By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

If you ever watched a dragon boat race you might think of it as sculling with pizzazz, what with the boat’s dragon head and tail and the beating of a drum to keep the paddlers in sync.

There is a lot more to it than that, and for one thing it’s cheaper, and for another it’s the fastest growing aquatic sport worldwide. That’s funny considering it traces back more than 2,000 years in ancient China. Another odd fact: it’s rapidly becoming the sport of choice for breast cancer survivors.

Ask Diane Cloutier, head coach of the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix team. Her day job is a paralegal with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and yes, she is a cancer survivor but you’ll find her out on the Schuylkill River seven days a week, including most mornings and many evenings.


The first difference you might notice between sculling and dragon boats is the size. Sculls are built to seat one, two, four or eight rowers and maybe a coxswain, with the rowers facing backward to the direction the boat is traveling. Dragon boats (which only sport their heads, tails and other finery on race days), come in one standard length, 38 feet, as dictated by strict tradition. Nobody rows; they paddle. Each boat, in keeping with international specifications, has 10 benches with two paddlers on each bench; the drummer keeps the beat at the fore, and there is a steersperson aft.

Although paddling can be strenuous, it can be done by almost anyone, and Cloutier notes, her team, which has more than its share of trophies, includes women ranging in age from 25 to 74. For herself, dragon boating “permitted me to be a kid again, and it’s fun to be outside with like-minded women. Dragon boats are for people of all incomes and all education levels,” Cloutier said.

In years past it was speculated that strenuous upper body exercise by breast cancer survivors could result in lymphedema, a build up of fluids in the arms. An extensive study on upper body stress conducted in Vancouver, Canada, by sports medicine Dr. Ken McKenzie, showed the opposite to be true. Breast cancer survivors who are dragon boat enthusiasts seemed less likely to develop lymphedema.

By coincidence, Cloutier is of Canadian birth herself, but from Montreal. Her degree from Laval University is in musicology, and her area of study was 19th-century French music. This is not that different from her work as a paralegal, she explained, because both require mostly research.

She started working for the Archdiocese under Father (now Bishop) Michael J. Fitzgerald in 1996 and loved it. Her first diagnosis of breast cancer was in 2002, with a recurrence in 2005. When she got back on her feet, she started dragon boating. Her club, the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix, has 104 members, one-third of whom are cancer survivors. The club is spanided into three teams; the red team has the top paddlers and practices three times weekly; orange team is for women who might have more home or work responsibilities, and they practice twice weekly; the blue team is for those who just want to paddle occasionally.

There are about 1,500 regular dragon boaters in Philadelphia and thousands of casual paddlers, Cloutier estimates, but you don’t usually see them by Boat House Row because scullers haven’t been especially welcoming, according to Cloutier, never mind that dragon boating is a much more ancient sport. Most of the dragon boats are near Strawberry Mansion Bridge. Their season runs between Easter and Halloween, but die-hards like Cloutier are apt to be out on the river any day it isn’t frozen over.

When she’s not working at the Archdiocese or on the Schuylkill, her home is St. Francis De Sales Parish in West Philadelphia, “which has the best music in Philadelphia,” she declared.

Actually she is more apt to worship in the Cathedral Chapel because that is more convenient with her busy work and paddling schedule. “Prayer changed for me when I developed cancer; it became much more personal,” she said.

Meditation is her favorite form of prayer, but that’s not easy in a boat with 21 other people. “I canoe and kayak also,” she said. “Meditation only takes a few minutes.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.