Paddling through a pandemic: COVID-19 canceled championships, but not these ladies’ spirits

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Kamehameha Canoe Club’s Sam Martin, front, and Ellen Okuma are part of a group that meets three times a week for paddling sessions at Hilo Bay. “It doesn’t ever feel like two hours in the water,” Martin said.

After the International Va’a Federation World Sprint Championships and Moku O Hawaii season were canceled during the onset of COVID-19, a group of ladies banned together to keep practicing and motivating each other in the water.

The world sprints, hosted by the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association, were set to take place in Hilo Bay for the first time since 2004.

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Kamehameha Canoe Club was ready to go until the pandemic changed the entirety of the paddling campaign. The Moku O Hawaii regatta season was to have concluded Saturday with its championship, and the world sprints were set for August. Even so, 12 women, ages 60 to 75, have continued to paddle together during the pandemic for two hours a day, three days a week.

“We were bummed to say the least,” member Haroldeen Quintal said. “But doing this together makes up for it.”

At 8 a.m., the women meet by Hilo Bay to get their canoes ready and in the water for their two-hour jaunt. After a full morning, they store their canoes again while discussing each of their paddles.

“It doesn’t ever feel like two hours in the water,” Sam Martin said. “Not only are we having a good workout, we’re having fun and pushing each other the entire time.”

Each woman had different reasons when they decided to try paddling for the first time. Some started the sport after a major life change while others were looking for an exercise or activity outside of work.

“After my husband died, I wanted to find something to do and decided to give paddling a chance,” member Sammie Stanbro-Olson said. “Once I was pulled into the canoe, I never got out.”

Working out together has brought the group of women closer since they are forced to work together physically and mentally.

“This is such a mental sport, I’d say 40% physical and 60% mental,” Martin said. “We challenge each other and use one another as our motivation to keep going.”

In the water, the women will physically compete with each other during practices and try to keep up with whoever is ahead to stay sharp and fast. Out of the water, the group keeps up with one another socially and talk about their changing lives.

“We all actively support each other physically, socially and emotionally,” member Ellen Okuma said. “I think paddling is the only thing keeping us sane.”

The women have built camaraderie with clubs across the islands as well. The group has been able to meet hundreds of people at competitions around the world and within the Big Island canoe community.

“We all speak the same language,” Stanbro-Olson said. “It’s a love of paddling, the ocean and how it makes us feel.”

There is no experience needed to start paddling. Anyone can join novice crews and eventually move on to more experienced divisions.

“We have all come from different lives. We’ve been farmers, nurses, educators and parents,” member Hanu Weller said. “Paddling is what keeps us together.”

Weller has been paddling canoe for 25 years and has been labelled as the “glue” of the group when she leads chants with positive energy.

“We’re trained to leave all negativity on the shore,” Weller said. “Sometimes you can work things out in the ocean, but you have to stay positive or you’ll lose your energy.”

“Experienced paddlers want to teach Hawaiians the sport that’s deeply embedded in the culture,” member Gwen Kekua said. “It’s fun to bring in the ohana and experience paddling together.”

Kekua has been paddling canoe for decades and has met hundreds of people that are part of the community in some way.

“When I had kids, it gave us something fun to do on the weekends together,” Kekua said. “It’s crazy, because I can point out other kids that I used to paddle with and now they have kids of their own that are starting to learn.”

There has not been an announcement about the venue for the 2024 world sprints – the 2022 championships are set to be held in London – but the women are hoping the competition will return to their home turf in Hilo.

In any case, the group plans to continue their practices and hopes to reunite with the rest of their club and coaches after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Once you start paddling and it speaks to you, you can’t stop no matter what,” Stanbro-Olson said.

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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