Serious competition meeting family fun, solid individuals forming cohesive teams, big challenges matched by even greater commitment—all coming together to build harmony in the community. 

Since 2013 when the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival debuted in La Crosse, yin yang has been the elemental ribbon threading through each message, each participant and each event. The festival has always been about different parts coming together to make a whole, and it’s the balance between the parts that have made it spectacular from day one.

Sponsored by Mayo Clinic Health System and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse, this year’s Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival is set for Saturday, July 21, at Copeland Park. Some 50 youth and adult teams will come together to paddle for two good causes, with all proceeds going to Mayo Clinic Health System’s local Center for Breast Care and to healthy lifestyles programs at area Boys & Girls Clubs.

In Chinese philosophy, yin yang symbolizes how seemingly opposite forces can be complementary and interlaced, giving rise to each other through their connectedness. And in the Tao tradition, yin yang is linked to building harmony between humankind and nature, between people, and between individuals and their inner selves.

In both cases, yin yang is something this year’s Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival ambassadors know something about.

For breast cancer survivor ambassador Debbie Koenig, it was her 1996 diagnosis that sparked her inner strength. At no point in her cancer journey did she break down. “I wanted to take care of it immediately. I just thought ‘OK, this is what we have to do.’” 

Koenig has paddled in the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival since its inception. “Meeting everyone has been empowering. We all understand what each of us has gone through or is now going through.”

Facing a diagnosis on your own is daunting, she adds. “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.”

Youth Ambassador Vanessa Smith has a similar story of life’s difficulties awakening resilience and courage within her and growing even greater strength as she became part of a community.

Smith came to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse in 2014 after a move to the area. Like many youth, she faced a number of obstacles and didn’t know how to overcome them alone. With help from the West Salem Boys & Girls Club, she was able to overcome those hurdles. 

A paddler since the 2015 festival, Smith too personifies the yin yang of the event. “I wanted to prove to myself that I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it and work hard, but at the same time, the races are a reminder that I am not alone, and with the right support system, anything is possible.”

Both ambassadors grandly represent the spirit of the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival. As it enters its sixth year, the festival celebrates people like Koenig and Smith and all that is good in the yin yang of life: the parts of humanity that answer challenges with determination, resilience and the strength of community.