Save Our Sisters (SOS) of Miami is South Florida’s first breast cancer survivor dragon boat team. Kim Bonomo is President and Captain of SOS – Miami, leading their effort to promote a healthy, active lifestyle and provide organized opportunities for physical fitness, wellness education, and psychology-social empowerment among Breast Cancer Survivors and their supporters through the sport of dragon boating.
To learn more about Kim and the important work she is doing, we asked her a few questions.
Q: Kim, you were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. What made you decide to become involved with dragon boats?
A: I was approached by a neighbor that also had breast cancer. I knew from the start that dragon boating would be something for me. I was always athletic in high school and college, with swimming and tennis. As an adult, I would continue to try and stay fit at the gym but with varying levels of commitment. When I first got in the boat, I knew I was home. I was born to do this sport. Those big shoulders and wide back that I hated all my life, wishing I was a petite woman, now came in real handy. I was a natural and at home from the start.
Q: When did you establish SOS?
A: My neighbor and I were approached late in 2006 to put a team together for an event they were having in Miami in May 2007. It took a while to pull a few breast cancer survivors together, but by March/April we had about 16 women willing to try it. After just three practices, I found myself at a dragon boat race and realized that if we didn’t pull water, this boat was not going to move. I was blown away by our first competition. It was one of the best days of my life. I was suddenly grateful for having had breast cancer. Imagine that. Then my neighbor said okay we’re done, we did it. I said oh no, I want to do this big time. I held a meeting of the 14 women that had shown up for the Miami event, and Save Our Sisters [SOS] was born. I have also helped develop teams in Jacksonville, Sarasota and Melborne. We now have an affiliate team in Jupiter, Save Our Sisters Palm Beach County. Their captain, Debbie Brooks, reminds me of Angela Long.
Q. Please tell us about some of the breast cancer survivor committees you have been involved with.
A: I am most proud of the work Save Our Sisters does with the community. I like to say, we first are helping ourselves to stay mentally and physically fit and then we go out into the community to help others. We focus on women that are newly diagnosed, by mentoring them through the journey. Then we go to various festivals, fairs and parades to set up information booths, making sure women everywhere are getting mammograms and taking actions to prevent breast cancer. My favorite outreach is when we go to high schools and speak to the next generation. We try not to scare them about breast cancer and instead talk about health, nutrition and exercise, as well as how to deal with adversity. We all have pain and adversity in life. It is how we deal with it that makes us who we are.
After attending Peterborough in 2010, I knew I wanted to do this thing internationally. I also saw the need the IBCPC’s need for formal organization, so when the request for bids for the 2014 festival came out, I joined with the team from Tampa and put a bid in. The rest is history.
Since the success of Sarasota the IBCPC has appointed me to their steering committee, specifically to supervise the Participatory Festival. I had the honor of being the Chair for the selection committee. After a 3-week, 5-city tour in Europe this past summer, the selection committee accepted my choice of Florence, Italy from the four proposed bids.
Q: The International Dragon Boat Festival (IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival) was never held in the U.S., we have heard you were instrumental in getting Sarasota on the map. What part did you have in this event of 2014 at Nathan Benderson Park?
A: During the bid development and proposal presentation, I was one of 5-6 committee members. I was then elected the President and Co-Chair for the event, but it was really Mike Kerkmann that brought the venue to us. Mike owns Pan Am Dragon Boat company, a premier dragon boat company that organizes and produces dragon boat races, located in Tampa. He also works closely with the International Dragon Boat Federation on country development, so he is always looking for new venues. Nathan Benderson Park was a an easy choice given its proximity to Tampa.
Q: Kim, we also heard you had a vision to create a breast cancer survivor team in Sarasota? What part did you play in the creation of Sarasota’s Survivors in Sync (SIS) team?
A: It was first Liz O’Connell’s idea to get 10 teams in Florida to help celebrate the 10 years of breast cancer survivor paddling becoming established in Florida. It made sense to start with Sarasota, but I will take credit for finding Angela Long. After meeting with several local breast cancer survivors, talking about the festival coming in 2014 and starting a local team, it was apparent that Angela had the passion and resources and most importantly, the experience, intelligence and personality to lead this team.
Q: Kim, many of us have heard you say, "We are survivors on land but athletes in the water." Are you and your teammates competitive? How do you prepare for races?
A: I actually say that we are sisters [survivors] on land and fierce competitors in the water. I wish we could teach the rest of the world to be like that.
My team is both. I try to set a race schedule for the year
with both competitive and recreational events in it. Our mission does not emphasize competition, but reminds us that being together and celebrating life is our focus. My objective is to motivate my team members to improve themselves and go to races and compete in a friendly
I have lost teammates because we were not competitive enough, and I have lost teammates because we seem too competitive. This is a difficult fence to sit on for a captain.
I like to tell new captains that your team is only as strong as the weakest member as she is usually the person that needs us the most. It shouldn’t matter how strong, weak, tall, short, fat or thin you are, you are welcome on the team. It is the team’s job to motivate them to become stronger, for themselves first and then for the TEAM.
I think it was in my second year that I had the “Ah Ha Moment” about this. It was 2009 when we competed at a Tampa race. I was disappointed in the performance of the team, and my teammates felt it. I was more disappointed in myself for reacting in such a way. When I got back to the tent, one of the husbands grabbed me, hugged and thanked me. With tears in his eyes, he thanked me for giving him a happy wife back. This teammate had been suffering from depression after her diagnosis and treatment for the disease, but being a member of our team was helping to lift her out of that depression. This disease impacts the whole family, therefore this sport helps the whole family. That is when I realized that the doctors may have saved our lives, but it is dragon boating that saves our spirits. It was that moment when I truly embraced my calling as a dragon boat leader.
Q: Please share something about yourself that are readers may not know.
A: I was born to serve. That is why I ended up in the restaurant business too. I am lucky to have found my calling. I love to serve. I often put others wants and needs in before my own, and I feel I have been blessed because of it. I come off like a hard-ass, a street girl from New Jersey, and to some extent I am, but I am just a server at heart.
Q: What is your vision for breast cancer dragon boat racing in the future?
A: As I get more and more involved with the IBCPC, I see how teams around the world are hungry to be part of a unified organization. The IBCPC is struggling with this. The bigger we get the harder it is. In the past they operated on a shoestring budget. Most expenses were paid for out-of-pocket. I want to help take them to the next level and yet preserve the mission of inclusiveness.
Q: I understand the next international dragon boat festival will be held in Florence, Italy. Will your team be there in 2018?
A: ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? Try and stop us. We are already fundraising and studying our Italian. Ciao Bella.
Thank you Kim for all you efforts to help breast cancer survivors find hope, healing and community.
Photo courtesy of Elena Jimenez.