A Beach resident will have a firsthand view from the water on June 3 when Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee wraps up with a 1,000-boat pageant on the Thames River in London.
Eleanor Nielsen will be near the head of the giant flotilla, paddling on the crew of Internationally Abreast, a dragon boat team of women diagnosed with breast cancer from around the world. The team will have four Canadians, four Australians, three Americans, two New Zealanders, one South African, one Italian and one Northern Irish paddler. The team is meant to epitomize the worldwide nature of the disease.
“It’s not all the countries that have teams, but it is pretty representative of just the breadth to which this sport has spread amongst people who are living with breast cancer,” she said.
Nielsen is a co-founder of Toronto’s Dragons Abreast team, and a founding member of the International Breast Cancer Paddler’s Commission. She helped start the Toronto team after meeting women from Vancouver who had started a team there 15 years ago.
At that time, “women who had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer were usually told not to engage in strenuous, repetitive, upper body exercise,” she said. However, research by a Vancouver-based sports medicine doctor showed that the opposite advice was actually preferable. Since then, breast cancer patients have started teams around the globe; many international races feature ‘survivor’ divisions. Nielsen is looking forward to the chance to show the world what the sport is all about for her.
“I really am committed to the origins of the whole movement, which was to raise awareness of life after breast cancer, and to show people the benefits of being physically active,” she said. “Many of the women on my team are truly as competitive physically as people without breast cancer.”
While her health was the impetus for her involvement in the sport, Nielsen said dragon boating has offered her the simple pleasure of just enjoying being on the water as well. Seeing Toronto from the water is something of an “eye-opening experience,” she said. “It would be nice if everybody could have that opportunity.”
Although Nielsen is grateful to be healthy and well 22 years after being diagnosed, she has seen the damage cancer can do firsthand.
“We’ve had 35 deaths on my own team here in Toronto since we’ve started, so we’ve had far too many die,” she said.
While in England, she and other paddlers will be meeting with women interested in starting their own team, and encouraging the spread of the sport throughout Europe. Although survival rates are higher now than they used to be, Nielsen and the other paddlers try to encourage dragon boating not only because they love the sport, but because physical activity after a cancer diagnosis can often decrease the risk of recurrence. The exposure for the team, with over a million spectators expected to line the banks of the Thames, and millions more watching on live television, is pretty much unprecedented.
“It’s tremendous for those of us who participate in this sport for the reasons that we do, just to be able to raise more awareness about it and to demonstrate what we do,” she said.
The dragon boat will be near the front of the flotilla, along with the other human-powered boats. The pageant will be the largest of its kind in 350 years, with high security expected. Although the Thames is a tidal river, the flood barrier will be closed to ensure calm waters for the 11 km-long flotilla. Queen Elizabeth II and husband Prince Philip, Prince Charles and wife Camilla, Prince William and wife Catherine and Prince Harry will be riding on the royal barge.
Nielsen summed up the glamour succinctly, saying “it would be hard not to be excited about it.”