Dragon boat ambassador Debbie Koenig

“I was not a sporty gal, but dragon boating is energizing,” says Debbie Koenig, who was named Thursday night as Breast Cancer Survivor Ambassador for the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival in La Crosse,

Debbie Koenig never had heard of dragon boating before she first picked up a paddle in 2013, but she took to the sport so well that she’s now a Coulee Region notable who will compete in the international waters of Italy this summer.

“I’ve been bitten by the dragon,” Koenig said before being revealed Thursday as Breast Cancer Survivor Ambassador for the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival in La Crosse.

The Onalaska woman earned the ambassadorship in part by enduring the trauma of a breast cancer diagnosis shortly before Christmas in 1997 and successful treatment in its early stage, as well as her enthusiastic involvement in dragon boating since Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare’s first dragon boat races in 2013.

Having heeded medical advice to begin having mammograms at the age of 40, Koenig was diagnosed after her second mammogram session.

Her reaction Mayo-Franciscan Dr. Kathleen Christian called to report a “suspicious” lump, Koenig recalled, her reaction was “‘What? Are you sure?’ It was just like I was stunned.”

The timing cast a pall over the Christmas season, said Koenig, 61, who herself is a longtime Mayo-Franciscan employee who now is a receptionist at the system’s Holmen clinic.

“My husband (Mark) felt really bad for me, but you do what you do,” she said. “It’s the unknown.”

The tumor was malignant, but it had been caught early enough that she was able to recover after having a lumpectomy and lymph nodes removed on New Year’s Eve. After eight weeks recovering from the surgery, she underwent 16 weeks of radiation and has been cancer-free ever since.

The opportunity to paddle in the Big Blue Dragon Boat Race — not to be confused with the 9-foot, big blue baby, aka the “Hatched Baby,” sculpture recently ensconced outside La Crosse City Hall — occurred before Koenig knew that the sport is credited with helping breast cancer survivors recover.

“I was not a sporty gal, but dragon boating is energizing,” she said. “It was just for wellness. I was looking for exercise and to make lifestyle changes, and I also joined a gym.”

Between dragon boat practices, other exercise and lifestyle changes, Koenig shed 50 pounds — and had fun doing it, she said.

“When you’re on the water, you’re flying, and you’re with other people,” said Koenig, who paddles with a team of breast cancer survivors who paddle under the moniker of Mississippi Sisters.

The mother of two adult children confesses that she has become addicted to the sport — so much so that she and four other team members who plan to travel to Florence, Italy, to paddle in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in June.

However, she is not nearly as rabid about the sport as two other Mayo-Franciscan employees, Lori Freit-Hammes of West Salem, the system’s health promotion director, and Sue Karpinski of Trempealeau, health promotion coordinator. They brought home a boatload of medals from the International Dragon Boat Federation’s World Championships in China last year.

Karpinski has become such a dragon-breather that she has competed in ice dragon boating in Canada the past two winters, and she and her husband, Richard, will compete in the World Club Crew Championships in Szeged, Hungary, in July as members of Dragonheart Vermont teams.

Koenig said she definitely would draw the line at ice dragon boating.

Big Blue Dragonboat Races were part of Riverfest at Riverside Park its first two years, but high, roiling waters on the Mississippi River in 2014 forced them to move to the Black River along Copeland Park. It has remained there ever since and evolved into a full-fledged festival in 2015.

For the first time, this year’s festival has a co-presenter, with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse teaming up with Mayo-Franciscan and splitting the proceeds between the clubs and Mayo-Franciscan’s Center for Breast Care.

Dragon boating’s breast cancer tie came from research Canadian doctor Don McKenzie conducted in 1996; he found that paddling and upper arm movement can prevent or lessen symptoms of lymphedema. The condition causes chronic arm swelling, which can be a side effect of radiation or breast cancer surgery.

Koenig said she welcomes the chance, as ambassador, to share the sisterhood of support.

“It’s important for people to realize that we have this support in our community — both through fellow survivors and especially through the Center for Breast Care,” she said, noting that survivors can find people to talk to, additional resources, answers to questions and help through recovery.

“I also want to give survivors hope,” she said. “There are a lot of people who have made it, and if you need help, we’re here. We are a community of sisters. I want people to know that they’re not alone.”

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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