'It's really saved my life': senior dragon boaters find friendship, community on the water

Twice a week, Darcee Matthews laces up a life jacket, and takes to the water with 19 other women.

The experience has proved cathartic for the 57-year-old, who is still mourning the unexpected loss of her husband just one year ago. He died of a heart attack.

"The last year has been a tough year," Matthews told CBC News while preparing for an afternoon of hard paddling along Vancouver's False Creek. 

"[But] the paddling has just changed my life," she said.

Matthews is on a team called the Century Dragons. It's an all-seniors women's team where the average age is 74.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

The group has competed in tournaments across the province since it was started by seniors from the Century House centre in New Westminster nearly four years ago. Matthews, a former figure skater, was recruited shortly after her husband died.

"I was never involved in water sports," she told CBC News. "It's really saved my life."

"The team is supportive. Everybody has their stories, everybody has their pasts. It's positive, you get a great workout... you've got the mountains, and the water, and as we get up to Granville Island, you get the smell of fish and chips ... it's all positive," she added.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Building up

When friends Terry Rammell, 73, and Carey Stoneberg, 60, spearheaded the group in 2016, no one on the team had any paddling experience. Some participants couldn't even swim.

For the first year, Rammell says their timing was off. But with some coaching changes, and some learned experience, the crew was able to pick up speed.

The team has since participated in tournaments across B.C., earning several medals. They even train indoors at the Richmond Oval during the winter months.

"We do dry land training, we're in the gym, we practice all year round. Our season is from April to October, but we practice all year round. It's a commitment," said Stoneberg.

Jon Hernandez/CBC

A sense of community

But for many players on the Century Dragons, success is secondary to the bonds and friendships that have been formed.

"Now it's morphed into something more than physical fitness. We go to the weight room on Sundays together, and movies, and it's really been socially exciting. Mentally and physically, it's been awesome." said Rammell.

For paddlers like Darcee Matthews, dragon boating is a reminder of just how far people can go when they work together.

"To learn to be in time and to learn to be with a team, you have to trust one another and listen and you get the rhythm. It's really invigorating."

After four years of competing, the team will sit on the sidelines at the Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival. Instead, the group plans to give back by volunteering for the event — inside the beer garden.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC