Issue 15.3: June/July 2012

Nothing But a Number

Story by Leslie Lang

Photos by Jack Wolford  


I’m no athlete, so it’s surreal, to say the least, to find myself paddling a canoe out in Hilo Bay with a group of women far older—and fitter—than I am. I blame it on Momi.


In her other life, Pearl “Momi” Lyman works at Hospice of Hilo, but here on Hilo Bay she’s a paddler with Wahine on Water (WOW), a women’s outrigger canoe paddling team that’s part of the Keaukaha Canoe Club. It was Momi who thrust a paddle into my hand and encouraged me to step far outside my comfort zone on terra firma. Now I’m in the fifth seat of a blue and white outrigger canoe called Ha‘aheo (Pride), wearing the same red “Fearless Hawaiian” rash guard as everybody else.


I’m a tender 49, but I’m in a canoe with the paddlers called Honua (Earth)—all 60 and older. The other divisions are Makani (Wind), who are 55-59, and Ahi (Fire), who are 50-54. I look at these Honua women’s athletic figures, watch their easy, powerful strokes and wonder whether they’re telling the truth about their ages. These women—teachers, sheriffs, park rangers, lawyers—are not your stereotypical grandmothers. The first year they competed, the novice Honua wahine qualified for the state regatta on O‘ahu.


I try to match the strokes of the 60-plusyear- old woman two seats in front of me and realize it’s harder than it looks. “You’re going to be great, Leslie!” encourages Miri Sumida, the team’s founder, coach and matriarch, who’s sitting behind me. Out here on the glistening sea, outside of mist-shrouded Hilo, feeling the steady, strong rhythm of women working together to pull that canoe, I understand why people love to paddle.


Looking back, I see the white mantle of Mauna Kea from the water, and for a moment things take on their proper proportions. “Everything just falls into perspective,” Miri says. “Whatever crisis you think you have, it’s just not as important as it was when you were on shore.”


Most of the WOW paddlers are 50 or older, and many were new to paddling when they started with the team. There seem to be two main reasons they are so enthusiastic about it: The first is the magic of paddling itself—the experience of being on the ocean, of using your body to pull a canoe through the water, of feeling your strength and capability. It’s not a little thing. But there’s also the team’s camaraderie. Momi calls WOW a “sisterhood.”


Momi had never participated in any sort of sport before. “It never occurred to me,” she says. “I don’t want to get hurt, lose teeth, break any bones. I’m basically lazy. With paddling I get to sit.” She first paddled when her employer formed a team for a race. She liked it, and after the race she joined a canoe club. But she wasn’t a good paddler, she says, and the coach told her she was the reason for his high blood pressure. “At the end of the second season,” Momi says, “I wasn’t getting any better, and he wasn’t liking me any better, so I stayed away. Then a woman I’d met said, ‘There’s this woman coach, and she’s close to us in age. Come back.’”


That coach was Miri. When she’s not teaching PE, computer and graphic design, advising the yearbook staff and working as librarian at St. Joseph School, or teaching a 5 a.m. aerobics class at Spencer Health & Fitness Center, the soft-spoken, tattooed, motorcycle-riding wonder woman coaches the Wahine on Water. She started the team in 2010 and named it after the motorcycle group Wahine on Wheels. Miri took Momi aboard, coached her, encouraged her, even gave her private lessons. “She never gave up on me,” says Momi. “She has such heart and such passion.”


Many canoe clubs don’t accept older women who are new to paddling, but Miri, 55, says she wanted to welcome women who aren’t necessarily athletic and who didn’t start paddling when young, so they could find what she calls “the peace.” The youngest sibling in her family and a selfprofessed tomboy, Miri grew up in Pahala and graduated from Ka‘u High School. Her father was an electrician for the sugar mill, but he was also an athlete. “Dad was the baseball coach at Ka‘u High till he died,” she says. “We rode bikes or walked, swam all day long. That was it. I wanted to please my father.”


When she was 37, Miri started paddling. But it wasn’t easy, she says. “I was intimidated by it. I had to work at paddling to get good. I wanted to impress Chucky Aki, my coach, so he’d put me in a good crew and help me along. I picked up a lot and he saw it. My first year paddling we went to Moloka‘i. The crew I was with took first place every single time.”


After a while she changed clubs and then took six years off. “I was a little tired of the club thing,” she says. “Sometimes it didn’t go the way it should, and that dampened my spirits a little.” But she continued to paddle on her own until Ira Kekaualua of the Keaukaha Canoe Club asked her to start an older women’s team. That became WOW.


Paddling has gotten Miri through some tough times and changed her life, she says, and that’s what she hopes other women will experience. “If you can make one person feel better about herself,” she says, “then you’ve accomplished something.


“I think because of our age and our experiences, we are all at the point in our lives where we can finally make fun of the things that were once breaking our hearts,” she says. The sisterhood supports each other in rough times: “We’ve had jobs lost, babies dying. One of our paddlers went to her ex-husband’s house and found him after he’d been dead for three days. … ‘Get in the boat!’”


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.


“Hut! Ho! Hut! Ho!” calls Miri from the stern. I follow the calls and start matching strokes with the woman two seats ahead and switching sides without hitting the canoe. We head toward a sailboat, circle it and head back toward shore; Hilo looks gorgeous. But I’m also feeling the workout in my shoulders and wonder whether I’ll be able to use my arms tomorrow. “You guys don’t ever have trouble lifting your carry-on into the overhead compartment, do you?” I ask. They laugh and say almost in unison, “No.” Every WOW member says she’ll continue paddling until she drops dead or until “they pry the paddle out of my hand,” as one member put it.


These oldest members of the Keaukaha Canoe Club try to set an example for the other members, some as young as 8. “We are their aunties, their kupuna,” says Momi. “We need to play nicely and show respect so they will, too. They are the ones who are going to be like us one day.”


Lucky kids.