I was a speaker at a recent conference which looked at the beneficial health effects of being outside in the natural world, whether that’s the sea, lakes and rivers or fields, parks and forests.
While there I met a wonderful lady, Bríd, who talked about how water played such a key role in her life. Bríd reflected: "I am a late bloomer when it comes to physical exercise of any kind. I hated it. My work colleagues used to joke that if ever anybody wanted to do research on a 55-year-old who had never done any kind of exercise except walking from the carpark to the office, I should volunteer.
"I tried running, the gym, jogging. Then I discovered the wonder of the water. I was out for a stroll one day and saw some kayakers, and decided to learn how to do it. I’ll never forget the first time I went out on the water. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The sheer wonder of it. I’d never experienced anything like it. And you don’t have to try to get fit at all, it just happens as you paddle along, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature all around you.
"No noise from traffic or any sound of man. Just the birds and the lap of the water against the boat. The feel of what happens when you put your paddle in the water and move yourself along, gently, at your own pace. Well, at the start anyway. You might just find that you are so much stronger and fitter now, in your 50s or 60s, than you ever were, and decide to up it a notch. Your kids will think you’re crazy but be dead proud of you and tell all their friends about you."
"Then two years in, I got breast cancer. What to do then? Of course, there’s the journey through treatment and recovery which is not to be underestimated, but in my case, what kept me going was knowing that I would be back out on the water soon. Then I heard about this thing called dragon boat racing – for women recovering from breast cancer!
Groups of women all over the country race in dragon boats as part of their recovery. So I decided to set up Shannon Dragons in the Limerick Shannon region. That was two years ago. Now we have 70 members and two dragon boats. We had to get a second boat because the first lot of women just got so fit that they wanted to race in regattas and win medals. (Some of them are very attached to winning medals). So we got our second boat, which is for beginners and gentle pacers."
From China to Ireland
The good news is that dragon boat racing (dragonboat.ie) is not only for those recovering from cancer, but is open to all. It’s fun and encourages women especially to take part in group sporting activities, something they may not have dome since their schooldays. It’s a great activity for non-athletes that promotes health and psychological well-being. Fundamentally, dragon boat racing is sociable, fun and colourful and surely we can all do with a little bit of that. There are 15 centres for dragon boating, including Cork, Carlow, Athy, Waterford, Dublin, Kilkenny and Castlebar.
Bríd continues her story: "We were just having so much craic that lots of people wanted to get involved who had no particular connection to breast cancer. So we formed a flatwater kayak club, the Shannon Paddlers. That was last year. Now we’ve 50 members, and this Tuesday, 12 of them, who never thought they would ever do it, are going down the rapids at Castleconnell, trying white-water for the first time.
"Now what’s so unusual about all that you might ask? Well, most of our members are over 50. Many of us are over 60. There is a whole segment of the Irish population, that for whatever reason, have spent their whole lives looking at the water, living beside it even, but they’ve never been on it. Why? Well, how would they? They don’t own a boat. They don’t know anybody who owns one. They don’t have a roof-rack on their car to get it to the water. And they don’t know where is a safe place to get on the water, or how to be safe when they do get on. We remove all those barriers. Welcome to the water!"