Posted: Friday August 6, 2010 12:48PM ; Updated: Wednesday August 11, 2010 2:56PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>VIEWPOINT

Pretty in pink: Cancer survivors form top dragonboat racing team

Story Highlights

Pink Steel, a Pittsburgh-based group of breast cancer survivors, has thrived

Dragonboating originated in China 2,500 years ago, but has made comeback

Last month, Pink Steel won a national title in BCS division race in Chattanooga

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Pink Steel is made up of a group of hard-driving women who take their dragonboat racing very seriously.
Lynn Johnson/SI

It had been 29 years of clean living, almost three decades since her right breast -- "a lot of my womanhood, my female identity," she said -- had been removed because of cancer. She'd had a boyfriend at the time. He sent flowers to the hospital and never called again. "It was a really traumatic, dark time for me," recalls Peggy Frechione, now 60. And then it wasn't. She recovered, married, raised children in the Pittsburgh suburbs and held a job as a nurse. Her body cooperated; scan after scan came up clean.

But in 2008 Frechione performed a self-exam and felt a lump on her left breast. The cancer was back. "I knew it right away," she says. "Here we go again." Thoughts rocketed around her head. She considered her mortality. Her family. Her job. Her identity. The damn chemo sessions. But she always seemed to come back to this: How would another mastectomy and the follow-up treatment affect her fledgling sports career?

Frechione called her coach and explained her situation. "Sorry to hear that," the coach said flatly. "But do you think you can you put off the mastectomy and the chemo until the off-season?"

Peggy's husband, Donald, had his doubts -- You have this potentially fatal mass in your body, and you're scheduling your treatment around a sports season? -- but that's precisely what she did. She put off surgery until November, started chemo in December, finished in March and was back paddling in a dragonboat at preseason camp. "I'm telling you," Frechione says, "looking forward to getting back on the water and competing again was what got me through."

Dragonboating originated in China roughly 2,500 years ago, but recently it has made a cultish resurgence in some U.S. cities. A typical dragonboat resembles a long, slender canoe, ­albeit one elaborately adorned with a dragon head to ward off evil spirits. A crew of 20 rows in unison to the beat of a drum. The sport's combination of individual effort and team synchronization has resonated with many men and women, among them Lynne Franks-Meinert.

A mother of two and a former college volleyball player, Franks-Meinert took up dragonboating in 2003 and, within a few years, was a sufficiently strong paddler to make the U.S. national team. "This is a workout," she says. "You're outdoors, you're with other people but you don't have to talk to them," she says. "For me that's a perfect sport."

In 2005, a friend of Franks-Meinert's, Carol Raber, died of breast cancer. Franks-Meinert decided to honor Raber's memory by founding a dragonboat team for breast cancer survivors in and around Pittsburgh. Pink Steel, she called it. In keeping with abundant research showing that psychosocial groups help accelerate cancer recovery and that moderate to vigorous exercise can decrease the chances of a relapse, there are all manner of sports teams and leagues for cancer survivors. Within the dragonboating subculture, there's a nationwide racing category for boats of breast cancer survivors. The twist with Pink Steel: Franks-Meinert, now 42, steers clear of what she calls "the cancer stuff." Instead, she runs her team like, well, a team.

The coach, who bears a strong resemblance to the financial guru Suze Orman, is not prone to sentimentality; she has no interest in creating what she calls "a floating support group." She laughs at the phrase. "You get your therapy somewhere else," she says. "You come here, you compete. I don't do 'victim' real well. We keep cancer talk out of the boat. If we're talking about anything, it's how we're going to do at Nationals."

Last month the Steel City Dragons won the overall championship of the BCS division at the United States Dragon Boat Federation 2010 U.S. Club Crew National Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn.

*****

On a warm Wednesday earlier this summer, 32 Pink Steel members showed up for practice at the Fox Chapel Marina, 10 or so miles upriver from Pittsburgh's downtown. Herons flew overhead, the aroma of barbecue wafted in from the shore, other boaters waved. But for Pink Steel this was no sunset cruise. After Franks-Meinert assigned seats in two boats, the crews started rowing furiously, slicing through the water. Standing on the back of a boat, wearing shorts that revealed a Cat in the Hat tattoo on her left leg, Franks-Meinert yelled, "I want to see you puke!"

"Crisper!"

"C'mon, at least finish strong!"

 
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