Dragon boat teams from 37 countries, including more than 2500 competitors who have or are battling breast cancer, were welcomed to Waipā in a moving Opening Ceremony for the international festival on Friday (April 14).
The competitors arrived at the ceremony in Victoria Square after a Pink Parade of Nations down Cambridge’s main street where they were cheered by retailers, bystanders and Mooloo cowbells.
Present in the crowd was Rose Print who had travelled from Palmerston North when she heard a friend from the United States who she had not seen for 40 years was competing.
“I just jumped in the car,” she said and headed to the race venue at Lake Karāpiro to book accommodation and ask where Diane Salfelder was staying. The two first met in the US when Print was riding through America on a motor bike and friends put her in touch with another Kiwi.
Salfelder is originally from Kaikoura and met her husband to be when he was a sailor on the nuclear-powered cruiser the USS Truxtun on its controversial visit to New Zealand in 1976. She now lives in Champaign, Illinois and competes for the Prairie Dragons.
“Seeing all these flags here, everybody happy and cheering each other on. The spirit and the atmosphere was incredible,” said Print.
“We never seem to give these things enough publicity. We get so much coverage of rugby but these events come through, and nothing.”
She had not been to Cambridge “for a long time” but was blown away by how beautiful it was – the trees in particular – and praised the atmosphere in the town during the parade and the wideness of the roads.
“And Karāpiro is just spectacular, an incredible complex.”
In his welcome, Waikato-Tainui’s Rahui Papa said more than 95 per cent of New Zealanders would have some experience of the struggles, trials and tribulations of breast cancer.
“Breast cancer does not know political barriers, it doesn’t know race or creed, or religious denomination,” he said.
“We are a big family from across the world who have come here, yes some competition in there, but it’s the relationships that are ultimate in our gathering.”
International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission (IBCPC) president Meri Gibson, a competitor and breast cancer survivor herself, said the festival represented the biggest contingent of women athletes anywhere in the world this year.
New Zealand had the highest number of dragon boat teams per capita but not because there was more breast cancer but because “we are a water people” and just get on with life in a typical Kiwi way, she said.
“Breast cancer does not know political barriers, it doesn’t know race or creed, or religious denomination,” Rahui Papa.
Gibson attended her first event in Australia in 2007 and wanted to bring it to New Zealand ever since.
It was to be held last year but was postponed a year due to Covid, something which was a blessing because they were now match ready.
“My heart is full, it is exploding with happiness, to finally be here.
“We hug, we laugh, we cry, we sing, we dance a lot.”
It showed what an incredible life women could have post a diagnosis, said Gibson.
Waipā mayor Susan O’Regan spoke about her mother Katherine O’Regan, who died five years ago and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 because of a national breast cancer screening programme she helped establish as associate minister of health in 1990.
“If she were here today, she would be beyond thrilled to absolutely delighted to see the joy and the veracity on the faces of you all. Today I’m channelling my mother. Your tenacity for being role models, your strength and your fortitude. You are the very people my mother fought for,” said O’Regan.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon said he was inspired by the gathering noting the “unbreakable spirit of camaraderie and team work” required to compete. “He urged competitors to lean on each other, be patient and persistent, keep the banter and jokes going and have fun.
Festival patron Tureiti, Lady Moxon, a breast cancer survivor also spoke about the courage of each competitor.
The teams competing were from: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, Panama, Philippines, Qatar, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.