by Katherine Nichols
photo by Jim Shea
Sueyen Ortiz hasn’t always ridden 120 miles a week on her bike. There was a time when she didn’t exercise, smoked cigarettes and was so focused on her job managing Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants that she devoted little time to family and friends. But all that changed as she spent months at the bedside of fellow Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant Isaiah Kalama before he died of AIDS.
"I swore to devote myself to raising awareness and funds for the cure for HIV/AIDS," Sueyen remembers. The Paradise Ride, an all-island bike ride and AIDS fundraiser, seemed like a good place to start. When Sueyen told a very sick Kalama that she planned to ride, he squeezed her hand and smiled—all the approval she needed. She completed the seventy-five-mile Kauai section of the ride last year. Pedaling next to her was Leesha Kawamura, the airline’s strategic sales manager on Kauai. Despite the mountainous terrain and her rudimentary training, Sueyen had no trouble. "I felt someone was pushing me up those hills," she says. "Isaiah basically showed me what was important in life." Sueyen quit smoking, left her management job and returned to her life as a flight attendant. Soon, she and Leesha will complete the 360-mile, multi-island Paradise Ride in honor of Isaiah and others who have died of AIDS.
Sueyen and Leesha tell a story of an exceptional effort for a worthy cause. But they are just two of the many at Hawaiian Airlines whose passion for sport involves a lot more than getting the heart pumping. For these athletes, the pursuit of excellence also involves giving to the community and improving in their professions.
"When you do something like this, it definitely builds character," Leesha says. "The discipline carries on in your work."
Kenny Puaa would agree. Last year he started an outrigger canoe club of fellow ramp agents and noticed the benefits immediately. "If you pull together, the boat moves better," he points out. "Everybody started to click a lot better at work." Other agents soon began asking how they could get involved. Now Puaa is devoting much of his spare time to building affordable six-man training canoes for high schools, work he sees as a way to give back to the sport long after he himself is done participating.
As for the team: After the group completed an eighteen-mile race on the Big Island, "they felt pretty confident," Kenny says. Next up was the Molokai Hoe, a punishing forty-one-mile paddling event. The crew, says Kenny, finished respectably.