October marks the start of Breast Cancer Awareness month coast-to-coast in Canada. Each year, over 26,000 Canadian women will receive the terrible news “you have breast cancer.” This staggering number is deflating and debilitating, tearing families apart and causing a ripple effect felt throughout our communities. To combat breast cancer and acknowledge the collective spirit fostered among survivors through sport, October 1st will see the launch of Beautiful Body, Unbreakable Spirit, a fine art photography book featuring stunning imagery that explores the journey of seven fearless breast cancer survivors who took up dragon boat racing after their diagnosis.
I spoke with Cheryl Pounder, two-time Canadian Olympic Gold Medalist, PaddleCore Team Building Expert and Motivational Speaker about her contributions to this book. Her mother is a breast cancer survivor who is also an avid dragon boater, Cheryl said it was a no-brainer to get involved with this impressive project and wrote the powerful forward (see what I did there) to honour her mother and these warrior-women.
Libby Roach- First off, tell us about your mom. How is her health currently?
Cheryl Pounder- My mom is awesome. Her exact diagnosis date was around twenty years ago, she’s the most vibrant woman I’ve ever met. Her health is good, she recently had heart surgery but she’s now back to riding her 40-50-60 km bike ride a day. She’s 75 and I cannot keep up with her. It’s funny, thinking back to my first Olympics she was with me and asked if I wanted to go for a walk before the game, I said sure mom! And off we went to meet her friends to have a coffee, and we arrive, and I think we had walked to a different city! And I’m like mom, I’m getting the bus back! Are you kidding? And she’s like c’mon you’re young! Can’t you keep up with your old mom?
LR- That’s incredible, glad to hear she’s healthy. What was it like after her diagnosis?
CP- In a lot of ways her diagnosis sort of gave her a different perspective on living, not that she wasn’t before, she had four kids, was actively engaged in all our lives and was a wonderful mother, but she recognized we live in the moment and accepted and embraced what today has to offer us. And she’s done that, she’s now a world-traveller, of course, a little disappointed with COVID that she and her cronies can’t do much but finding other ways to stay active. She was an avid dragon boat racer from 1998-2013 and maintained those friendships throughout. Dragon boat racing reinvigorated her soul for exercise, camaraderie and teamwork. When you see what these women have accomplished it’s truly inspiring. I was very fortunate to be able to go watch my mom compete, and compete it was, they all wanted to win. There was such vibrancy in every stroke and communication they had in the boat.
LR- The connection between spirit and sport is so present, no matter what you face, you’re stronger with your teammates.
CP- If you look at athletics or sort of what I’ve done in my career, it all comes back to the family principles- working together, being passionate about what you’re doing and finding a way to push through and believe and hope. That always resonated with me watching my mom on the water. When you get to an Olympic final and have had life experiences where life and death are on the line it really puts things into perspective when you step out on the ice or you’re lining up for that gold medal game. As much as you want it and all these things, it doesn’t define you. What you really see is the strength and ties in your life and my mom has certainly been that person for me. I don’t think when you’re 19 you fully appreciate what your mom has been through, and reflecting now seeing the strength of these women when we talk about unbreakable spirit that’s really what it is. They’ve had their moments, we’ve seen the tears as they’ve lost their hair and seen them sick, but the resounding strength and courage to face it head-on, and at times not wanting to because being authentic and real it’s such a difficult journey. I just keep grasping, if she can go through that, I can certainly put one foot in front of the other. She’s a real hero to me and I know a lot of other people as well. I’m not sure if she really knows how big of an impact she’s had.
About the book
With beautiful fine-art photography by Tash Damjanovic, this book is presented in two unique sections, Beautiful Body, featuring stunning images of glamour and a spark of fun, while Unbreakable Spirit brings the Dragon Boats to the forefront. Written in both English and French, and 100% proceeds from book sales will be donated to sponsor and support survivors of breast cancer’s dragon boat teams across Canada.
Available to purchase at: beautifulunbreakable.com
All images courtesy Beautiful Body, Unbreakable Spirit. Interview may be edited for length and or clarity.