HALIFAX — It took a little prodding, but breast cancer survivor and dragon boat competitor Nancy Bennett made a decision that led to what she calls “an incredible experience.”
Bennett took part in the first-ever Israel Dragon Boat Festival, held recently on Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. Her boat finished first in the breast cancer survivor division.
“We were the top survivor team in the first-ever Dragon Boat Israel Festival! You can imagine our joy!” Bennett said with passion shortly after her return.
Bennett has been a member of the breast cancer survivor paddling team Avalon Dragons, in St. John’s, Nfld., since it was founded six years ago to give survivors a way get fit and make friends. She was diagnosed with the illness 20 years ago when living in the United States. Four years later, she and her late husband, Arnold, moved to Newfoundland.
The couple were planning Nancy’s trip to Israel when Arnold died suddenly last October. Despondent, Nancy thought she’d pass on her first visit to Israel.
“I eventually looked into it a bit more, went to a training camp for the Canadian team, and Frances Halpern of Toronto, one of the organizers of Dragon Boat Israel, placed me on the [Montreal-based] Canadian team, Two Abreast (Côte à Côte).”
Bennett was joined by two other members of Avalon Dragons, Marie Hyslop and Shirley Thorne, plus two women from Texas, one of whom was living in Italy. The rest of the team came from Montreal. Only two were Jewish.
Thirty-nine teams, totalling more than 900 paddlers, took part in the festival. Nine of the teams consisted of breast cancer survivors. Twenty of the teams were Israeli and 19 came from abroad – from Canada, the United States, Holland, Italy, Australia and Taiwan.
Tailgators, a Canadian team, were overall winners, followed by Ohalo College (Israel), L’Chaim on the Mayim (Canada), Degania Bet (Israel) and Kinneret College (Israel).
Many of the overseas participants were visiting Israel for the first time. They spent 10 days on guided tours before competing in the festival.
The event was a joint Canada-Israel initiative, spearheaded by Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA and the Jewish community of Ottawa. Debbie Halton-Weiss, chair of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, conceived of the idea of holding a dragon boat festival on the Kinneret. In addition to introducing the sport to Israel and bringing people to the country, it raised more than NIS 200,000 (over $53,000 Cdn) for educational charities and youth programs.
Bennett picks up the story.
“Our first race was at 7:30 a.m. Lake Kinneret on the Sea of Galilee was calm and extreme heat was not yet evident. We were refreshed and strong, but pushed really hard to win the race [against a mixed field of men and women teams].
“It was nearly 40 degrees when we started our second race, paddling against eight other experienced breast cancer teams. We doused ourselves with water from the sea to cool off a little before the race started. We got a very good start, maintained a strong and steady pace and finished first in the race, taking first place overall in the breast cancer division.”
During the closing ceremonies, they were treated like celebrities when they received their medals.
Bennett’s impression of Israel was similar to those of many first-time visitors – “incredibly beautiful country. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was breathtaking, as though every square inch of land yields a story,” said the 67-year-old public relations consultant. She is also the president of the Havura Congregation in St. John’s.
In Israel, she said, there’s an esthetic and beauty that’s missing in North America.
She praised Vancouver doctor Don MacKenzie, who first recognized that paddling would help women overcome breast cancer surgery and become fit again. Prior to his initiative, women were told to lift nothing heavy and to avoid exertion.
“After he researched it, he found positive results, and now dragon boating is the fastest growing water sport in the world,” Bennett said.
“I’m so glad I went [to Israel],” she said. “It showed me how important Israel is for non-Jews, too.
“The women on our team were so enthusiastic about the country, [and] now have a better understanding of antisemitism and the history of the Holocaust. They realize the need for a Jewish country. The depth of the feeling of non-Jews was quite beautiful to experience.”