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Crew 309: Fighting cancer, empowering women and showcasing the Illinois River through rowing

The women of Crew 309 from left to right: Stefanie McAllister, Diane Durr, Karoline Seitz-Goddard and Lindsay Vlaminck
Jody Holtz
The women of Crew 309, from left to right, Stefanie McAllister, Diane Durr, Karoline Seitz-Goddard and Lindsay Vlaminck.

While people who have received a cancer diagnosis are likely familiar with traditional support groups, there’s a unique organization in Greater Peoria for breast cancer survivors that offers both support and the ability to reduce their risk for cancer recurrence.

Crew 309 is a non-profit dedicated to empowering women to lower their breast cancer risk through the sport of rowing.

Founded in 2017, Crew 309 is currently comprised of about 60 women who are all either breast cancer survivors or “previvors,” a term used to describe someone who has a high-risk genetic mutation that has caused them to take measures to prevent cancer.

Executive board president Lindsay Vlaminck said it's important for Crew 309 to include previvors in their membership.

“Previvors often feel kind of isolated in the group of cancer because they've done a lot of the same treatments that a cancer survivor has, but they've never carried that diagnosis. And so, it's hard to find a place to fit,” explained Vlaminck.

Other than being a breast cancer survivor or previvor and attending one of the group’s open houses throughout the year, Vlaminck said there are no other requirements to participate on the team.

“We don't require a certain number of practices to join or anything like that. So, we have members that come multiple times a week, and then we may have members that don't come for a couple months and then come back when the time is right in their life,” she said.

While Vlaminck has a background in rowing, many team members have never participated in the sport before, let alone considered themselves to be athletes prior to joining. Karoline Seitz-Goddard, Crew 309’s executive board treasurer, said her physician told her about Crew 309 when she was recovering from surgery, and while she had no prior experience with rowing, she decided to give it a shot.

“It was intimidating, and it wasn't because we were all in the same space, and we had Lindsay there, we had our coach Nicole Delinski,” said Seitz-Goddard. “And they threw us on the ergs and said, ‘Let's do this’, and we did, and everybody was in the same place. No one else knew how to row. So, we learned together.”

A mural created by team members Susan Czechowski and Sherri Burritt that depicts rowing on the Illinois River. The artwork hangs inside Crew 309's training space.
Jody Holtz
A mural created by team members Susan Czechowski and Sherri Burritt that depicts rowing on the Illinois River. The artwork hangs inside Crew 309's training space.

From Crossfit to Contemporary Art Center

While the group's first practices back in 2017 took place at CrossFit Chillicothe, Crew 309 now has its own location inside the Contemporary Art Center at 305 SW Water St. in Peoria. This location is equipped with several indoor rowing machines that allow members to row together during the winter months. However, it isn't long before the team heads out to the Illinois River come June.

“Our first season on the water was 2021,” said Vlaminck. “We launch from EastPort Marina in East Peoria. We have our boat stored there as well as we have a coach's launch, which is a pontoon that goes out anytime we have a rowing shell in the water.”

Crew 309’s water season typically lasts through late September. While the team doesn’t currently compete on the water against other rowers, that's a possibility in the future if more interest is shown. One challenge with garnering interest is the bad rap the Illinois River gets, according to Vlaminck.

A photo taken out on the water from last June.
Cancer Recovery by Empowering Women Facebook page
A photo taken out on the water from last June.

“As soon as you tell somebody in town that you were on the river, they're like, oh, it's so dirty, and you get hit by fish and all that which we do get hit by fish. We take a sense of pride in that because it is such a beautiful, natural resource. And I think that it gets a really bad reputation, and so that's one thing that we're here to try to change,” she said.

The team does this by documenting their time spent on the river through social media in an effort to show others how beautiful the river can be, like during sunrises and sunsets. They also partner with other local organizations with a similar mission such as Peoria Outdoor Adventure.

The power of partnership

In fact, partnering with local organizations is a vital part of Crew 309’s success. As a non-profit, fundraising is their only source of income, said Karoline Seitz-Goddard. That means the group holds multiple fundraising events throughout the year. Past examples include a grand opening event with Sweetwater Kitchen and Cocktails in Rome, fundraising during Pour Bros. Craft Taproom’s summer concert series in Peoria Heights, and Crew 309’s own scone sale at the end of the year.

