BIIF paddling: Keaau, Pahoa paddlers looking to return to their championship roots

  • Tribune-Herald file photo Keaau’s girls paddling crew won this BIIF race last season at Hilo Bay, but Kealakehe won the one that counted at the championships.

HILO –It’s always a heart-warming thing, sort of a Hallmark movie feeling, when BIIF coaches influence their players.

Amy McBride is a 2015 Keaau graduate, who paddled for the Cougars and was the valedictorian of her class.

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She’s in her final year of nursing school and wants to work in the field like her former coach Anna Golden Kaaua, who’s a nurse and coaches with her husband Grant Kaaua.

McBride is now an assistant coach for the Cougars, who saw their six-year run of winning a BIIF title end last year.

Konawaena had an eight-year streak of dominance that lasted from 2002 to 2009.

The hunt for BIIF championships looks wide open.

Hawaii Prep, which won the boys and mixed titles, lost several key starters. Kealakehe stunned defending champion Keaau to win the girls title, its first title since 2017. The Waveriders graduated two starters from that crew.

Two weeks before the BIIF championships, Keaau clocked a 4:26.71 in the half-mile race to whip Kealakehe’s 4:34.59. It was a vast improvement on the Waveriders’ part to rise to the occasion at BIIFs.

On a recent day, the Cougars were hard at work at Hilo Bayfront, running, stretching and preparing for a BIIF regatta on Saturday.

“We’re looking all right. We’re building. We’ve got a lot of new people this year,” Kaaua said. “We have to find steers people.”

McBride was on the 2014 Keaau crew that won a girls BIIF title. The boys also won a BIIF crown.

It’s more likely than not that the most elusive BIIF sweep will continue to live on. This is the 20th year of BIIF canoe paddling, and no one has swept the boys, girls, and mixed titles.

McBride knows that championships don’t happen overnight.

“It’s a good year to start the basics again,” she said. “It’s a good thing to go back to the roots of paddling. It’s a good reminder for the experienced guys.”

Asked what it takes to be a BIIF champion, McBride couldn’t immediately find an answer.

“Good question,” she said.

Then she drew on her personal experience.

“You have to own that passion and commitment,” she said. “That effort leads to results. Each year, each group of kids, they have to love the sport, love being out here. It’s a huge mental game.”

Well, that’s how one becomes a valedictorian and a BIIF champion.

Kaaua and McBride pointed to senior Liana Prudholm as a team leader.

“She’s got good willpower,” McBride said.

Canoe paddling is really a family sport and connects rivals.

Pahoa coaches Nate and Lani Kaluhiwa are also associated with the Keaukaha canoe club, like Grant and Anna Kaaua.

Last year, the Daggers still felt the effects of the Puna lava flow and had just a girls and mixed crew.

This season, they’ve got a roster of about 26, 16 from Pahoa and 10 paddlers from charter school Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science.

Nate Kaluhiwa welcomes the large turnout because there’s always competition for one of the six spots in a canoe. Don’t come to practice and tumble down the pecking order.

Pahoa’s last BIIF title was with the girls in 2013. The Daggers are the Little Engine that could, turning disadvantages into positives.

Hilo Bayfront’s water isn’t clean like Kailua Pier. The weather is usually windy and overcast, and the water is choppy, not exactly perfect paddling conditions. But Nate Kaluhiwa didn’t mind it at all.

“It’s good training,” he said.

The Daggers and Cougars are in the same canoe.

“We’re rebuilding the program,” said Lani Kaluhiwa, who runs Lani’s Island Snack Shack in the Manono Street Marketplace. “The attitude is good. The kids are coming to practice every day, and it’s a good turnout. I’m proud of them for trying to get better.”

Lani Kaluhiwa pointed to senior Ashley Kahele-Kia as an influential leader.

“She’s a good leader,” she said. “She keeps the group together. She’s very humble. She comes from a big family. She listens and is a good role model.”

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Like any good leader, she has a platform when talking about her team.

“We have a lot of potential,” Kahele-Kia said. “We have to keep practicing hard. Paddling is fun. I love the intensity of it. The races are my favorite part. I love to race.”

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