Candado Con Ellas take part in a project organised by the Real Club el Candado. Migue Fernández
Life therapy in a rowing boat

Life therapy in a rowing boat

Twenty women who have been operated on for breast cancer compete in rowing competitions, not only to get fit but to have fun and socialise

Pedro Luis Alonso


Friday, 14 April 2023


Breast cancer brought them together. This disease put them through treatments hopefully to be cured or, in some cases, to remain on tenterhooks, never knowing for certain. Candado con Ellas, as the group is officially called (El Candado being a watersports centre in Malaga), is something more than just women rowing - it is a therapy for living. This sport helps them to make physical progress, but also to make sense of their lives with, and after, cancer, to socialise and even to dream again.

The group was formed in November 2020 by Julia Díez, Ángeles García, Gracia Marchena, Virginia Ligritsen and Mari Luiz García, in the midst of the pandemic, wearing masks, and nothing, not even two unfortunate incidents, could keep them apart. A rowing division was created especially for them at the El Candado Nautical Club. And the need for a rowing boat was answered by a donation from La Caixa Foundation. So they bought a llaut (called an eight in racing terms) - a long, fixed-seat boat for a coxswain and eight crew members. The BSC (Breast Cancer Survivors), which has its own rowing category, is booming in Spain and across the world, with around 225 teams in 24 countries. In Malaga there are already teams in La Cala del Moral and the Real Club Mediterráneo.

So why rowing for breast cancer survivors? It is an ideal discipline to recover from the after-effects of breast cancer treatments (scarring, mastectomy, chemo, breast reconstruction) and to improve or prevent lymphedema (inflammation due to lack of lymph nodes). There is scientific evidence to support the theory that rowing can improve all the muscles affected by breast cancer (pectoral, dorsal and scapular).

"We are proof positive that you have to get moving, get back into the rhythm of life," acknowledged one founding member, Julia Díez. "Anyone can join in, even with cancer," she urged. The current group comprises women aged 45 to 71. The eldest is Ángeles Garcia Viña. "I started moving more five or six years ago. I'd led a very sedentary life and had joined a gym. The truth is that rowing has brought me camaraderie, improved body coordination and happiness. It has given me another life". Mari Ángeles Ruiz, group captain and better known as Kiki, stated, "This has made me a better version of myself".

There is more to Candado con Ellas than the twice-weekly training sessions in which they go out to La Araña, the Jaboneros river or even Baños del Carmen and, if the weather isn't suitable, they use indoor rowing machines or the rowing tank next to the club pool.

Other initiatives outside of rowing included fancy dress parties, walking the Camino de Santiago and helping out on rubbish clean up days.

They also manage to maintain their careers and professions (members include a doctor, two nurses, shopkeepers etc) and they do not stop, not even in some cases when receiving treatment. "Chemotherapy in the Nordic countries is dispensed while the patient rides a bicycle," said Julia Díez.

Proud of life

"The objective is to improve one's physical condition," explained Pablo Iribarne, captain of the El Candado rowing school.

"They are proud of life. They came to row for pleasure, but they themselves asked us for more. They are very methodical and disciplined. Each one has her possibilities and her limitations. They bring a great atmosphere in the mornings to the port, but the social aspect of rowing is also essential for us," he added, recalling that the group also has a project with a group of people with Down's syndrome.

"It is a very beautiful experience, teaching a group from scratch. It is a challenge too. Sometimes it's hard for them to understand my attitude, but competition training is like that, treating them with kindness on some things, but being tough on others," said Jorge Torres, technical director of the rowing school. "We have exceeded the expectations we set ourselves and we are amazed at the success of the rowing division," said the vice president of El Candado, José Manuel Cabrera.

They train on the sea, on machines or in a rowing tank. M. Fernández

The Candado con Ellas group, thanks to grants from the club and two sports associations (ASAMMA and FMAEC), manages to cover the rowing school fees and the federation license to be able to compete all year round. However, they would need further financial support to compete beyond Malaga province. Currently the group is participating in the Andalusian League of Banco Fijo Llaut Mediterráneo (similar to a coxed eight category), but have their sights set on the Spanish BSC Championship, to be held in Malaga.

The category is not yet recognised by the Spanish Rowing Federation, but this is expected to change soon. The boat in which they train weighs about 140kg. The competition involves rowing at speed, in open seas for 700 meters with a tap turn - in short, about four minutes of hard aerobic effort for these unusual athletes. The group depends on the experience of the cox, Rosario Gracia better known as 'Chari', to win.


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