Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.
Françoise Baylis ran into Deb Woolway about a dozen years ago when Baylis was meeting up with a group of her post-doctoral students in a Halifax pub. The two had already known each other through each other’s professional lives. Baylis is a well-known and award-winning scholar who’s been interviewed for the Halifax Examiner several times about her work in bioethics. She knew Woolway through interviews she did with CBC where Woolway was a longtime radio producer.
But this serendipitous meeting had the pair connecting over something different: dragon boating.
The two exchanged hellos and Woolway told Baylis she was retired from CBC and spending her time dragon boating, although she was still relatively new to the sport at that time.
Baylis remembers seeing dragon boats gliding along the waters around Toronto Islands when she lived in the city as a young woman. At that meeting in the pub, she told Woolway she wanted to sign up.
“I always thought it looked so beautiful, but I never knew how to do it. I never lived anywhere near the water in Toronto, so you’re looking at a one-hour commute,” Baylis said. “It never occurred to me to make any inquiries. But now I was like, I live near the water, I know somebody now who does it. I want to do this.”
Woolway gave Baylis the contact information for her coach. That was the winter, so there was no on-water training. Baylis’ introduction to dragon boating started in the gym.
It was the beauty of watching dragon boats on the water that inspired Woolway, too. She recalled seeing the boats and their paddlers practice on Lake Banook.
“They were moving so beautifully and in unison. I thought that looks like a fun thing to do,” she said.
That was in the spring of 2011. She remembers walking over to the old clubhouse in Graham’s Grove and started talking with someone who appeared to be in charge. He said to Woolway, “Sure, hop in.”
“I got addicted from the get-go,” Woolway said. “It’s the ultimate team sport. The boat doesn’t move unless you’re all in sync. Not just the timing, but the kind of stroke you’re doing. I really like the rhythm of it. The coaching is extraordinary. I found myself sitting next to world champions and people like me who had just begun.”
‘It’s like roller derby on the water’
I met Baylis and Woolway a few weeks ago at Woolway’s Dartmouth home, about an hour-and-a-half before their Tuesday night dragon boat practice on Lake Banook. Both are dressed in workout gear, and are ready to paddle.
I heard about their dragon boat team through my colleague, Evelyn C. White, who emailed me about one of the team’s wins: a Senior C team with paddlers all over the age of 60 who swept all their events at games in Welland, Ontario this summer. Those wins give the team the right to represent Canada in Club Crew World in Italy in 2024.
Dragon boating’s origins are in China. These days, many associate dragon boat racing with survivors of breast cancer. Donald McKenzie, a sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist, studied and started promoting the sport as post-recovery therapy for women who had treatment and surgeries for breast cancer. Dragon boating, McKenzie found, could help build up chest muscles. Plus, there was a crucial social aspect to the sport and getting survivors outside, into nature, and meeting new people.
The teams Baylis and Woolway paddle with at the club called Dragon Boat East on Lake Banook are gender-mixed teams. And there are a number of older woman over the age of 50, like Woolway, 67, and Baylis, 62, who found themselves becoming strong athletes on the water. Both Woolway and Baylis said they started out as paddlers — it’s not rowing, which I said during our interview and which they quickly corrected — to get fit. But they both said over time, they learned they wanted to keep fit so they can keep paddling.
Their coaches are Albert MacDonald, Tim Schaus, Jay London, and Angela Bidinost. The teams in the club are known by colours gold and black. MacDonald coaches the black teams, while Schaus coaches the gold team.
For competitions, each boat has 20 paddlers, plus a steer in the back, and a drummer in the front. The drummer’s beat follows the strokes of the paddlers. Lighter paddlers go into the front and the back of the boat, while the bigger, stronger paddlers are in the boat’s centre, which the crew and coaches refer to as the engine room.
The teams train for and compete in three levels of racing: the 200-metre, 500-metre, and a two-kilometre course with a turn every 500 metres. That last race is Woolway and Baylis’ favourite.
“Anything can happen in a 2K and it does,” Woolway said. “Boats crash, boats slam, boats sink, boats miss turns. It’s a roller derby on the water. It’s exhausting, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
During practices, though, teams can have fewer paddlers. This club even paddled during the early months of the COVID pandemic, first with four crew to a boat, then eight, and so on, until it was safe enough to paddle with a full crew again.
Woolway is a world champion in dragon boat racing. She was on seniors’ division that’s part of the Canadian team that competed and won 67 gold medals, 36 silver medals and 13 bronze medals at the 13th annual World Nations Dragon Boat Championship in China in 2017. Woolway was in Welland, Ontario last year when the team won swept its events.
The training to get ready for the national level of competition is rigorous, a two-year process just to quality. There are days in the gym, strict diets, time trials, and weigh-ins since the weight of the boat is crucial in competition. Woolway bought an outrigger canoe for on-water training.
“It is like entering a cult, let me tell you,” Woolway said about the training. “I feel honoured at my age to be taken seriously as a mature athlete. These national coaches make no allowances for age, really. They say, ‘These are the requirements and we’ll take the best of the best.'”
