In 2016, Debbi Moon, senior practice manager at Tri Rivers Musculoskeletal Centers, got a phone call. The United States Dragon Boat Federation wanted her to try out for Team USA’s upcoming trip to Russia for the Dragon Boat World Championships.
“My grandfather was born and raised in Russia,” Debbi said. “Why not take this chance to put my feet on the ground where he once stood?”
Debbi flew out to Los Angeles for a four-day tryout session. A few days later, she received an email notifying her she had made the team and was headed to Moscow.
The road to the world championships didn’t happen overnight for Debbi. In fact, the journey began Sept. 11, 2013, long before she ever set foot in a dragon boat.
That was the day Debbi was officially diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I think anyone who hears the word ‘cancer’ is immediately devastated,” Debbi said. “I wasn’t any different. Tears until I ran out, then reality hits. You realize you have to fight the fight in hopes the outcome is positive.”
Debbi started fighting. She fought through four months of chemotherapy, one year of Herceptin infusions, two surgeries and 33 radiation treatments, to be exact. But no matter how difficult the battle became, her family was there every step of the way, making sure she never lost faith. She was also grateful for her friends at Tri Rivers, who supported her throughout the entire process.
(Left: Debbi with Dr. Tom Muzzonigro, a Tri Rivers hip and knee surgeon. Debbi is Dr. Muzzonigro's secretary, and during her treatment, he shaved his head in a display of solidarity.)
“The doctors and staff at Tri Rivers were amazing during my treatment,” she said. “At each chemo visit, Cee Cee Willoughby (another Tri Rivers senior practice manager) organized a treat box for me from the management team and had it delivered to me at the UPMC Passavant chemo suite. From motivational quotes to word search books and lots of candy, it was so much fun to open.”
Debbi completed her radiation treatment in May 2014. Shortly after, her daughter, Stephanie, insisted she attend a meeting with Pink Steel – a Pittsburgh-based dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors.
“From there, it’s history,” Debbi said.
Debbi joined the team right away and hasn’t looked back. In her first season with Pink Steel, Debbi was a member of the “A” team that took second place overall among 101 international teams at the 2014 International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission (IBCPC) Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Sarasota, Fla.
“Pink Steel and my coach, Lynne, mean the world to me,” Debbi said. “We have survivors on the team from ages 28 to 78, and we all paddle together with the same motivation. We are truly sisters. We fight to win our battles and our races.”
Although her survivorship team has always meant the most to her, Debbi’s desire to keep racing has taken her to some truly incredible places, like the world championships in Russia.
“Russia was really the beginning of me thinking, ‘I want to make this team on my own. I want to be on that boat in every race.’”
For the next two years, when she wasn’t at work, Debbi was at the gym trying to accomplish her goal. In 2018, she tried out for the world championships once again – this time on American soil, in Atlanta. Not only did Debbi make the team, but she was a vital contributor to Team USA’s stunning performance: They won the championship over 22 other countries, including Germany, a perennial powerhouse. Debbi was one of 13 members of the Team USA women’s 50+ team and took home three gold medals and four silver medals at the competition.
“That was probably the highlight of my dragon boating career,” she said.
Debbi told herself she’d retire this year from dragon boating, but she can’t seem to stay away. She rostered as an affiliate member of the Bucks County Dragon Boat team that won the National Championships in Colorado at the end of August, and now she’s headed to France in 2020.
For Debbi, dragon boat racing is more than just a hobby: It’s part of her story.
“I remember my very first day on the boat,” she said. “Unlike my personality at Tri Rivers, I was quiet and worried. I wondered, ‘Can I do this? What if I can’t?’ Then our coach called me out and said, ‘New girl, push us hard off the dock, and leave your cancer there.’
“I will never forget those words. They still bring tears to my eyes. And I did just that. Every time we push off the dock, I think the same thing – ‘goodbye, cancer.’”