TEAMSurvivor Madison’s paddling races support women living with and beating cancer

Oct 26, 2023 | Recreation

Twenty years ago, there was no organization in the Madison area that addressed the physical and emotional needs of women dealing with a present or past diagnosis of cancer. Two friends heard about the national TEAMSurvivor organization and decided to form a chapter in Madison. 

The all-volunteer organization started out with triathlon training and then started, what became, a dragon boat paddling program, in a large “war” canoe. In 2008 they acquired their own dragon boat with the help of WPS Insurance and Jim Caldwell, a boat builder in Oregon, WI. The sport encourages teamwork and allows members with any physical capabilities to participate in the fast-paced, synchronized race.

End of the race at the Northeast Wisconsin Dragon Boat Festival Photo by Teresa Sprecher
End of the race at the Northeast Wisconsin Dragon Boat Festival. Photo by Steve Schultz Photography


Teresa Sprecher was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2007. A coworker, who was also a cancer survivor, told her about TEAMSurvivor Madison. When she joined in 2008, Teresa discovered other group activities besides dragon boat paddling. The women practice once a week with the goal to get stronger, work together and gear up to participate in several of the dragon boat festivals held in the Midwest.

“The exercises, whether dragon boating, kayaking through Wingra boats, hiking, or participating in an exercise class, are ways of regaining your strength, self-confidence, and the emotional sense of being a survivor,” she said. “A number of the women I have met through TSM have become part of my chosen family.”

Sarah Burgundy is a new member who heard about the group last year through Gilda’s Club, a cancer support organization named in honor of comedian Gilda Radner who died of ovarian cancer. For Sarah, the challenge of team paddles in dragon boat races are what sparks a deep sense of belonging. 

“Dragon Boat racing is all about synchronizing with your teammates,” said Sarah. “Being in the boat while watching, listening, and feeling the paddling makes you feel like you are part of a whole. It’s a terrific whole-body workout, so it’s enhanced my health. Being outside on the water has greatly enhanced my well-being. It has the same effect on me as hiking in the woods. It becomes more meditative and enriching than simply a walk or a workout.”

Mary Jo Romero, who has been paddling with the group for ten years, agrees.

“When we’re paddling as a team in our dragon boat there is a camaraderie that encourages each of us to find the strength and determination to give it our best effort,” said Mary Jo. “It’s a great experience to feel the power of the boat moving through the water when we are all paddling in sync.”

Mary Jo participating in the cancer petal ceremony at the end of the Northeast Wisconsin Dragon Boat Festival. Photo by Steve Schultz Photography
Mary Jo participating in the cancer petal ceremony at the end of the Northeast Wisconsin Dragon Boat Festival.
Photo by Steve Schultz Photography


Teresa said, “There is something magic when 20 paddlers are in sync and moving a 40-foot, 800-pound boat through the water.”

Dragon boating is the only international sport that has survivorship as a category of entry. Traditionally there has been a breast cancer division. Festivals are now adding an “all cancers” division as well. If a festival has a cancer division, they will have a petal ceremony to recognize those who have lost their battle with cancer, honor those who are living with a cancer diagnosis, and celebrate survivorship. 

To train for a race, finding clean water for team paddles or quiet kayak trips can be a challenge. Some members would like to have the same water quality closer to home of Wisconsin’s pristine Northwoods lakes. 

“Living in Madison, I wish our lakes were cleaner,” said Sarah. “On the bays off of Monona, the weeds can limit where we can paddle, and algae and litter make the beaches undesirable. On a hot day, it’s nice to paddleboard and take a dip in the water to cool down, but I often don’t feel comfortable doing that in Madison lakes.”

For paddlers like Anne Schoeneman, Wisconsin’s waters are deeply connected to her youth and her family traditions. It was natural for her to connect with TEAMSurvivor Madison the year after her cancer diagnosis in 2017. Now, Wisconsin’s water is still a place to play, but becomes an uplifting and therapeutic experience that’s shared with others who have faced similar health challenges. 

“I have swum and boated in Wisconsin water since I was a little girl,” said Anne. “The water is a part of me and soothes my anxious feelings. With each stroke or paddle, I feel connections to the spirits in my life and they give me peace.”

Members come to TEAMSurvivor Madison at different stages of a cancer diagnosis. They could have recent diagnoses and come to the group for support. Others have been in remission for years and keep coming back for the camaraderie and bonding with other women who “get it.” It’s about health, but it’s also about finding a form of spiritual healing in nature after the trauma of facing cancer. 

“Paddling is healing in many ways,” said Sarah. “It can be a workout, which is physically healing. It’s also meditative, which is spiritually and mentally revitalizing.”

“It is an incredible experience to be with my sisters in the boat at a dragon boat race,” said Teresa. “At that point, we are no longer teams competing against each other: we are survivors.”

– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director


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