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Wilsonville resident Elizabeth Burns proudly paddles for Pink Phoenix

The Pink Phoenix Paddle Boat Team is made up of breast cancer survivors including Elizabeth Burns.


Photo Credit: COREY BUCHANAN - The Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team paddling away during a practice on a Saturday morning.

On the waters of the Willamette River, feet snuggled between a socket and hands clenched to paddle handles, breast cancer survivors prepare to put their able arms and pink blades to work.

“Paddles ready,” the caller, who demonstratively directs her teammates like a head coach, yells out.

Immediately, a group of 20 paddles rise. When the caller yells paddle, said paddles are slammed into the water so ferociously that the boat can feel like a tightrope, but so fluid that the paddles dives beneath the water’s surface in unison. After a couple minutes, the caller yells, “let it ride” and the paddlers rest.

The Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team is made up of 80 women of all ages who survived breast cancer or currently going through treatment. They compete in races ranging from 500-2,000 meters, sometimes exclusively against breast cancer teams and other times against female teams. Along with paddlers and a caller, a tiller stands in the back of the boat, guiding the crew toward the desired direction.

The team’s website states: "The Pink Phoenix team's mission is to enhance breast cancer awareness and to demonstrate for survivors that there is quality life after breast cancer.”

And Wilsonville resident Kathleen Burns, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and finished treatment in 2005, joined the team in 2009 to find that quality.

“I wanted to be with other breast cancer survivors. I wanted to feel better about my body and get stronger. The mission of the team really appealed to me,” she said.

However, a few years earlier, because of a major surgery during her breast cancer treatment, Burns thought she might be physically unable to paddle.

When Burns had her mastectomy, she also had reconstruction surgery to replace the breast region with muscles from her back. The surgeon warned her that after the surgery, she wouldn’t be able to use her lat muscles effectively. Luckily for Burns, she says while paddling, her other muscles overcompensate.

Paddle boating is a team sport but requires all individual members to reach zenith performance to achieve success.

“Every individual has to do there best. You have to focus on improving yourself,” Pink Phoenix public relations representative Meg Kilmer said.

After she joined the team and got a taste of the sport’s demanding nature, Burns realized that to reach her apex, she needed to work out more outside the water.

“I wanted to be thinner because it made paddling easier,” she said.

Since joining the team, Burns has lost 20 pounds.

Even more than the riggers of the river, dealing with the loss of fellow paddlers is the most exhausting burden of being on the team. In fact, this year, a team member has died every month. And it is for this very reason that many women decide to quit the team.

“It’s difficult. A lot of people don’t stay on the team for a long time. People leave the team because it’s just too hard to watch people die. At a certain point you’ve paddled with them, raced with them, you become attached to them. We lost a paddler who did I did a half marathon with a year and a half prior. You can only go to so many memorials before you have those nagging thoughts about if it’s going to happen to you or another teammate,” Burns said.

The eldest of the deceased riders was a 94-year-old named ElveRene Plimpton. Burns says when she feels lethargic, she thinks of Plimpton paddling away without complaints.

“She’s definitely my role model. You go to practice and you have your aches and pains and think of her and say ‘what are you complaining about.’ I’m hopeful I can paddle into my 80s or possibly into my 90s,” she said.

Burns has traveled to Victoria, B.C., Tempe, Ariz., and throughout Washington for races. But her favorite memory on the team blossomed after a race in Nanaimo, Canada.

Once the race was over, the non-breast cancer teams formed a long arch over the paddlers to salute Pink Phoenix for their perseverance and effort to be rid the deadly disease.

“You can’t walk through it without being touched. They’re awestruck that you’re out there paddling. People are telling you what a great job you did, ‘you go girl’, and other positive feedback. Most of us don’t get enough of that in our lives. It was borderline overwhelmingly amazing,” she said.

Burns also enjoys the role reversal of her kids watching her compete athletically instead of the other way around.

“My last race my son was there and my daughter’s been out to see me a couple times. It’s payback for all those years of soccer and baseball games,” she said.

Plus, she’s earned 15 medals and a few ribbons to boot.

Along with the quality workout, lasting friendships, awards and empowerment, Burns enjoys the water because it helps her forget about the troubles of the world.

She said: “If you’ve had a really stressful day, it’s a great place to be. When you go on the boat, all that kind of melts away.”




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