Westport Women SurviveOARS

The Saugatuck Rowing Club is justifiably proud of its championship teams.

Boats of all ages and with both genders have won countless medals, and earned national renown. Just the other day, the varsity girls 8+ captured an unprecedented 5th national title.

The Saugatuck SurviveOARS may never be US champions. But they are most definitely, absolutely positively, winners.

You can’t call women battling breast cancer — who get up early in the morning, train on the erg machine and the water, then go about their daily lives (including grueling treatment) — anything but champions.

The story began in January 2018. Mary Heery, a specialist at Norwalk Hospital’s Smilow Family Breast Health Center, is a huge advocate of fitness and exercise to help women deal physically and emotionally with the disease.

Knowing of Saugatuck Rowing’s many programs and community dedication. she called then-director of rowing Sharon Kriz.

“We pride ourselves on being able to teach anyone to row,” says Diana Kuen, who among many other professional and volunteer jobs is an SRC coach.

Club owner Howard Winklevoss was all in. Kriz asked Kuen to run the program.

Word spread quickly. But when 15 or so women walked through the door the next month, no one — not club officials or the novice rowers themselves — knew what to expect.

“Their bodies had been through a lot,” Kuen notes. “So we started on the erg (rowing) machine indoors. We wanted to build their confidence before they went on the water.”

They worked out on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. More women joined. They added Saturday sessions.

The breast cancer survivors formed very tight bonds.

One day in the boathouse, master rower Kit Huber noticed them. She offered to help. At the next practice, world-class rower Susan Schmidt joined in. Dawn Watson joined them. Soon, a strong corps of experienced club members was involved.

“That made the program even more special,” says Kuen. “All of those people were giving back, sharing their wisdom.”

Saugatuck Rowing club is “always a happy plays,” Kuen adds. “This program made it even happier.”

By mid-May, the women were ready for the water. They felt empowered and strong.

Diana Kuen watches her rowers with pride. (Photo/John Mongeau for CT NBC)

The 6:30 a.m. start did not bother them. They were no longer breast cancer patients. They were rowers!

Every team needs a name, of course. Someone came up with the perfect one: Saugatuck SurviveOARS. That says it all.

“Cancer took something away from them,” Kuen says with admiration. “We gave something back.”

She notes, “Breast cancer can show up anywhere. Any woman is one mammogram away. If it hits me, I pray I have a community like this to support me.”

The SurviveOARS are a very tight-knit group. (Photo/Greg Cork)

The SurviveOARS program empowered Asante Robinson to push her “physical and cerebral limits in a way no other sport has. The 3-year triple negative survivor is extremely grateful for both the opportunity to row, and the bonds she’s built.

Another woman joined as a survivor, then was re-diagnosed with breast cancer while rowing. Fortunately, Kuen says, she had the SRC community for support — and exercise to help her through.

The program continued this year, with a new goal: to compete in a regatta.

In early June, they did. Row for the Cure sponsors fundraisers around the country for the Susan G. Komen fund. This one was in Poughkeepsie.

Many of the racers are friends and relatives of women who had breast cancer. Some just want to help.

The SurviveOARS were the only boat filled — stem to stern — with survivors.

The SurviveOARS are all smiles in Poughkeepsie. (Photo/Michael Bauer)

The large crowd was appreciative. As word spread, a cheer went up: “SurviveOARS!”

Other rowing clubs love the idea. Kuen and her colleagues are glad to help start similar programs elsewhere.

As for the Saugatuck SurviveOARS: There’s more to come. They’re being incorporated as a 501(c)(3).

And Kuen wants to buy the women their own boat.

A pink one.

(Kuen gives kudos to the master rower volunteers: Patrice Foudy, Kit Huber, Chris Howard, Camilla Klein, Barbara Nash, Caryn Purcell, Carol Randel, Allison Reilly, Karen Salsarula, Dan Schley, Susan Schmidt, Page Seyfried, Tonya Steiner, Liz Turner, Dawn Watson and Kari Williams.)

Bonus photo: The Saugatuck Rowing Club national champion varsity girls 8+ team.

