LAKE JAMES, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Lake James’s shimmer gives visitors hope.
Surrounded by friends, women, including Sheila Roberts of Morganton, try to make heads or tails of life’s unpredictable nature.
“The water definitely has a healing effect for me,” Roberts said.“We talk, we cry, we laugh.”
A dragon boat is their vessel through sometimes turbulent waters. The Healing Dragons compete all over the Southeast and say they “live to paddle” and they “paddle to live.”
Even when they run into traffic, it’s fun.
“Here comes a boat!” one of the Healing Dragons alerts the team.
“We’ve got the right of way!” her teammate added.
“You can get out on this lake, paddling and seeing the wildlife, and your cancer or whatever’s going on in your life goes away,” Roberts told Queen City News.
Five of them are cancer survivors. The rest are here for moral support, friendship, and a sense of something bigger than themselves.
“Go!” we heard during weekly practice.
It was our front-row seat to an almost religious experience. They’re only as strong as the weakest paddler, propelled by a spiritual sisterhood.
“I can’t even start to tell you how much I enjoy the sport,” Roberts said.
“It’s just a giving,” says Joy Valmassoi. “Giving and taking, and it’s exercise!”
The power of shared experience is real.
“It feels good. It feels good!” we heard on the dragon boat.
“Oh yeah!” another woman yells.
In 2009, three women with cancer launched the team. That year they brought on Sheila, who’s a breast cancer survivor.
“This lady Susan is the one who called me and invited me,” said Roberts, showing us a picture.
“I mean, you can talk to someone who has never had breast cancer what you’re going through, but they really don’t know,” she says.
Their sister team, the Healing Dragons of Charlotte, has also been going strong since 2009.
Valmassoi was healthy when she joined the Lake James squad a decade ago.
“And then it really hit home when I got cancer,” she said. “Because then I had all these great women that I made friends with that helped support me.”
There have been a lot of new faces over the years. The influx coincides with grief that’s hit them in waves.
“When you talk to other teams, they say, ‘You’ve lost how many people?’” Roberts said.
She holds their photographs dear.
“She got tired of fighting it,” Sheila says of late co-founder Susan Nyman.
“Patti Kirchoff, this is another one of our founders,” said Roberts, with the photos of fallen friends laid out on a table.
They also included Julie Kuhn, Leesa Schoeberle, Sherry Wiseman, and Beth Erwin.
Over the years, cancer has taken six Healing Dragons.
“We barely can get over one, and we’ve got someone else who’s ill, or their cancer has come back. So yes, it’s heartbreaking,” Roberts said. “I don’t know any other way to describe it.”
There’s only so much they can say. Then, they return to rejuvenating waters.
Wanda Williams gets giddy talking about her experiences.
“I’ve had adventures that I could never have if I weren’t a breast cancer survivor,” she says.
Another survivor, Anita Hodges, lost her husband to brain cancer last year.
“This group was a lifeline for me,” Hodges explained. “To be on the lake with this group of ladies just helped me to refocus and to keep going.”
“Their spirit lives on,” Valmassoi says of those they’ve lost.
“They’re not only a friend, an acquaintance, they’re part of this boat,” Roberts said.
Healing comes in small strokes; the lake can be the best medicine. They live in the moment, remembering those no longer with us.
Maybe that makes the shimmer here seem a little bit brighter.