Dragon Boat Festival Celebrates Sport, Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel


“Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer changes your life forever.”


Janice Bagnato, breast cancer survivor and cofounder of Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel, has received this diagnosis twice in her lifetime. She understands the need for support, camaraderie and healthy living activities, and as a result, she and friends and fellow survivors Darlene Goldfinch and Peggy Frechione founded Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel in 2017.


Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel provides a place for breast cancer survivors of all ages to gather for support, physical activity, communication, friendship and opportunities to give back to the community. The charitable organization’s mission focuses on empowering breast cancer survivors to strengthen their mind, body and spirit through camaraderie and the sport of dragon boat paddling.


Bagnato, Goldfinch and Frechione were experienced dragon boat paddlers prior to the founding of Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel. “We were members of a combined mixed team and breast cancer survivor team,” said Bagnato. “But we wanted a team and an organization solely focused on breast cancer survivors.”


These committed and formidable women did just that by drafting bylaws and soliciting a board filled with breast cancer survivors. “Our team is so grateful to Three Rivers Rowing Association for welcoming us to their organization and supporting all that we do,” said Bagnato.


Why Dragon Boat Paddling?


Dragon boating originated in China more than 2,000 years ago amid superstitious beliefs that boat racing would ensure prosperous and bountiful crops. During celebrations conducted during the summer solstice, dragon boating became a symbolization of both humankind’s struggles against nature and the fight against dangerous enemies.


Today, some of the original rituals continue like the “Awakening of the Dragon,” which includes dotting the eyes of the dragon’s head on each boat. This ceremony cleanses and blesses the area of competition, the competitors and their boats. It also gives the boat and their crew the strength of the dragon and the blessing of the Goddess of the Sea—and who wouldn’t welcome that?


“Dragon boat paddling provides an opportunity to be competitive as we learn to paddle together as a team,” said Bagnato. “It’s challenging. It’s hard work. But it gives survivors a sense of something to look forward to in trying to find normalcy after a diagnosis.”


A dragon boat is a 40-foot canoe adorned with a dragon head and tail that seats 20 paddlers in pairs on 10 benches. A drummer in the front keeps a steady cadence for paddlers to follow in sync, and a steersperson sits in the back. It is an amazing team-building sport as all 20 paddlers must work together as one to move the boat smoothly and quickly through the water.


“The drummer adds another level of motivation to the team,” said Bagnato, adding that this position also gives members who can no longer paddle an opportunity to be back in the boat. “We’ve seen drummers in their 80s who can no longer paddle but they can beat that drum!”


Sometimes drummers also dress up in tutus and other costumes. “We have a competition for the best dressed drummer at our fall festival event,” said Bagnato.


Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel has 44 active paddlers who come to practice and participate in races. “It’s a commitment,” says Bagnato. “We practice three days a week and travel to races.”


The team consists of survivors from the age of 24 to 78 who compete in three out-of-state races each year. In 2018, Hearts of Steel raced in Florence, Italy along with more than 3,500 other breast cancer survivors. They will be competing in New Zealand in April 2023 with thousands of athletes, all breast cancer survivors from around the world, where they will celebrate both the games and the journey. This is their Olympics.


For those not ready for that type of commitment, the organization offers other opportunities. “Our non-paddlers provide support through fundraising and assisting with our off-season outreach programs,” said Bagnato. “We always need volunteers for our fall Dragon Boat Festival and those opportunities are open to everyone.”


The Dragon Boat Festival


Now in its fourth year, the annual Dragon Boat Festival hosted by Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at North Park Lake Boathouse. Bringing together the excitement of dragon boat racing, entertainment, food trucks and fun family activities, it’s an ideal place to spend a September Saturday.


At this year’s festival, cancer survivors from the community including youth and para-paddlers as well as breast cancer survivor teams are expected to paddle and race for medals and awards.


Anyone can learn how to paddle a dragon boat and form a team. Interested individuals should gather 20-24 of their friends, family and coworkers and register as soon as possible or no later than Sept. 10, 2022. Each team receives a one-hour lesson/practice the week before the race. All paddling equipment will be supplied. Paddlers must be 12 years of age and older. Register online at www.heartsofsteelpittsburgh.org or www.pghdragonboatfestival.org.

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