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.