While Seitz-Goddard said the Greater Peoria community is very supportive, having enough funds, like many nonprofits know, can be tough.

“Strategic planning-wise, we're at that point now where we need to start thinking of some serious, you know, do we need to hire staff to be able to manage us? Do we need to have a full-time executive director and maybe a coach? So those are just things in the future, near and far, that we're trying to work through, and how do we get there with some more stable fundraising,” Seitz-Goddard said.

Currently, everyone at Crew 309 is there on a volunteer basis. That includes the coaches like Diane Durr, who initially joined the team in 2021. She said while every coach approaches a workout differently, she tries to meet people exactly where they’re at.

“We're a very diverse group of women and different ages, different athletic types,” explained Durr. “And just giving the women the freedom to be able to challenge themselves, but not feel like it's a competition with everybody else in the room. It's like, this is your time, you're here and you're exercising, and that's the first thing that's the most important.”

Team member Stefanie McAllister said working out in a group helps increase the intensity and duration of a workout.

“We actually come here, and we work, and what Diane has done and the others have done through coaching, they help give us an opportunity to be able to do that and to make use of our time. And if she could do it, I could do it too, you know, and support us towards that goal of again, staying physical, keep moving, but ultimately, in staying alive longer,” said McAlister.

Cancer binds us, but it does not define us

When you visit Crew 309’s website, it’s noted that cancer is not the focus of this group. Vlaminck said the team is proud that they can function as a support group without actually having to be a support group.

McAllister, Durr, Vlaminck and Seitz-Goddard in front of a mural of their team on the river that hands inside their location within the Contemporary Art Center
Jody Holtz
McAllister, Durr, Vlaminck and Seitz-Goddard in front of a mural of their team on the river that hands inside their location within the Contemporary Art Center

“So, rarely do the members on the team talk about cancer,” said Vlaminck. “It's always a safe space if somebody's having a hard day, maybe they have a scan coming up, a surgery or recurrence, anything like that. It's always going to be a safe space to share those thoughts. But that's not something that we focus on as a team because the main reason we're here is to exercise, to make those relationships and to be together and to have that layer of support without having to always put cancer in the forefront,” she explained.

And this approach has seemed to pay off amongst Crew 309’s team members. Stefanie McAllister said when she walks through the doors of Crew 309, it’s almost as if she forgets about everything else.

“You don't focus on that other stuff…you think about the group together, and alright what are we working on today and oh my gosh, can I do this? And, you know, that’s where the focus is at,” she said.

However, when other things do come up, Diane Durr said it’s awesome to have the built in support.

“Cause there’s never just another checkup, right, and so whenever you have an appointment, just being able to share support with each other that way too. ‘Hey, let us know how it goes. Hey, thinking about you today’...it's just rewarding in its own way, knowing that you're helping women not just in their exercise journey, but just being a support in their life. It really gives back in a lot of different ways,” Durr said.

The row ahead

While the impact Crew 309 has made on its members and in the community is undeniable, some questions remain about the team's next steps. While the group is currently at its capacity, Lindsay Vlaminck said they often receive inquiries from those with other types of cancer in the community.

A sunset view from a night on the water last September
Cancer Recovery by Empowering Women Facebook
A sunset view of the Illinois River from a night on the water last September

“How amazing would it be if we could take what we do and expand that to include anybody that's had a cancer diagnosis,” she said. “Up until now, we've kept the ticket to entry pretty tight because that is part of what creates that support element within our team. But it would be a dream of ours to eventually blow it up to where we could have cancer patients of all different types be able to take advantage of something like this.”

According to Karoline Seitz-Goddard, Peoria used to be quite the rowing mecca back in the day.

“And I've got this wild and crazy dream of, boy, what if we were the springboard that started to bring that back?” she asked. “You know, why can't we have more rowing teams in Peoria? It's beautiful here. It really is, you know, the six o'clock in the morning sunrises ... you can't even put it in words how beautiful it is. So, it’s just the what if? Could we be a part of that?”

For those interested in learning more about Crew 309 or making a donation, visit their website. You can also find Crew 309 on Facebook.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.