by Derek Ferrar
photos by Monte Costa
Soon after the sport of solo outrigger canoeing burst onto Hawaii’s paddling scene in the 1990s, it quickly became apparent that one young man—Karel Tresnak Jr.—was going to be a special standout. And deservedly so: Starting in 1999, when he was eighteen, Karel won the "world-championship" Molokai Challenge race three years running, setting a record for the 32-mile course between islands.
As a team paddler since the age of ten, Karel (pronounced Kah-REL) learned his craft from some of the very best in the sport. "Being so young, he just sucked it in like a sponge," says his father, Karel Sr., a former Olympic whitewater canoeist from Czechoslovakia, who now designs and builds the popular Outrigger Connection line of canoes. "And then he started creating his own style."
The secret to Karel Jr.’s success lies not in brute strength—in fact, his physique is surprisingly slender—but in his ability to read the ocean and "connect the bumps," or surf from swell to swell. Humble and soft-spoken, he is not one to brag about his achievements. "I just try to find the bumps and connect them more than anyone else without screwing up," he says simply.
Now studying business at the University of Colorado, where he’s only able to train on a frigid reservoir, Junior sat out this year’s Molokai Challenge, which was won by frequent teammate Kai Bartlett in new record time. So what’s next for the paddling prodigy? Outrigger racing is hardly the NBA, and Junior acknowledges that there’s not really any chance to go pro. "I’m just trying to help my dad out, racing his boats," he says. "Basically, I do it for fun."