Breast cancer survivor finds joy with others ‘in the same boat’
'Finding community'Dragon boat team helps breast cancer survivors connect

Breast cancer survivor finds joy with others ‘in the same boat’

Naomi Herman, a decade-long member of the Pink Steel Dragon Boats, said the sport has offered her a new form of exercise and a supportive community.

Naomi Herman found new skills as dragon boater. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Naomi Herman found new skills as dragon boater. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Ten years ago, Naomi Herman had never heard of a dragon boat.

The then 63-year-old resident of Upper St. Clair did not even know how to swim. But when she got a call from one of her daughters telling her of an advertisement for a dragon boat team looking for new members who had survived breast cancer, Herman thought: “Why not?”

“I was sitting in my car in the Giant Eagle parking lot when I got that call,” she recounted. “I thought, ‘Well, cancer has led me down one path, and maybe this will be another path.’ But I had no idea what dragon boating was.”

She was about to find out.

Just a few months following her breast cancer diagnosis — and the consequent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — Herman found herself in the living room of a stranger at an organizational meeting for dragon boat racing, along with “women of all shapes, sizes and ages” interested in learning about the Pink Steel Dragon Boat Team.

“In my head, I thought we were going on a boat ride, and that it would be just a nice boating opportunity,” Herman recalled. “Little did I realize I would have to paddle.”

She did paddle, though, and although her lack of stamina at the time caused her to take breaks that first time out, she was not deterred. By the end of the season, she was able to complete an entire hour of practice without pulling her oar out of the water.

“I could see myself getting stronger,” she said, noting that she has been a proud member of the Pink Steel Dragon Boat Team ever since.

I could see myself getting stronger.

A dragon boat team is comprised of 20 paddlers, sitting in two rows of 10, in a long boat typically flanked by the head of a dragon on one end and its tail on the other. The crew includes a sweep, or steerer, and a drummer, who pounds out a beat and issues commands. The paddlers work in unison to propel the boat forward.

Dragon boating had its origins in China more than two millennia ago, but has had a resurgence in popularity, with some sources claiming that it is the fastest growing aquatic sport. During a typical race, up to six teams traverse 500 meters, with the fastest crew taking first place.

The Pink Steel Dragon Boat Team competes against other teams of breast cancer survivors. It is affiliated with Steel City Dragons, another team comprised of both men and women who are not necessarily breast cancer survivors. Herman is a member of both teams.

Practices are held three times a week at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club. Meets against other teams in the region are scheduled a few times each season.

“It’s cool exercise,” said Herman, now a decade-long veteran of the sport. “And I meet women from all over the area I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s a wonderful community.”

Being a dragon boat team member also motivates her to keep in shape during the off-season.

“In the winter, I exercise not only for myself but for the team,” Herman said.

A grandmother of 18, Herman, 73, wears a gold necklace with “Bubbe” written in script. She is young for her years and busy. She hosts her large family for dinner each Shabbat, creating unique dishes from countries all over the world, and taking the time to deliver short reports to her guests on the culture of the land of origin of each week’s special.

She eschews more traditional bubbie pastimes such as mahjong or cards in favor of dragon boat racing, exercising, running forums on healthy eating and maintaining a blog called the Mindful Files, issuing practical advice about “our responsibility as adults in keeping our affairs in order.” She hosts a “Death Café” at the Upper St. Clair library, providing an open, confidential space for people to share their views on death. And she serves on the governing board of South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh.

All of her endeavors, though seemingly disparate, have something in common, she noted.

“It’s all about finding community,” she said. “This is what Jews do. We find community.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
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