by Sue Ann Rybak
Chestnut Hill resident Kristi Talley, 72, who was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in January 2017, described being on the water in the middle of the Schuylkill as “magical.”
“You can breathe in the water and absorb in the sky,” she said. “It sinks into your soul. The water is only inches away from you, a constant mystery. You can dangle your fingers in it; you can be part of the river, watching it flow, watching the sky change as the evening comes on [and] be part of the pink golden glow from the setting sun. We all feel gifted to be on the river in a dragon boat.”
Talley, a former clinical research coordinator for the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, heard about Hope Afloat, a breast cancer survivor’s dragon boat team, whose mission is “to reclaim joyful, healthy lives through the ancient sport of dragon boating” from her yoga teacher at the gym.
“When I told a yoga teacher at my gym that my movements were slightly impinged in recovering from the surgery and radiation, she got excited and said I had to talk to her mother, a member of Hope Afloat.”
Talley said the team member quickly “brushed away” any concerns that she had at not being good enough.
She recalled her first time being on the water.
“They helped me on board, gave me a paddle and a few instructions and off we went,” she said. “All 22 of us … My favorite call was ‘Let it Run,’ when we could pull our paddles out of the water and rest them on our knees!”
Talley loves the community of Hope Afloat and said, “being part of Hope Afloat is the silver lining of breast cancer.”
“Nothing compares with the open-heartedness of our members, the care and concern for one another, coupled with the chance to be physically active in a long narrow boat that seats 20 paddlers and that practices on the beautiful Schuylkill River,” she said.
“I think that the experience of having had breast cancer leaves us all with a renewed appreciation of life, and increased zest and vitality for living to the fullest,” she said. “Not every day, for sure, but in general we are all so glad to be alive and well. And we honestly care about one another, each other’s families and friends. When we are confronted with our own personal hardships, our Hope Afloat sisters are the first to rally around us. The support is incredible.”
Fairmount resident Nan Glasglow, 67, who was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 1998, said she was always an athlete when she was young. She participated in gymnastics and countless other sports.
“I was always very strong,” she said. “After I had breast cancer, I felt like I had disconnected from the physical side because it was really difficult going through all the treatment and surgeries. So I was just sort of living in my head. I wasn’t living in my body. I didn’t think I had changed much, but it was my husband Carl who really pushed me to attend their practice. He knew I needed something.”
She recalled her first time at the river.
“When I first went down there, I was very intimidated, but then I was like ‘Oh, yeah,’” said Glasgow, who worked as an office manager for a commercial real estate company before retiring.
She said paddling helped her reconnect with her “physical side and to feel strong again.”
Glasglow, who used to walk around Chestnut Hill in the morning before going to work, recalled walking down Gravers Lane one morning and practicing her paddle stroke.
“The neighbors probably thought I was crazy, but it shows how passionate I was about it,” she said. “And one of my teammates just happened to drive by and stopped and yelled, ‘Looking good, Nan. Those are great strokes!’”
Glasglow, however, said one of the most impactful moments for her was participating in Hope Afloat’s first race in Liberty in New York 2002.
“We actually paddled out of Fort Lee across from New York City,” she said. “The team already had a crew there. My husband and I went up just to cheer them on, but when we got there, the captain of the team said, ‘It’s a 22 boat. Do you want to paddle?’ And I was like ‘Yeah!’ I wasn’t even dressed. I was wearing nice linen pants; I had to borrow a shirt.
“It was amazing just to be out there on the water with all those boats and my wonderful teammates. Being with those women with that energy, passion and love is sort of hard to describe. We ended up winning the gold medal. I remember people on my team [initially] thought I was a little bit shy. And when we won that trophy, I picked it up, danced around and did a little Irish jig. You’d think I had won an Academy Award! I wore my medal for three days straight. That memory is forever etched in my mind.”
Hope Afloat “accepts any and every breast cancer survivor regardless of her age, physical strength or athletic ability.” And Glasglow can’t imagine her life without Hope Afloat. In fact, she made up several songs about the team. If you go to their practice from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. during the week, you might just hear them singing:
“The Schuylkill was flowing, the sun was about to set
We were hot, we were tired, we were soaking wet.
All we wanted to do was go home and get to bed
We looked to our coach and this is what she said:
Put your boobs to your buddy, put your back to the shore
Rotate and reach out just a few inches more.
You keep your eye on the stroke, you keep your head in the boat
And shout out with pride, ‘We are Hope Afloat!’”
For more information about Hope Afloat, go to hopeafloatusa.org. Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at email@example.com or 215- 248-8804.