13 responses to “Westport Women SurviveOARS

  1. Sarah Bianchi

    I am a proud part of the SurviveOARS and want to say thanks to all the volunteers, members and the SRC owner and staff. This has been a life-changer and a life-saver! A special shout out to Coach Andy, who lets me ride on the launch with him when I am not up for rowing! – SB

  2. Kimberly Wilson

    I, too, am a humble and grateful member of the SurviveOars team! Thank you Dan, your article is wonderful! When you speak of this rowing community and how we breast cancer survivors came together, it really is quite humbling. I live in Westport and now celebrate new friendships, new relationships, new paths on my healing journey – thanks in part to Howard Winklevoss and all of his fabulous coaches, staff and club members who have surrounded us, welcomed us, and also challenged us to be strong rowers and even stronger women in our victory against breast cancer. Now we must pay it forward to others who need to know there is life after the breast cancer diagnosis. There is life, new life, a sporting life, a rowing life – SurviveOars!

    • Thanks, and congrats, Kimberly and Sarah. You are amazing women. You do us all proud — and inspire us to far greater heights! Rock (and row) on.

  3. Dan, thank you for your inspiring article on the Saugatuck SurviveOars! The members of our group who rowed in Poughkeepsie, against strong winds and current without missing a stroke, are my heroes. I am honored to part of
    such a special group of women. Heartfelt thanks to Norwalk Hospital and to the management, staff and volunteers at SRC who made it all possible – especially our fearless coaches, Diana and Andy! So grateful to you all.

  4. Elisa Cantarella

    Dan, as always thank you for sharing such uplifting articles! The members of our group who rowed in Poughkeepsie and those that row when schedules permit are a true testament to being Survivors. Each of us has their own unique situations but the common bond is that we are Survivors. I am so thankful to everyone who supports us and gives us the tools to move on and regain our emotional and physical strength through such a wonderful program. Rowing as we know is an amazing team sport as is battling any type of cancer or illness. We cannot do it without the support of family and friends of which I cherish my Norwalk Hospital, SRC staff and volunteers (special shout out to Diana and Andy) and SurviveOARS families. Everyone is amazing, just amazing. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

  5. Mary Gail Gristina

    Dan, Echoing my teammates above, thank you for printing this great article about the SurviveOARS. I am a member of the second wave, 2019; the first group is 2018, and they made us (the new crew) feel so welcome and they hugged us right into team. The rowers in the Poughkeepsie race are an inspiration! So much appreciation goes to those who saw the possibility and then made it happen. The Saugatuck Rowing Club and Norwalk Hospital have made a truly generous gift to the community and all the many staff and volunteers who continue on are so valued. A special nod the Dynamo Diana, Amazing Andy and Delightful Dawn for their guidance and patience – and sharing a sense of humor and optimism to boot! My fellow SurviveOARS have been an inspiration and I am so grateful to be a part of the group.

  6. Victoria Madden

    Thank you Dan, for this wonderful article that captures how special our team, our coaches (Diana Kuen and Andy Healey), and all the men and women at Saugatuck who have advised/guided us over the past year truly are! Its been an amazing experience and I feel fortunate to be a part of it.

  7. Thank you, Dan, for sharing their remarkable story! You are such an important voice in our community. I am proud and honored to work with these fierce women! 💪🏻 I think life should be a balance fun, work and purpose and lucky for me this program checks all the boxes! I have to give a big shout out to Andrew Healey — a GREAT man and incredible coach for ALWAYS being there for us when we need him! A special thank you to our GM Sarah Connolly, Rowing Director, Gordon Getsinger and Dave Grossman. Westport is a better place because of SRC. ❤️ You’re the best Dan!!!! 😆🙏
    Always grateful!

    • Thanks, Diana. But YOU and your great crew — coaches, supporters, and of course the women themselves — are the ones who deserve the kudos, the credits, the smiles and the hugs. You’re all amazing!

  8. Womanhood and women strong! What a touching and heartening story. Congratulations to every one involved. You go girl(s)!

  9. Leslie Blake Hyatt

    Dan, thanks for the great article. I am a member of the 2019 SurviveOARS and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to be a part of this supportive community. Many thanks to Mary Heery, Sharon, Diana, the club, the many volunteers and of course the 2018 team who inspires us every day, We are forever in your debt.
    Leslie Blake-Hyatt

  10. Many thanks!!! I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of the ‘19 group and indebted to all who made it happen and continue to inspire us. Thanks Dan, for sharing our story.

  11. Lori Boersma

    Wow, what a great article! Thanks Dan for highlighting this amazing program. I am also part of the 2019 team, and am so honored and grateful to be included with this amazing group! There are very few times where there are no thoughts of cancer, recurrance, treatment, even work have space in my head. Just rowing.

    Thank you to everyone, Diana, Andy, Dawn, Mary and all of SRC who made and continue to make this happen!!

    **Congrats varsity!**