Keiko Yanagihara has been a tiller for Survivor SAKE since 2003. Team Survivor Northwest is named as a beneficiary in her will.
Keiko Yanagihara has been a tiller for Survivor SAKE since 2003. Team Survivor Northwest is named as a beneficiary in her will.
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Maggie Brower is a two-time cancer survivor. The first time, it was kidney cancer. After beating it more than a decade ago, she met up with a friend and fellow survivor for coffee.

“She said, ‘Now you can join my dragon group,’” Brower said.

The Survivor SAKE dragon boat team has been paddling Lake Washington for nearly two decades, powered by cancer survivors at all stages in their fight against the deadly disease.

“I was unfit and was still recovering,” Brower recalled about her first outing with Survivor SAKE. “I had kidney cancer.”

At one point, the captain leading the dragon boat team told paddlers they could stop if they had run a marathon, and then a rest for anyone who had finished a 5K, followed by a triathlon, and so on.

“And I was like, ‘Why am I the only one paddling?’” Brower said. “And it was this inspiration: all these women are amazing.”

Brower has run a 5K now, and climbed Mount St. Helens twice. She’s planning a second go on Mount Adams in July with Team Survivor Northwest, a nonprofit that provides fitness and health education programs to women cancer survivors at all stages of treatment or recovery.

“We’re not a support group, where you sit around in a circle and say, ‘Hi, my name is Dora,’”  said outgoing Team Survivor Northwest executive director Dora Lipper.

With help from Team Survivor Northwest, Brower didn’t let a second diagnosis — this time for thyroid cancer — slow her down.

Brower is now in remission.

“This is not just a fitness group,” said Dora Lipper. “This is for women who want to push themselves and conquer things.”

After her breast cancer diagnosis in 2015, Lipper was invited to a one-day Team Survivor Northwest retreat. After climbing Mount St. Helens, she learned about the dragon boats.

When the need for a new executive director arose, Lipper said she saw it as a perfect fit.

“I could take something that helped me, and get it to more women,” she said.

Lipper and Brower were both out practicing with Survivor SAKE on June 8, the dragon boat team readying for its first national competition in August. Team Survivor Northwest created the dragon boat team in partnership with the Seattle SAKE Paddling Club almost 20 years ago.

“We actually started with Team Survivor Northwest back in 2000,” said Charlene Wee, who coaches Survivor SAKE with her husband, Albert Ting. “Back then, the club, Seattle SAKE, was still young. We were probably two years in, and one of the paddlers already was in touch with Team Survivor Northwest.”

Wee and Ting left Survivor SAKE for a while, returning about four years ago.

“So, this is my second time around,” Wee said.

Wee has been practicing yoga since 2004, and is founder of The Yoga Spot. She loves working with people, she said, and helping them improve their health in body and mind.

“I sort of started dragon racing before I found yoga, but when I found yoga, it was life-changing,” she said. “…Slowly, I’ve also found there’s a lot of philosophy in yoga that’s applicable.”

Part of that philosophy is focusing on what’s in front of you, and not what’s coming up, she said; paddlers should focus on the stroke they’re on, and not how many are left. Wee can tell when it’s working.

“You can actually feel the run of the boat is different,” she said.

Wee makes sure she knows how her team members are feeling, and that she doesn’t exacerbate any issues someone might be having, she said.

“I usually walk into a practice knowing what I want to do, and sometimes I don’t get to carry everything out,” Wee said.

Regardless of a person’s competitive goals, she said, there’s always room on the team.

“As long as they do their best, it doesn’t matter what physical capability they have,” Wee said. “For me, if they do their best, that’s the best you can ask from someone.”

Many women with Team Survivor Northwest have been racing dragon boats for years, Lipper said, including an 84-year-old who has fought cancer three times.

“And she can paddle circles around me,” she said.

There is no cutoff to participate in the programs Team Survivor Northwest offers.

“It’s lifelong,” Lipper said. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s get you through this rough spot.’”

Keiko Yanagihara was diagnosed with cancer on her birthday: Nov. 3, 1999. She was invited to join Survivor SAKE much the same way that Brower was — by a friend. Yanagihara met Bev Wagner in college.

“She said, ‘The good news is, now you can join the dragon boat team,’ and I did, and have been ever since,” Yanagihara said.

She spent the first four years as a paddler, but then hurt her back. She’s been a tiller since 2003, steering the dragon boat as 20 other women paddle.

“It’s actually quite high pressure,” Wee said of the position. “Practice is not so much, but race day is for the tiller.”

Yanagihara loves her friends and the support Team Survivor Northwest provides so much, she’s named the nonprofit as a beneficiary in her will.

Survivor SAKE will compete in the United States Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew Dragon Boat National Championships in Colorado Springs for the first time this year, as it is the first time the competition has been opened to teams that include all types of cancer survivors, not just breast cancer.

“We definitely want to show up and say, ‘We are here,’” Wee said.

Team Survivor Northwest recently received a grant from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that will be used to bring more classes to cancer survivors living in underserved parts of the city, Lipper said.

“We’re going to break down the barriers for them, because they should get the same exercise benefits we are,” she said.

Learn more about Team Survivor Northwest and Survivor SAKE at teamsurvivornw.org.