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Two Blugold-filled teams honor loved ones at dragon boat festival

| Jen Kieffer

Four years ago, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Police Officer Manda Henry started down a path no one wants to take. Her dad was sick. He would battle for his life against a foe that would eventually win. But during the fight, she and her family weren't alone. Always supportive, compassionate and helpful, Mayo Clinic Health System's hospice group was there with them.

Dragon Boat team In Deep ShipThat's why she chose to support hospice by fielding a dragon boat team at the first-ever Mayo Clinic Health System Dragon Boat Festival, which took place Aug. 8 on Half Moon Lake in Eau Claire. That team, sporting the tongue-in-cheek name of "In Deep Ship," ended up taking first place.

"For me, it was personal. When I heard about it supporting hospice, I decided to do it for my dad," Henry said. Henry first saw dragon boats at the annual Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival two years ago. "I was really intrigued and it looked like a fun event, so I was really happy when I found out Eau Claire would be hosting a similar event," she said.

Her fellow officers rallied around her and decided to participate. Henry needed 20 paddlers, though, so she got creative. In addition to nine current UW-Eau Claire police officers, the team recruited UWEC student patrol members, a former UWEC police intern who is now a Wisconsin State Patrol officer, a city of Eau Claire police officer, a former UWEC officer who is now a police officer in St. Paul, Minn., a couple of police officer significant others and a few UWEC alumni to round out their team.

Winning first place out of 33 teams was a complete surprise, since there were no long training sessions and no regimented paddling practices.

"We didn't train at all," Henry said. "We had one hour-long practice session on Friday night, which was the first time any of us had picked up a paddle and were in the boat. We had a coach to teach us how to paddle and get in sync and everything, and that was it."

Other local law enforcement agencies participated in a few of the other competing dragon boats, so Henry says there was a fun element of rivalry going on as well.

'For Roxie' team paddles in remembrance

Dragon Boat team For RoxieAnother award-winning dragon boat team made up of several Blugold staff and student family members was "For Roxie." They came together to honor Roxie Accola, a 23-year-old UWEC student who took her own life in February 2015.

"I think I can say for the group that we don't exactly know why we were drawn together for that day, but we met and realized we had to come together as a team and paddle," said Gina Accola, Roxie's mom. "There must have been a higher power involved. Everyone had a tremendous time."

"For Roxie" brought a variety of people together for race day — Roxie's family and extended family; her UWEC family; her Huebsch family, where she worked part time; and her Eau Claire community family who care about the causes of suicide prevention, bereavement and hospice. Many on the team also had personal experience working with Mayo Clinic Health System hospice teams.

"For Roxie" received the "Best Decorated Tent" award at the festival.

"The judges were inspired by the photos of Roxie and how the memory of Roxie was honored and remembered," said Anna Sizer, community development director at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. "The judges were equally impressed with the continuation of the dragon theme with the beautifully carved watermelon featuring 'dragon fruit' salad."

Team For Roxie t-shirtRoxie, who had great creative talents, had drawn a picture of a hummingbird, which was used on the team T-shirts and was carried into the team's tent decorations as well.

"We were honored that someone felt our tent exemplified the event and our theme of celebrating life (hummingbirds) and experiencing bereavement at another level to be able to continue healing/grieving," Accola said. "Every member of the team came together for a reason. Maybe it was to support someone experiencing the loss of a loved one or to understand the miracle of hospice services. Maybe it was a way to say our good-byes when there was not an opportunity to do so."

Roxie was a very involved Blugold during her time at UW-Eau Claire. She was majoring in physics with a minor in math, had studied abroad in Sweden for a year and traveled to Guatemala with the Vida Volunteer health program. Roxie also founded the Society for Women in the Physical Sciences on campus, was a student instructor for the Two to Tango social ballroom dance club and was an assistant coach for Eau Claire County's Girls on the Run program.

In addition to showing their heartfelt support for bereavement and hospice services, Roxie's parents want their participation in the dragon boat festival to remind the community that the conversation about mental health issues and suicide needs to remain out in the open.

"What was surprising to me was that I finally felt Roxie ... or her spirit, with me," Accola said. "I have lost both parents and a sister — all of whom thankfully had hospice services for them at end of their lives. I feel their presence daily. I did not fully feel Roxanne's presence until race day. I know my girl would've loved this event. I think it was her way of drawing me to UWEC, her home. I found her here."

Both "In Deep Ship" and "For Roxie" plan to be a part of the dragon boat festival again next year. 

Photo captions:

  • Top photo - The "For Roxie" team giving their all in the dragon boat race August 8th.
  • Photo 1 - Many UWEC Police officers helped "In Deep Ship" take home the first place trophy, sporting an 80s rock star theme.
  • Photo 2 - "For Roxie" gets ready to hit the water.
  • Photo 3 - The "For Roxie" team logo features a hummingbird illustrated by Roxie Accola.