Baylis said she considered competing on a national and international level, too, but for several reasons ultimately decided against it. Still, paddling requires her to keep in shape. She goes to the gym, often with Woolway. Baylis said when she started paddling, she lost and has kept off 30 pounds.
“There are not a lot of sports you can join late in life, at 50, and if you choose to, work to get to national competition,” Baylis said. “I want to be able to use my knees and my legs late into life, even if it’s just to be able to do hiking.”
For Baylis, dragon boating provides some mental clarity and a much-needed break from day-to-day life:
When the water is flat, all you hear is the rhythm of the paddle going in, and you have a nice little breeze on your face. It’s really just that zen moment. For me, I personally always make the illusion in my mind to that’s what a dog must feel like when it sticks its head out the window. I don’t like to think of myself as a dog, but I always have this thought. The wind is there, it’s calm.
Very often, we’re paddling during after-work hours. For me, it’s very physical and not thinking about whatever my priorities of the day are. I’m the person who makes lists. If you start doing that when you’re in the boat, then you’re out of rhythm. The thing that’s beautiful for me, it makes you aware of your body, aware of rhythm, and just your space in the world. If you start letting your brain go to other things, you’ll mess up in the boat.
‘A strong bond with your team’
Lisa Vaughan got her start with paddling about 14 years ago when Tim Schaus invited her to take part in the Manulife Dragon Boat Festival. Vaughan signed up to be a part of the former school board’s dragon boat team. She had always been involved in athletics, but mostly solo sports such as swimming. But being on the crew of a dragon boat team soon became a big part of her life.
“You’re one person; there are 20 people. The accountability to your fellow paddlers is huge,” Vaughan said in an interview. “If I don’t feel like going, that’s not an option. So, it really keeps you accountable. You really form a strong bond with your team.”
And for Vaughan, now 53, her works clearly shows. When I meet her at her Cole Harbour home, Vaughan is wearing a sleeveless blouse. She has incredibly toned arms, which I noticed right away.
Vaughan had competed in two nationals, including with Woolway. Now she’s already ready for the world championships in Italy next September. That will require discipline, a strict diet with lots of protein, hours in the gym, and, of course, lots of paddling. When she trained for nationals, she and Schaus paddled up to six times a week in a two-person marathon canoe they purchased for training. She also researched what kind of training was best for post-menopausal women; heavier weights with five reps, max to challenge her joints.
“As you get older, your hormones change and your body can get very settled into routine, so you shake it up,” Vaughan said.
I ask Vaughan how paddling has changed her. She tells me physically, she’s in great shape, although she said she’s still working on that V-shape many paddlers have: sculpted, strong, and toned upper bodies with smaller waists. She said she recently had a round of bloodwork done and it all came back great, so her doctor told her to keep doing what she’s doing.
She said she enjoys the social aspect of paddling, too. She said there are a few teammates who are her “go-to girls.” They keep in touch with each other, not just about paddling, but about other issues in their lives. And, Vaughan said, paddling helps her connect with her colleagues at Astral Drive Junior High where she’s the principal.
“It makes me more aware of people’s outside lives and passions. I seek that information more often, and sometimes because I want to talk about dragon boating,” she laughs. “I always ask about family and that, but to really get to know someone and kind of understand what their loves are and passions outside of work really builds a relationship at work. And it also gives you much better insight into the person.”
‘We’re all in this together’
Vaughan does think there’s a personality type who is attracted to and does well in dragon boating. She said it’s not a sport for wallflowers and she calls herself “intrinsically competitive.” And when I think of all of the women I’ve interviewed for this story, wallflower is certainly not a word I’d use to describe any of them.
“I definitely feel like you need to be someone who wants to improve. And you have to be okay with criticism, and it’s always presented in a constructive way,” she said. “You’re going to hear your name. It happens all the time. ‘Lisa, your paddle is not sunk in the water.’ It’s not snarky. It’s the coach, that’s their job.”
When I ask Vaughan what the team means to her, she gets emotional part way through her response.
“It makes you really want to do your best for yourself and for everybody,” Vaughan said. “At nationals, one of the things the coaches told us to do, and I did practice this regularly, was to look at your bench mate and say, ‘I’m doing this for you.’”
“Knowing it’s not just about me. There are 19 other paddlers, a steer person, and a drummer. And we’re all in it together.”
‘All my friends are just like me’
I spoke with Angela Bidinost over the phone after I met with Woolway, Baylis, and Vaughan. Woolway told me Bidinost was an energetic and demanding “crackerjack.”
Bidinost got into dragon boating after a career as a flatwater racer. She said she wears a few hats for the team: a paddler, team captain, coach, and steer person.
“Sometimes I’m in the back of the boat, sometimes I’m in the front of the boat, sometimes I’m holding a paddle,” Bidinost said.
When she’s not dragon boating, she’s a competitive swimming coach and also works as an educational program assistant (EPA) with the Halifax Regional Centre for Education. Dragon boating, she said, was a natural progression from her career as a flatwater racer.
“It doesn’t single any one person out, unlike flatwater where you’re required to paddle all by yourself in individual boats,” Bidinost said. “Our goals are not as extreme as they used to be. A lot of the events we go to are a lot of fun because there are 22 other people with you.”
