Cancer survivor still paddling and making waves at 73

Local Life February 9, 2011 0 Comments

Cancer survivor still paddling and making waves at 73

By Jane Lenel

Sarah, a trail ambassador for Friends of the Wissahickon, is seen here on a field trip educating users of the park about its wonders. (Photo by Denise Larabee)

Sarah West sees the opportunities in retirement like a kid in a candy store free to choose what she thinks most “delicious.” “It’s a chance to do with my life what I didn’t do as a child,” she says.

Now, at 73, she’s savoring her chosen “goodies”: paddling on a women’s dragon boat team with cohorts whose ages range from their late 20s to mid-70s; volunteering for Friends of the Wissahickon; and tutoring children with dyslexia. One of her tenets for these choices has been: “If you want to be a teacher, you should also be a student.”

About her “sea” life on the Schuylkill, she says, “Put me in a boat, and I’m happy. Dragon boating is pure self-indulgence.” In preparation for the April-to-October dragon boat races — for which her drawer full of medals testifies to her team’s numerous “wins” — she undergoes not only a training program every year but a self-imposed rigorous daily exercise routine.

She also participates in indoor winter paddling practice: “hard” and “soft” strokes, form and interval timing (about 60-70 strokes a minute). “It keeps you strong,” she says. “My teammates don’t worry much about growing old.”

The dragon boating Philadelphia Flying Phoenix Club has about 100 members, with four teams made up of different levels of paddling: the strongest being the most competitive Red Team; the Orange Team, in which Sarah paddles, composed of competitive paddlers, but not as powerful as the Red; the non-competitive Blue Team; and the ATW (Against the Wind) Special Breast Cancer Survivors (BCS) League, of which Sarah is also a member.

There are 20 paddlers in a boat, with a steerer in the back and a drummer in the front beating the paddle-stroke timing set by the two front paddlers — and sometimes a coach. “It’s a kind of Zen activity with its rhythm and repetition, and it makes you put problems aside.”
The teams are by no means stay-at-homes — another plus for Sarah’s retirement-life choices. They have competed in festivals in Hartford, CT, Disney World and New Jersey, and farther a-sea in Australia and Canada. This year they may paddle in Montreal, Canada.

Sarah’s Dragon Boat is seen here in a race on the Schuylkill River. The photo was taken from above on the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. Sarah is on the right third from the back of the boat.

On land, as a Trail Ambassador leading some of Wissahickon Park’s guided walks, she says she not only enjoys answering hikers’ questions, but learning herself. “Every time we go out, I learn something new.” She loves learning about the park’s rocks and earth formations and its 85-year history — all of which provoked her book, “Rediscovering the Wissahickon, a Guide to its Science and History.” Added to these pleasures is the camaraderie with people who come not only from Pennsylvania but from New Jersey and Delaware to hike and hear about the park.

Balancing the outdoor physical pleasure Sarah gets from hiking and paddling is the satisfaction she derives from helping third and fourth-grade dyslexic children learn to read. This required a one-year course and certification by the Wilson Reading System and involves a highly repetitive, phonic process of reading and spelling words syllable by syllable, and learning their sounds and corresponding symbols. Dyslexia, she explains, is a neurological difference unrelated to intelligence or willingness to work hard.

Sarah grew up in a town outside Boston, and graduated in 1959 from Mt. Holyoke. After moving to West Mt. Airy in 1963, she taught math and varied sciences for 40 years before moving to Cathedral Village Retirement Community in Upper Roxborough with her late husband Robert, who taught sociology at Temple University, in 2004. When “resting” in her retirement from her major outside community activities, Sarah participates in numerous projects at Cathedral Village and has officiated as treasurer and secretary of the Residents Association, chairperson of the Computer, Trip and Holiday Fund committees.

Her own teaching positions included Springside School, 10 years at Temple University in Ambler, and 25 years at Germantown Friends School, where she was department head and debate team coach.

Married for 47 years, she has three children: Jim, a software engineer living in Massachusetts; Dan, who lives in King of Prussia and works in sales of photo-copying equipment; and Carolyn, an office manager in Center City, Philadelphia. Her seven grandchildren also bring much pleasure to her life.

You can contact Sarah at sarah.west@comcast.net.

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