GRAND MARAIS, MINN. - The Dragon Divas came in last. They always come in last. But they never lose.
These Divas have already won the hardest race anyone has to run.
Breast cancer survivors from the Twin Cities (most are from St. Paul and environs), the Dragon Divas are 30 of the toughest and spunkiest women you'll ever find with paddles in their hands. I encountered them Saturday in Grand Marais, where they were sentimental favorites but real-world underdogs in the North Shore Dragon Boat Festival, which drew 26 teams and thousands of spectators to Grand Marais last weekend, including a large contingent wearing pink ribbons.
The Divas range in age from 40 to 66 and have been cancer survivors from one to 22 years. They include nurses, teachers and social workers, mothers and grandmothers. If they have one thing in common, besides having had breast cancer, it is that they are full of life and vinegar.
When they start paddling, their goal isn't just to beat a clock.
It is to beat stereotypes and to defy a disease and -- most of all -- to pull together.
"We just want to be in sync, to paddle as one," says Cory Reilly-Graham, 49, a Diva from Shoreview. "Other teams may smoke us. But it's important for our families to see us as healthy again. It is very difficult for them to see us be so ill, so we want them to see that we're strong women again.
"The dragon boat is a symbol of a passage from where we were, to where we want to be."
For some of the older women who were in school before girls played team sports, it is the first time in their lives that they have known the exhilaration of shared competition.
"We're all in the same boat," said Nancy Reichow, 64, of Woodbury, who sits in the bow of the dragon boat, beating the drum that regulates the pace of the paddling. "And we're all proud to be here."
Most were strangers before being united by an illness and a dragon.
For many survivors, the joy of paddling and the connections with teammates become a kind of combined physical, spiritual and emotional exercise that is more uplifting than the conventional talk therapy around a table.
"You tell your story over and over until you get tired of it," said Diva Lynne Schriver-Sheedy, 56, a funeral director from Vadnais Heights. "We all know that people who have been cancer-free for many years may re-occur, and death can happen. It's what you do in between that matters. What you do is live. What we are doing, in this dragon boat, is living."
The Divas finished last in each of the past two Dragon Festivals on Lake Phalen. Each year, the Divas won "the spirit award."
But you don't need to see their plaque to know these women have spirit.
"It has allowed us to think that we can do what we want, and not be held down," said Diva Mary Skrypek, 59, a breast cancer survivor and physical therapist for Health East who started the team. "We don't sit around, talking about our disease. We're moving on."
The Divas are also hoping to find a sponsor. And their own dragon.
They practice in a rented boat, but have incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the hopes of getting their own boat, with the help of donors. (You can learn more by contacting Skrypek at email@example.com).
Last weekend's competition at the North Shore Dragon Boat Festival proved an old adage: When the paddling gets tough, the tough get paddling. And sometimes, they get wet.
In the first heat, the Divas faced burly competition from a Thunder Bay team and a team of local outfitters. The other teams were "co-ed," meaning they had 12 men among the 20 paddlers.
The Divas, one of a handful of all-women teams, dug hard into the choppy waters but finished 40 seconds behind the lead boat over the 500-meter course.
The second heat went a few ticks better, but the Divas still finished third and were relegated to the dreaded "rear dragon" final bracket.
As the Divas prepared for their final paddle, a big wave rocked their boat. The team's "token male," Ron Soppeland, who steers during races, went into the drink while the boat rolled on its side, taking on water and nearly dumping the Divas into the cold water.
The Divas wear gray personal flotation devices with pink ribbons, but many are not swimmers. Already guaranteed last place, the Divas climbed up on the dock and called it a day. They had made their point, anyway.
"It's inspiring to be around them," said a dripping Soppeland. "They're winners every time they get on the boat."
"I think the Divas should get an award after our final performance," Nancy Reichow said with a laugh. "We got on and off the lake faster than anyone else."
Yes. And they traveled a lot further than anyone else.
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