Tuesday | December 12, 2017
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Wright On: Whale turns into way of life

Maybe this one should begin with a spoiler alert for all the serious paddlers out there, because this is a conversation about being in the canoe, out there in the ocean and how that can change your life.

Recounting some of the footsteps Big Island paddler Kim Kimi traveled to become one of the top over-50 women currently competing might have the undesired effect of prompting some to think Kimi’s story is somehow apart from everyone else’s. In the real world, these stories are familiar, if not common to a lot of dedicated paddlers.

There’s something about the water, the work and the teammates, that, when it all flows together, can be an irresistible lure. Maybe it’s in the blood here, or the water, but canoes and paddling are at the very core of what it has meant to be part of the Hawaiian culture.

You can even see the results of this ages old discipline on the faces of some of its devotees.

Kimi, owner of the Keaukaha General Store, grew up here, graduated from Hawaii Prep, then later attended the University of Portland, Oregon State and UH-Hilo before eventually obtaining a degree in business that she later backed up with a Masters degree in Education.

In high school, she played some soccer and basketball, kept up a little in college, but never saw herself as a dedicated athlete.

She never imagined she would compete, essentially 10 months a year, use the two off months to train and sharpen up physically and then go back after it all over again, just like million-dollar professional athletes.

There is one difference, however, and it’s a big one.

“You don’t get paid to paddle,” Kimi said the other day. “You have to do it for other reasons, you’ll never get rich doing this.”

By that, she meant rich in the standard, financial sense we all understand. Instead, she found something else that has enriched her life in many unimaginable ways.

“I saw something on the face of a girlfriend,” Kimi said of an incident that occurred 15 years ago with her friend Keone Cook that remains vivid. “Right in front of my eyes, she had a look about her that projected how happy she was, and happy might not be the right word.

“She was kind of beaming, I hadn’t seen her for a few months and she absolutely looked completely different.

“I thought she found a man, to be honest with you, but when I saw her I absolutely thought, ‘I want some of what she has, whatever it is.’”

This is a convenient spot for a mention of the famous When Harry Met Sally scene at Katz’ Deli in New York, but this wasn’t Hollywood.

“I asked her what was going on, she looked so good,” Kimi recalled, and the answer was quick and to the point. “She just said, ‘I started paddling,’ and I went ‘Wow,’ to myself.

“I wanted it, I wanted to know more and see if I could be a part of it. I knew nothing about paddling and I certainly didn’t consider myself an athlete, I just wanted some of that feeling I saw reflected in her face.”

She showed up one day and stood around and watched, mostly. The next day they took her out, as is the custom with all beginners, in a double-hulled canoe. They went way out, farther than she had been before and she will admit there was a little uneasiness, out there where the wild things are, just beneath the surface.

“This was something I will never forget,” she said, “I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to, it kind of paralyzed me.

“There were three whales, and I don’t know how big they were (relative to other whales), but one of them came right toward me, went right under the canoe. As it closed in on us, I could see its eye, like it was staring at me or something.

“I don’t think it touched us, it may have slightly, but all I could see or feel was that eye, I will never forget it.”

The next couple days, Kimi took off. She could tell, even from that brief and momentarily frightening moment, this was something she wanted to do. She worked out a new deal with her insurance company, doubling her personal insurance, and in about two or three weeks after the Whale Moment, she was back.

That was 15 years ago and Kimi, 52, has been at it ever since.

A well-known member of the Puna Canoe Club, she’s had a lot of winning since joining up. Her women’s team won the Big Island championship for the third time over the summer and at the state championship it edged out Kailua, which had narrowly defeated Puna the year before.

Winning happens a lot for these Puna Club women, possibly because they are a little out of the ordinary in terms of their cohesion and experience. Six of them have been committed to the team for two years now, working together, building as a team.

They lost that close race in 2016 to Kailua, but of the approximate 20 races in which they’ve competed, there haven’t been many losses.

Since she looked into the eye of that whale that day, collected herself and decided to jump in, her life has been improved. In and out of the canoe, she is a dedicated paddler who found a rhythm to her life happens in concert with her teammates, driving, digging to move ahead.

It isn’t the canoe itself, it isn’t paddles or the conditions, it’s all of those things in an atmosphere of respect and competition that makes the paddling ohana exceptional here.

Mix in some aloha, some effort, the challenges of open water and something almost mystical can happen, reverberating from centuries of tradition.

There is no end, but there are indicators that you’re headed in the right direction when you’re Kim Kimi, an accomplished Masters grad, and — since she became a paddler — a wife to Mike Sohriakoff, mother to Bree, Bronson and Brock, and business owner.

That look she saw in her friend’s eye 15 years ago that drew her in?

These days, she is the one beaming.

[italics] Tips? Questions? Email Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com [end italics]


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