Two or three times a week, Julie Williams, a 60-year-old Department of Education employee from Volcano, drives fifty-five miles each way to practice. “You put that little paddle in the water, and you can see your goal far, far away. You go bit by bit and work so hard, and all of a sudden you’re there,” she says. “It’s a life metaphor: Your goals in life seem so far away, but you keep at it and there it is. You did it.” Julie says she was always afraid of deep water, “but I started paddling, and I love it. It’s been a great way for me to get stronger and braver and more confident. I want to be able to do whatever I want to do. I think being healthy is the most important thing I can be.”
When Shannon Cornwell moved from Seattle to the Big Island with her partner six years ago, she became depressed. She didn’t leave her house for a year and a half. When the relationship ended, a friend invited her to paddle, and Shannon found what she calls a meditative and spiritual quality to paddling. “You can’t get any closer to God on the planet,” she says, “than when you’re paddling in the middle of a pod of dolphins and the sun is glistening on the ocean and it looks like diamonds. It was the one constant in my life. I had all this change happening, but I knew that if I could get my ass to the beach, I could paddle and I’d feel better when I was done.”
During her first long-distance season, when practices were three to four hours per day, three or four days a week, with tenmile races on Saturdays, she worked so hard that each time she’d promise herself that if she could just make it back to shore, she’d never do it again. “I would get out of the boat and literally crawl to my car,” she says. “I’d collapse on the grass next to my car and take a nap. But then I’d think, ‘I just love this sport. I just love this.’” From April to September of her first season, she lost sixty pounds.
Three years ago she left that club and joined WOW even though she’s only 42. The team welcomes women of any age; one needs to be 50 or older only to race in competition. “I want to be older!” cries 30-year-old team member Carolina Macias, who sells her own salsa and works at Lucy’s Taqueria in Hilo. The others laugh with understanding: Age is revered among WOW. When a member turns 60, the team celebrates. A big difference between the older and younger women, says Miri, is that the older paddlers take longer to get in shape and are quicker to lose that shape. But she pushes them to cross-train and keep up their strength. “And I repeat myself a lot,” she laughs.