by Julia Steele
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
You may think you know all about Hawaii’s aquatic adventurers—the surfers, the windsurfers, the boogie boarders, the paddlers—but chances are you’ve never heard of Diane Stowell or Rick Heltzel. Why? Because they come from the little-known, little-covered world of long-distance ocean swimming. But don’t let their anonymity fool you: They, along with a few other swimmers in the Islands, are some of Hawaii’s greatest sports people.
Joe Lileikis in his element.
Take Heltzel, for instance. By his own estimation, this compact, wiry engineer has swum over 100 "double Roughwaters," a seven-kilometer course from one end of Waikiki to the other and back; this is the aquatic equivalent of running a double marathon, for the four-kilometer Waikiki Roughwater is itself considered a daunting swim. Heltzel has swum two eighteen-mile races from Capri to Naples, a ten-mile race in Fort Lauderdale and raced along the coast of the Italian Riviera. When he started swimming as a teenager, he had a training regimen to daunt fish: 100 kilometers a week.
Stowell will turn seventy this year, has the body of a woman in her thirties, and holds numerous national and international swim records. Her house is filled with so many metal discs it seems a sort of mini U.S. Mint. But no: The discs are medals, all won by Stowell, and there are easily over 1,000 scattered around, hanging from walls, draped over furniture, crammed into boxes. Stowell is blasé when asked about her wins; what this psychologist really wants to talk about is her love for the ocean, a love Heltzel shares. "Hawaii," he says, "is an ocean swimming Mecca."
But what about those days when you need to train and the surf is too rough, the current too strong, the sky too stormy? What about those days when you don’t get out of work ’til the last light of sunset is waning? For those days, and for all swimmers who love the exactness and calm of crisscrossing a pool, there are the daily workouts of the Hawaii Masters Swimming Association, where swimmers come together to rack up yardage, synchronize their strokes and strengthen their bodies for the hours in the ocean. A chapter of the national Masters organization, Hawaii Masters is a sort of Hash House Harriers for the wet set. It was founded in the Islands in 1974, the same year that the national organization got going, and today there are eleven clubs across the Islands: five on Oahu, three on the Big Island, two on Maui and one on Kauai. Together, the Hawaii clubs have some 500 members, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty.
Masters is open to all who want to improve their swimming—while you should at least know how to swim, there is no requirement that you be able to swim long distances; that, the coaches know, will come if you stick with it. Sui-Lan Ellsworth, who today swims 4,000 to 4,500 meters in each workout (four nights a week) and does a long ocean swim each Sunday morning, didn’t start swimming until she was thirty-six; that was twenty years ago. "I started swimming in the ocean," she says. "I did it because I was afraid, and I wanted to conquer that fear. For me, Masters goes hand-in-hand with ocean swimming. You can’t swim in the ocean at night—the sun goes down, the water turns black and you know you don’t belong there. You have to train in the pool so you can swim on weekends in the ocean." Sui-Lan took to the sport immediately; laughingly, she tells the story of her son’s birth. "I swam the 6:30 p.m. workout, my water broke at 10 p.m., and I gave birth at 8 a.m.," she says. "I think swimming gives you the confidence to try things you’ve never tried before. I thought doing the Roughwater was a big deal—it’s not. I thought doing the double Roughwater was a big deal—it’s not. That translates into other areas of your life.
"For me, a lot of it is therapy. Masters washes away all the frustrations. When you’re in the water, problems just pass. Joe used to say, Visualize, lose yourself in the aura of the bubbles, the sloshing noise, your breath.’ He was very instrumental in coaching me. He cares about everybody so much."