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Gillian Hunn

Running (half and full marathon), tennis, dragon boat, walking, hiking, pickleball

Years of paddling: 9

“On the good side, there’s a lot of camaraderie, and then a lot of closeness, because you all share the fact that you had cancer.”

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Gillian Hunn is a passionate paddler, a breast cancer survivor, and a committed athlete who lives in Penticton but has spent a lot of time in Victoria over the years. She is a committed member of Survivorship, a Penticton-based breast cancer survivor team, and an organizer with the Penticton Dragon Boat Festival. In addition to all of that, she occasionally paddles with her daughter Sarah, and was a competitor on a gold-medal crew,  comprised of paddlers from Fairway Gorge and the Okanagan at the 2019 Penticton Dragon Boat Festival.

Q: What do you enjoy most about paddling?

A: I like that it gives me a total body workout. I’m pretty well exhausted at the end of a practice, which is good. I kind of like that feeling. I just feel stronger and healthier because of paddling.

Q: How would you describe how paddling and the paddling community has affected your life.

A: I have met such wonderful people from my team and paddling community and some have become lifelong friends. So on the good side, there’s a lot of camaraderie, and then a lot of closeness, because you all share the fact that you had cancer.

On the bad side of it, and we all discuss this, is people die. There’s a good chance that there’s going to be somebody on our team who has a recurrence, and there’s going to be somebody on the team who Is probably going to pass away from breast cancer. One of my close friends on the team ended up getting cancer again and died. That is very hard to take. 

So there’s this whole dilemma when you’re on this kind of team: Yes, you’ve got this whole support and camaraderie. But then you’ve got this whole downside that will hit you in the face way more often than if you weren’t on the team, right?

Q: The breast cancer ceremonies at dragon boat events are always profound and moving, and they bring me to tears. So besides the camaraderie and support, what other positive impacts has dragon boat had for you?

A: We travel quite a bit and everywhere we go, I find a team to paddle with. In Australia, I’ve paddled in Melbourne, on the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast. I have also paddled in New Zealand. So it’s not just the camaraderie of our team, it’s this whole world-wide organization that accepts paddlers everywhere we go, which I think is amazing. 

Q: How did you initially cope with the crisis and what are you doing now?

A: We were in Penticton for the most part in the beginning, and I’m lucky that I do have other sports. I run and I love hiking and walking, and I played pickleball. So I had a lot of other activities that filled out that void, but it didn’t necessarily fill the social void. That was hard, we are very social people. We’re in Victoria now and we’ve been playing pickleball a little and I have been running, and lots of walking. 

I’m 65 next year, and I just challenged my family to run a half marathon with me. So we’re all starting on training to be able to do that, next spring. Now we’ve got a goal over the winter to get out and do something. That’s their present to me for my 65th.

Q: Have you learned anything positive about yourself as a result of the crisis?

I think I’m the type that will always find something to do. So not doing any exercise at all is just not in my DNA to not do anything. I think it’s taught me that I couldn’t paddle this year, but I will find something else to go do some kind of physical exercise and some groups to join that will fill that void.

Q: When it comes to paddling, is there a person, event or team that has a special memory for you?

A: I have to say that last year’s dragon boat festival in Penticton was pretty special for me for two reasons: One, we won the breast cancer race, which is always amazing. 

And then secondly, to be on the Fairway Gorge team and win the mixed race was like a double whammy.

Being on the same boat as Sarah was really special, and to be able to paddle with her and win something was the highlight.

It was just a fantastic feeling that will stay in my memory for a long time.

Q: Is there a coach or mentor you’d like to recognize, and why?

A: I have to mention Don Mulhall, our coach, who also runs the Penticton festival. He’s coached our team since its inception 20 years ago. So to put up with a bunch of old ladies in a boat for 20 years is admirable, I think. He works us hard and he also makes us laugh, which is, I think, a fantastic combination when you’re training. I’ve trained here in Victoria a couple of winters, and in other boats that I’ve been in all over the world, and nothing compares to Don. He’s just an amazing coach who really makes you want to work harder.

He doesn’t doesn’t treat us gently because we’ve had cancer or other problems, right? He just expects the same out of us. 

Q: When this crisis passes, in terms of paddling, what are you looking forward to the most when normalcy returns?

A: I’m looking forward to just being out there on the water, seeing the views and being with my friends.

All proceeds from the 2021 calendar project will support FGPC’s race restart programs.

Gillian Hunn with daughter Sarah.