Kohala’s swimming team is expected to show up to Friday’s BIIF swimming trials in Kailua-Kona with six members, but in reality the Cowboys are still seven strong.
Coach Jeff Coakley prides himself on running a tight-knit program that is focused on more than just about laps and strokes.
“Really good kids, really healthy and really straight forward,” Coakley said. “Their attitudes are really positive.”
But Kohala has been swimming with heavy hearts for most of the season.
On Dec. 8 during a BIIF meet at Hawaii Prep, a Cowboys swimmer received devastating news via a text: teammate Oscar Kaawa-Culp had committed suicide.
“It’s been tough as we continuously ask ourselves why, how did we not see any signs, etc,” Coakley said in an email. “However, the team continues to move forward dedicating this season in memory of their friend and brother, Oscar. So if you hear us yelling 1-2-3 Oscar (at a meet), you’ll know the reason why.”
Coakley called Kaawa-Culp a natural sprinter and competitor in the pool, and a caring teammate out of it.
Kohala still caries Kaawa-Culp’s swimming bag to every meet, and “he’ll be there with us,” Coakley said, looking ahead to the trials at Kona Community Aquatic Center and Saturday’s championships.
“The pain is still there along with the tears, but I have decided to devote my efforts to address youth suicide in our community,” Coakley said.
Kohala’s roster size also is lower than usual because its county pool was closed for repairs, forcing the Cowboys that wanted to compete to go to Waimea to practice.
The pool closure forced Coakley to postpone his club team for the time being, and he plans to shift his focus to open ocean swimming.
As for this weekend, Kohala’s best title contender is sophomore Sydney Wiernicki, who won two bronzes at the BIIF championships last season, giving the school its first medalist since Kassie Kometani in 2015.
This season, Wiernicki has been focusing on three freestyle events (50, 100 and 200) as well as the 100-yard backstroke.
“The competition has been really tough,” Coakley said, “so it’s going to be tough, but she has a chance.”
With three girls and three boys on its roster, Kohala doesn’t have enough for a relay team, but that didn’t stop Wiernicki from competing in the 200 freestyle relay Jan. 12 at Kamehameha.
Wiernicki swam the first portion then handed off the race off to three swimmers from Honokaa.
“It’s exciting for our team, and we really are enjoying the relays that we’ve been doing,” she said. “We’d like to do it more often.”
But likely not at BIIFs – it’s every team for itself, though Kohala will be seven strong, not six.