I asked Bidinost if she thinks there’s a personality type that’s attracted to dragon boating. She tells me there is, and said, “I always say, sadly, all my friends are just like me.”
“Most everybody who races at the level we race at is very intense,” Bidinost said. “Not all. Deb is actually very calm, and Françoise, too. They’re very grounded, but they are competitive, too. But some are just like, put their head down and go. Ridiculously intense.”
I asked Bidinost to describe Woolway, Baylis, and Vaughan in a few words. She told me she was going to describe what they each mean to her.
Woolway, Bidinost said, has come “full circle” from a novice paddler to being a world champion, persevering every day in her training. Woolway doesn’t have to be told what to do, Bidinost said. She can just give her a nod and Woolway will get the job done.
“She’s always working on making herself better. She’s a committed team player and willing to share some of her success… she’s happy to bring that knowledge back,” Bidinost said.
“She now gets into the boat with this quiet confidence that she can’t shake anymore because it really is her now. She can paddle in any spot, she’s happy to go anywhere, and she’ll do a great job regardless of where they put her.”
Bidinost called Baylis the administrator and voice of reason of the team; the crew member who can analyze each team member’s ability and decide who should be where and role to play in the boat.
“She would be that person to sort of make those assessments. She seems to know behind the scenes of what’s going on,” Bidinost said. “If you’re concerned about the 40 pages of technical jargon you have to read before you go to a world-class event, you can go to Françoise, she’s read it all, and she will give you the Coles Notes version of it. Where me, I’m like, ‘Oh god, I fell off at page 20.’”
Vaughan, meanwhile, is the “athlete extraordinaire.”
“She’s a tank. She’ll just get in a boat. She doesn’t say that much, and you know you can always depend on her for heavy, hard strokes,” Bidinost said. “This is a person who is not going to give up when the going gets tough. Not to say the other two would, but Lisa’s going to be like, ‘Get out of my way, I’m coming through.’ She is that girl.”
While Bidinost wears many hats for the team, she said it’s the coaching hat that fits her best now.
“I do feel like I can squeeze more energy out of a crew than almost anybody else. Even though I love paddling, I like to be coaching the crew as well,” she said. “If it didn’t go as well as I thought and I wasn’t in that role, I would feel like, if I were in that role, they would have done better.”
But like Baylis, Woolway, and Vaughan, Bidinost has found friendship among the teams, too. She said when she wants to go out for dinner or to a movie, it’s her team members she calls.
“I do find a lot of the joy that you get out of doing well in dragon boat is also in the times that you’re off the water and the dinners you have when you’re world champions,” Bidinost said. “That brings you a lot of joy and just having those stories that you’re creating and sharing with the group. And it’s your group. It’s like-minded individuals. It’s your people. That’s what I always say, ‘these are my people.’”
‘You genuinely care about them’
Baylis and Woolway have developed a tightknit friendship outside of dragon boating. Woolway said she oftens calls up Baylis to join her in training or exercising. She thinks dragon boating has brought out Baylis’ silly side.
Baylis, meanwhile, said she has enjoyed watching Woolway grow and blossom as a world champion, and they all celebrate the successes together.
“It’s been really wonderful to watch someone who started the same time, with similar goals, objectives and achieve this,” Baylis said. “I tell everyone I am part of this team. I get a lot of joy out of the success of my friends, and I think Deb is right at the top of those successes.”
I ask Baylis about accountability to the team, like I asked Vaughan. She said she recalls their coach once saying, “worry about yourself.’ Don’t worry about anyone else in the boat; that’s not your business.”
But Baylis said she wouldn’t use the word accountability, preferring to say there was a lot of caring within and about the team. She said when one of their teammates was recently in hospital, the rest of the team made sure to connect and help out. When another team member had cancer, other teammates made meals for their family.
“It becomes a group that will be there to support you when something is happening in your life that may have nothing to do with dragon boating,” Baylis said.
“With 20 people in a boat, you’re not all fast, furious friends with 20 people, but you know 20 people. If something happens you genuinely care about them.”
Woolway said dragon boating gives her a chance to make friends of all different ages and life stages.
“Having younger friends is a wonderful boon to your own sense of where you are in the world. It keeps me young, having young friends,” Woolway said.
As for her friendship with Baylis, Woolway said it’s “has been wonderful and one I really treasure.”
Baylis said her mother, Gloria Baylis, a registered nurse and civil rights activist, often had turns of phrases she said to Françoise when she was a young girl.
“’Cast thy bread upon the water. It will return a hundred fold,'” Baylis recalled. “I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard that.”
Now, Baylis said, it’s those life lessons that are playing out on the water and off with dragon boating:
One of them I’ve alluded to: ‘It’s not your business what anyone else is doing in the boat. You look after yourself.’ I think there’s a way in which that’s a really interesting thing to take away from that activity. There has been some true learning in terms of how you interact with other people, how you show respect for other people. I think probably our crew is one of the only ones that does, but we never get out of the boat at the end of the practice without thanking the person who steered the boat. There are a lot of life lessons about how you can be a supportive, caring person in the world.