Mother, daughter survivors row for breast cancer awareness

Big Blue Dragon Boat Race kicks off

It’s the Big Blue Dragon Boat Race’s fourth year in La Crosse, but for one local pair of women, this year’s race has extra meaning.

The Franciscan Healthcare Center for Breast Care hosts the festival, which kicks off Friday night at 6 p.m. with the opening ceremony.

Organizers were still preparing Friday morning, but Saturday morning will come with a splash, with a dragon boat race full of survivors and supporters alike to raise money and awareness for breast cancer.

“Never ever did I think I’d get into that boat the first time, and I was so hooked,” Donna Koopman said.

Koopman described herself as a charter member of the races, and has been involved since the start.

“People can look and say that boat is full of survivors, and look at that and see it’s not bringing them down, it’s making them stronger,” she said.

Koopman said her breast cancer diagnosis five years ago came as a shock.

“I literally turned around and looked at the wall behind me, because I thought he was talking to someone else,” she said.

She jumped right into treatment.

“From then on in, it was full speed ahead,” Koopman said.

“My mom approached her treatment with a very positive attitude, and basically rallied quickly afterwards and got back on her feet,” her daughter Sarah Nevsimal said. “Life was pretty much back to normal with us.”

It was normal until last year, when Nevsimal got some news as well.

“When she told me she was diagnosed my heart just sunk,” Koopman said.

Nevsimal was also diagnosed with breast cancer, and she’s now in the same boat as her mother, and will be rowing alongside her for the first time in Saturday’s race.

“I did want her to experience it, and she is going to experience it, but not in the way I wanted,” Koopman said.

“There’s something special about having someone who’s been through it themselves. They just understand things others don’t understand,” Nevsimal said. “I was very fortunate in that way for it to be my mom.”

They said they’ve come out of the experience stronger, and are now taking life by the oars.

“I’ve gained this attitude of basically, bring it on,” Koopman said. “I’m not going to just let life slide by.”

“Things that I’ve always said in the past that maybe I would do someday, like maybe joining a dragon boat team, now I just go ahead and do it because life’s short, and we just need to do those things,” Nevsimal said.

Nevsimal said both she and her mother are in good health and are ready for their race Saturday morning.

The youth boat races start Friday at 6:30 p.m, the main race starts 8 a.m. Saturday, and after that the breast cancer survivor ceremony starts at 1 p.m.