The Sydenham Challenge started 18 years ago in Wallaceburg and one of its founding members and organizers of the event Brian Armitage, has a personal history and attachment to the event.
Dragon boating and the benefits for breast cancer patients are well known across the country. The upper body workout a person achieves through the exercise of dragon boating is extremely beneficial for cancer patients, especially those dealing with breast cancer. This is the reason breast cancer teams are so well supported at these events, and currently these teams of brave women can be found across North America.
Brian Armitage a long time employee of the United Way came to Wallaceburg after negotiating with a local industrial leader Waltec. This company questioned why there was no United Way office located in Wallaceburg when they felt there was a definite need for one.
The local United Way office started with Waltec Industries funding the first six month of operation of a local Wallaceburg Branch. At the same time Brian faced personal challenges with his wife being diagnosed with a very rare form of breast cancer. She had two different types of cancer, one in each breast, and was in stage three of this devastating disease.
A wonderful benefit to being an employee with the United Way is if you are needed to be with your family they insist that you be with your family. His employer has always been and continues to be one that insists family comes first.
With Waltec Industries funding the first six months of a local United Way office and Brian’s personal requirements that he be at home it was a perfect scenario arising from a difficult situation.
Brian’s main objective when starting the Wallaceburg United Way office was keeping and establishing the longevity of the office without using donor money to help pay for it. Before long all concerned realized the local office was a definite necessity for the town. The UAW ran a golf tournament to help cover the expenses of the office and a few other programs the United Way ran locally. However Brian wanted to organize another event to help fund the office.
In the year 2000, a member of our community and avid dragon boat racer, introduced one of Canada's fastest growing water sports, Dragon Boat Racing, to the Wallaceburg Breast Cancer Support Group. Interest was immediate. Their first challenge was to find 22+ interested breast cancer survivors. To do this they reached out to other Breast Cancer Support Groups in Chatham and Sarnia. The dream was well received and soon they had the required number of committed women for it to become a reality.
Now, they have women in their group from Sarnia, Chatham, Wallaceburg, Tilbury, Thamesville, Dresden, Sombra, Forest, Petrolia, Oil Springs and London. The women are all breast cancer survivors, who have all taken up the sport of dragon boat racing. Their Mission is to promote awareness of a quality of life after a diagnosis of breast cancer. In doing so, they impart hope and empowerment to all with this disease. On or off the water, they are a visible sign to others that there is life after a breast cancer diagnosis.
With the unfortunate diagnosis of Brian’s wife he became familiar with this local organization as well as the ever increasing popularity of Dragon Boat Races across North America. Dragon Boat Racing had gained popularity over the years, especially with Breast Cancer Survivors, and it seemed like a perfect fit for an annual event that would support his wife and her endeavours as well as showcase the beautiful waterfront of Wallaceburg.
The first year for this event was actually scheduled for the fall of 2001. Unfortunately events surrounding 911 that year the event was postponed for another date. Many of the participants the first year were firefighters and the committee thought out of respect for these individuals due to the tragic events taking place in world the event be postponed. Due to the postponement we soon realized that this event was meant to take place during the summer months and it has taken place the first Saturday in June ever since.
Wallaceburg's Annual Dragon Boat races was quickly embraced by the community when it started 16 years ago, and continues to grow every year.
The Wallaceburg Dragon Boat Festival also known as the Sydenham Challenge provides a fun-filled day of recreation and friendly competition for both established, experienced teams and occasional or first-time paddlers. Funds raised through registrations are directed towards numerous local charities. The Festival provides all equipment, including the dragon boats, paddles, safety equipment, etc. Participating teams come from many diverse areas of the community, including professional teams, employee groups sponsored by their companies (team-building), community groups (churches, families, organizations/clubs, etc.), Breast Cancer Survivor teams, and more. Practices are provided the week prior to Race Day and each team has the opportunity to receive two training/practice sessions. Our Festival recognizes the value of dragon boating as beneficial exercise and fellowship for breast cancer survivors and provides Challenge Races and the traditional Carnation Ceremony.
One of the great attributes to this event is that it covers a wide range of participants the ages vary from 20 to 70 and come from all walks of life. During the carnation ceremony and pink glove ceremony over100 cancer survivors take. The flower ceremony has become a very important and meaningful ritual for the paddlers and audience alike. The strength in spirit surrounding everyone during the ceremony is truly an honour to be a part of.
Last year’s event the Sydenham Challenge committee enjoyed a successful weekend consisting of 504 participants, 20 volunteers, and over 3500 spectators. . There are many groups that benefit from this yearly event. This event raises over $20000.00 yearly that many local groups, and others in our community benefit from.
Brian has met a lot of other people with breast cancer and they are now great friends. It was imperative to him that this event was not just a United Way Event, but that it also support the Breast Buddies Support Team. This event not only benefits the community, and businesses but brings sports, team spirit and community spirit to the town.