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2020 Big Blue Dragon Boat fundraiser cancelled as COVID-19 precaution

2020 Big Blue Dragon Boat fundraiser cancelled as COVID-19 precaution

From the The pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest La Crosse area news on COVID-19 series
Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival (copy)

Members of the Burn Boot Camp team compete in the final at the 2019 Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival at Copeland Park. The 2020 event has been canceled.

The Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival would have celebrated its eighth year in June, but due to COVID-19, the annual fundraiser will take the year off.

Mayo Clinic Health System representatives Tuesday announced the event, scheduled for June 22 at Copeland Park, has been canceled as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic. During the past several years, the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival has raised over $400,000 for the Center for Breast Care and healthy living programs at local Boys & Girls Clubs.

“Everyone’s safety is of utmost importance to us,” said Heidi Odegaard, Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival event coordinator at Mayo Clinic Health System. “Mayo Clinic Health System and the Boys & Girls Club express our appreciation to those who planned to paddle, volunteer or donate in support of young people and breast cancer survivors in the community. Your efforts and ongoing support do not go unnoticed.”

The decision to cancel, say Mayo Clinic Health System representatives, was a difficult yet necessary one, made in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for limiting potential transmission of the virus. While the safer-at-home order in Wisconsin is scheduled to end in May, Odegaard says, “We’ve noticed the trends of safer-at-home and (the dates) have continually been pushed back.”

In addition, the event, Odegaard says, takes an immense amount of effort, and the inability to meet in person has made planning difficult.

The loss of 2020 funds — registrants will be issued a refund, and sponsors may either mark their payment as a donation or receive a refund — will be a detriment to both the Center for Breast Care and the Boys & Girls Club. After costs, the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival nets between $20,000 to $40,000 annually.

“It’s disappointing, and we’re going to have to adjust accordingly and hopefully bounce back in 2021,” Odegaard said.

In addition to the financial impact, the absence of a 2020 event will prove disappointing to the up to 50 teams, many comprised of breast cancer survivors, who participate in the 300 meter dragon boat race each year. The festival attracts paddlers and spectators from across country, and includes a service dedicated to survivors. Given that a large number of the event’s attendees have been diagnosed with or are recovered from cancer, they are considered susceptible to have more severe cases of COVID-19, and paddling in close quarters on a dragon boat adds the extra risk factor of close proximity.

“We’re not willing to put our community in any situation that may put them at risk,” says Odegaard.

Usually, the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival names the current year’s breast cancer survivor ambassador in March, but the announcement was delayed due to COVID-19. The honoree had already been informed, and will serve as the 2021 ambassador instead. Her name is being held until next spring.

Individuals, vendors and sponsors who already have paid for the event will be contacted by a planning committee member about a refund, which will likely take five to seven days to process.

“The planning committee appreciates everyone’s participation in the event and looks forward to having our community help us ‘awaken the dragon’ in the future,” Odegaard said.

Emily Pyrek can be reached at

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