'Not being able to hug your teammates has been tough': Cancer surviving rowers keeping active

Navigating the pandemic has been tough for the Rowbust Dragon Boat Racing Team.

The squad composed of 70 women who have survived breast cancer have not been able to get on the water in 15 months.

"We see each other more than we see our families, so to be not together, three or four times a week ,it's just unimaginable," says Linda Kuska, the 22-year veteran who is Rowbust's team captain.

The three-time Club Crew World Champions are not just elite athletes, but also 'sisters' who act as a peer-to-peer support network.

"We were a pretty special group, and a pretty special family," says Cheryl McLachlan, the team's coach.

"When you have some athletes that are fighting their own their own cancer battles, throughout the past 15 months and yet nobody is able to just go over there and give them that that big hug they need, and say 'You know, we're in your court for you', that's been tough."

Rowbust Team member Lauree Taylor paddles on Lake Margaret in St. Thomas, Ont. on June 9, 2021. (Brent Lale/CTV London)

Unable to paddle together in a boat because of COVID restrictions, team members have resorted to training on their own.

"I have been paddling my kayak quite a bit for the last year," says Lauree Taylor.

"I've been down the Thames, we were out at the Pinery, Port Franks, Fanshawe Lake, and some of my teammates have actually been out here on Lake Margaret in St. Thomas."

Others have been running and cycling, while the rest of the time, McLachlan has been putting them through the paces virtually.

Her athletes describe her as 'hardcore' when it comes to pushing them to their limits in circuit training three-to-four times per week.

Rowbust Dragon Boat Team Uniform on June 9, 2021. (Brent Lale/CTV London)

When you watch this group paddle, it's obvious that strength, fitness, and technique are keys to their constant success.

"We've been weightlifting, some cardio, lots of bungee cords, and dumbbells," says McLachlan.

"You start coming up with strategic exercises that incorporate the full body weight and I have to say, I think we're a stronger team because of this. I see a lot of muscular development, and I see a lot of people getting stronger and lifting heavier. There were a lot of people that needed to rehab and settle some injuries down, so I'm excited to see what what we can lay on the water when we get back in the boat."

The team has gained some new paddlers during the pandemic. They've been doing all the workouts without reaping the rewards of competition.

"When we actually do get back in the water, we're gonna have a whole bunch of new ladies that don't even know what it's like to feel that that acceleration on the water and being in a race, and on a start line and and being yelled up at our coaches," says Kuska.

"It's exciting when we get to that point again but we'll get there."

Judging by the province's roadmap to reopening guidelines, the women won't be competing or training together this summer.

However they can now resume larger group training which will not only be good for them physically, but also mentally.

"If we were to do a workout on Saturday morning, it'll be very emotional for people to actually see people in their front yard, face to face," says McLachlan, who has a repertoire of equipment she can transport to host workouts in different locations.

"Even though you can't touch anybody and you wear masks to get in there, 10 people looking at each other for the first time in months is pretty pretty special. So we take great pride in pulling the team together."

Moving closer to getting in the boat is welcome news for Kuska, who has not only been unable to connect with her closest friends, but is also on the front-lines of COVID-19.

"I work full time as an RN at Victoria Hospital and it's been a challenging last 15 months," says Kuska.

"This exercise and and being able to fit during the pandemic has been probably the best thing mentally that that I've been able to do for myself."

Until they can get back in the boat, they'll continue to stay in shape, and be ready when it's safe to resume.

"It's been a big roller coaster the last 15 months," says McLachlan. "It has a lot of highs and it has a lot of lows."

Saturday would have been the annual Fanshawe Dragon Boat Festival. Instead of being on the lake, Rowbust is hosting the first ever Virtual Fitness Challenge which will challenge individuals or teams to compete. They also have sold out a golf-tournament to raise funds for the team.