“As we cleaned up down there, you can’t imagine how much Styrofoam, how many straws, bottle caps and fishing lines that we dragged out of that little piece that we were able to clean,” said Jennifer Collado, who was attending the annual event on Saturday for the first time along with her daughter, husband and sister. “People have all these ceremonies where they let balloons go into the air and they don’t realize that they come down somewhere. Out here fish can get tangled or eat them.”
Collado explained that she and her family were out to show support for their late friend, Jennifer Merendino, who founded the Empire Dragon Boat team and the tradition of service to the bay she loved.
Merendino passed away on December 22, 2011, after fighting a valiant, four-year battle with breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with just five months after marrying her husband Angelo in 2007.
“When we were approached by the Girl Scouts, and when we heard that it was in Jennifer Merendino’s memory, we immediately said yes,” Collado said.
Heading the initiative were the current members and coaches of the Empire team, New York City’s only rowing team for breast cancer survivors, along with several girl scouts, friends, family members, and supporters of both team and cause.
James Lozada, assistant to Empire’s head coach Akila Simon, explained that Merendino was especially conscious of the garbage lining the waterfront.
“One of the things that she really wanted to do when she was out here was clean up the marina,” Lozada said. “We have a lot of rowing teams out here, but no one actually stops and thinks about cleaning up. This is our fifth year doing this, and it’s growing.”
Among the cleanup projects undertaken by the ladies of the Empire team and their support community is the placement of oysters along the seafloor near the marina. Lozada explained that oysters can make for a very effective natural water filtration system.
“We have an oyster project, and we have put in about 500 oysters. It filters 50,000 gallons of water,” Lozada said. “They’re actually creating sea life. You’ll see sea squirts down there, that’s actually how they cleaned up Oyster Bay.”
After the cleanup, the participants were rewarded with hands-on experience working as a member of a dragon boat team under the decisive command of Empire’s team captain Donna Wilson, who explained relevant commands and their meanings before leading the nervous and excited bunch to the row points in their dragon boats and out into the bay.
“Let it ride, hold water, paddles up,” Wilson demonstrated on the dock. “Back paddle; push the water forward, like this.”
Dr. Donald McKenzie, a professor in the Department of Sports Medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, sparked the growing global movement of dragon boating among breast cancer survivors.
In 1996, he and a group of brave women held an experiment to challenge the conviction of the medical community that breast cancer survivors should avoid rigorous, repetitive upper body exercise for fear that they would develop lymphedema.
After three months of tough training, none of the 24 participants developed the disease.
Eighteen years later, the sporting tradition continues to grow, and already, the ladies of the Empire team have their sights set on the Sandy Smith Global Race in Sarasota, Florida, on Oct. 26. Hosting the race will be the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission, where McKenzie now serves as a member of the advisory board.
“We have a huge competition coming up in the end of October,” Lozada said. “You’re looking at about 150 teams.”