Half a lifetime ago, Cherisse Agorastos made the adult decision to go against her mother’s instincts and give paddling a try.
She had professed an interest earlier, in high school, but back then, her mother, Blossom, tried to nudge her in the direction of hula, and you can probably guess the concern people may have had a couple decades ago.
They thought paddlers develop shoulders as broad as NFL linebackers, that they build up their arms and legs at the gym and when they got in paddling shape, you could pick their musclebound bodies out of a crowd.
None of that is true, as Blossom later learned, but it was a widely held perception all the same. When you meet Cherisse Agorastos, you see a woman in good shape but, at 5-foot-6, 155, you see nothing like the mother’s concerns when Cherisse was attending Hilo High School.
If anything, you would be surprised at the weight, because she is in such good shape, she could be mistaken for being 20 pounds lighter. The height fits the weight and it all comes together in a package defined by her extraordinary passion to compete and by her drive to lead others.
You put it all together and you have someone who has achieved at the highest level — 40 mile races, for instance, from Molokai to Oahu — and is known to insiders as “the Babe Ruth of paddling.”
All she does is win, whether it’s one-man canoe races or the globally competitive long runs, which she — with her associates on Team Bradley — always seems to win.
You could start a discussion with serious paddlers over which is the best team on the planet, and while people from other places may have a local favorite, it is almost blasphemy to not include Team Bradley — named after legendary Oahu canoe builder Sonny Bradley — among a small handful of the best distance paddle teams in all the oceans of the world.
“If there’s one (team) better,” said veteran Kai Opua Canoe Club paddler Cheryl Villegas, “they need to come over here and beat (Team Bradley), to prove it.”
Team Bradley has set records for the winning these 30- and 40-mile ocean races that pull in the strongest teams from around the world and when they talk about the team, they always start with Agorastos.
“Babe Ruth?” said Villegas, “that’s about right.”
While she admits having heard the flattering comparison, when asked what she thinks about it, Agorastos responds with humility.
“Oh well,” she says, seeming to brush aside the issue, “I don’t know about all that.”
There are differences, obviously, and they go beyond one sport being played in flannel jerseys and spikes back in the day by an oversized guy with an oversized appetite for things both good and bad in life.
Agorastos is nothing like that. In profile, she would look a lot like many other paddlers, but what she brings to the game is something special.
People who have worked at this sport for years will tell you it’s about three things — mind, spirit and body. The best paddlers have a full mental grasp of what they are involved with, they have a body prepared to compete and they have the energy, the drive, to press forward.
Agorastos is the complete package, and then some.
She is often found in the first seat, the stroker position in a 6-person canoe race, the one who sets the pace, “feels’” the canoe properly and knows when to change stroke rates, or to lengthen or shorten strokes. In seat 2, she is an assistant in a sense, but a leader in that this is the seat that calls out changes and can provide an inspirational boost, which it always does when she is there. Seats 3, 4 and 5 are the engine room, where the power strokers work and the sixth seat is the steersman, usually the most experienced crew member, essentially the team captain.
In the big crossing races, such as Molokai-to-Oahu, wherever she is positioned in the canoe makes that position the strongest in the race.
It all started for her about five years after high school when she jumped in her first Novice B canoe and found that it felt like home.
“As soon as I stepped in, I felt the camaraderie, there was definitely something special about it,” she said. “Everything felt just right, the people, the challenge, the desire, it was all there.”
She went to Novice A in 1996, then the next year, the late Beanie (Harrison) Heen from Maui approached her on the beach and said, “I want you to come paddle for me.”
At that moment, she got the idea that she might be good at this.
A few years later she met Nick Agorastos, an avid paddler himself, and a romance began to build.
“We each did our first solo crossing (Molokai to Oahu), in 2002,” she said. “He waited for me at the finish and we both had stars in our eyes.”
They married and continued competing. Nick retired from the sport in 2013 when Cherisse, a leasing coordinator for Kamehameha Schools, had her baby, but by 2015, after a few months of firming up and getting back in competitive shape, she was back at it.
She might be better now than she ever has been, and that should not come as a surprise in the opinion of Villegas.
“It takes a kind of A-type personality to do this to begin with,” Villegas said, “and believe me, she has that. She is very, very talented at this but she also knows how to drive that team, how to say the right thing at the right time, how too keep them inspired.
“But if someone thought she would take a back step after childbirth, I would say they don’t know women and this sisterhood we have, very well.
“I find the ladies who come back from childbirth are often stronger, better than they were before,” Villegas said. “Childbirth — I guess I should say the obvious — is not an easy thing, it’s not a comfortable thing, it puts demands on you like you’ve never experienced.
“After that, you can get the feeling you can do anything, you now know when you need to dig down for more, there’s a lot there waiting for you.”
Villegas mentioned that most women paddlers don’t share Agorastos’ versatility. A lot are smaller, so they often don’t have core power for the engine room seats 3, 4 and 5, others are bigger, like Villegas, at 175, who is used almost exclusively in those power seats. You don’t want that weight up front or all the way back in seat 6.
“She’s a luxury,” Villegas said. “She can drive in those (3, 4 and 5) seats, she can definitely fill any spot and she will have her team motivated like crazy.”
You may not be as good as Cherisse Agorastos, who will compete again in the long distance races at the end of the summer. Don’t worry about being as good as she is, that’s an unrealistic goal. But, she says there’s plenty of room for newbies.
“I tell people any age, weight, whatever, don’t feel intimidated, just go down (to the Bayfront paddle clubs), and let them know you’d like to try,” Agorastos said. “I think of paddling as a door opener, because you may not end up in a canoe, but you will meet people, you will get involved and that will make you feel better.
“The most amazing thing is feeling a part of something beyond yourself. To notice your progress after two-three weeks, to feel your improvement and think about the future?
“That’s the most awesome feeling you can have,” she said.
Take her word for it, she’s The Babe of Hawaii paddlers.
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