivors was an inspiration of Vancouver doctor Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist interested in helping women rehabilitate after diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. He realized widespread restrictions on exercise for women after breast cancer were more myth than reality and concluded this would be an ideal way for them to get regular strenuous exercise.
Today, there are more than 150 breast cancer dragon boat racing teams around the world, with London’s Rowbust team celebrating 20 years next season.
“It’s a whole-body workout,” said Shelstad, who has competed in races in Montreal, Stratford, Hamilton, Toronto and Brampton. This will be her first year as a member of Rowbust’s international team.
“Every year new people join the team and it’s hard. If you don’t do the technique right, you get tired very easily and, a lot of the times, you’re not in great shape to start. There is serious training when it comes to this. And it’s not just feeling good about yourself as you get stronger, but also being with this great group of people who are there for you.”
Rowbust are eight-time National champions as well as two-time Club Crew World Champions (CCWC) in the Breast Cancer Survivors division (200m, 500m and 2000m), winning in Italy in 2014 and Australia in 2016.
In July, they are headed to Szeged, Hungary, for the 2018 International Dragon Boat Federation CCWC, racing against teams from Canada, Hungary, Australia, France, Italy, the United States and others. Shelstad will then travel to Florence, Italy for the International Breast Cancer Paddler’s Commission Dragon Boat Festival.
Such trips are costly, which is why fundraising plays a huge role in the team’s success.
Cue Brian McIntosh, BMus’79, Western Music professor (Voice), who is Shelstad’s husband of almost 40 years. The pair met, and married, while students at Western.
“We’re always there for them (wives) and I wanted to think of something different we could do” to raise money, he said. “As the only opera people connected to the team, and because I’m at Western and have all these friends that teach here and are my family from the opera world, I floated an idea by them and they were all on board.”
Thus, the Opera Pub was created and more than a dozen performers – a Canadian Who’s Who of opera – will gather Mar. 8 at the Highland Country Club for an intimate evening of music.
“These are some very fine and highly accomplished musicians who are donating their talents for this cause,” said McIntosh, noting many have performed at epic places such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Centre, Glyndebourne, Concertgebouw, Covent Garden and L’Opéra Comique. They have been part of arts companies such as the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Opera, Swedish National Opera, Helsinki Festival, New York City Opera and Semperoper Dresden.
“It’ll be a relaxed and fun evening. This is a lot of talent that proudly belongs at Western and Karen and I are very thankful for their generosity.”
WHAT: Opera Pub, dinner and show to raise money for Rowbust Dragon Boat Racing Team as they travel to Hungary to vie for a third title as Club Crew World Champion.
WHEN/WHERE : March 8, 6 p.m., Highland Country Club.
WHO: Artists scheduled to perform include Theodore Baerg, Jackie Short, Patricia Green, Michael Cavanagh, Brian McIntosh, James Westman, Phillip Addis, Karen Shelstad, Anita Krause, Bethany Hörst, Marianna Chibotar, Tora Klassen, Paul Digout, Chad Louwerse, James Smith, and Samantha Lee.
TICKETS: Tickets are $100 ($35 tax receipt). Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.