At 86, Bette Ainsworth might just be the world’s oldest dragon boater.
Ainsworth is a four-time cancer survivor, going back to 1977 with a bout of skin cancer, two colon cancer occurrences and in 2006, breast cancer. She says the skin cancer doesn’t count.
At an international breast cancer regatta at Sarasota, Fla., last year Ainsworth was the oldest paddler out of nine participating countries.
“I think it finally got its message,” Ainsworth said. “It’s not going to get me so it may as well quit now.”
Ainsworth started as a supporter for breast cancer survivor team Angels Abreast, but her motivation was the loss of her husband, not cancer. They had a power boat, which she couldn’t handle by herself after he died. She feared she might never get back on the water. Then she saw an ad for Angels Abreast.
“So I went down and joined them and here I am,” Ainsworth said.
She’s been competing since and 12 years ago she recruited Greg Sigalet at age 11. Sigalet, now 23 and one of B.C.’s youngest coaches, guides co-ed team Angels and Demons, which formed in 2013 and has gained a reputation as a team to keep an eye on.
“We’re having fun, but we’re being competitive and we’re coming out hard,” Sigalet said.
He credits Ainsworth with getting him started.
“Bette Ainsworth is the reason I got into dragon boating,” Sigalet said. “She said I’m going to start a youth team. Do you want to help me with this? I steered for that team for many years. I was the youngest steers person in B.C. at one point because I was steering at 11 years old for both youth and adult teams and then I just kept going with it and now I coach.”
The sport has grown extensively and become more competitive over the years.
There are now more than a dozen teams in Nanaimo alone and there’s a movement to get more community involved with the sport by bringing businesses and organizations onboard through fundraising or trading, for example meeting space for paddling sessions, Sigalet said.
Dragon boating’s oldest and youngest competitors will be at Maffeo Sutton Park with thousands of paddlers and spectators, plus all the vendors and live entertainment expected at Nanaimo’s major festivals, Friday through Sunday (July 10-12) at the Save-On-Foods Nanaimo Dragonboat Festival.
To learn about everything planned for this year’s festival, please visit the the Nanaimo Dragonboat Society website at www.nanaimodragonboat.com.