By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Keaukaha’s girls 13 crew, a bunch of best friends, sets the bar one week then smashes it at the next Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta.
For the fourth straight time, lead stroker Hopoe Sipinga, Kahea Ujano, Tashi Ah Nee, Ashley Mendes, Zoey Vera Cruz and steersman Pua Silva improved their record in the quarter-mile race, finishing in 1 minutes, 57.46 seconds Saturday at the 8th annual Aunty Maile Mauhili/Moku O Hawaii Championships at Hilo Bay.
“We’re overwhelmed with happiness,” said Silva, a soon-to-be freshman at Ka ‘Umeke Kaeo, a Hawaiian language immersion school and classmate of Ujano and Ah Nee, two other upcoming freshmen.
Said Ujano: “Hard work pays off.”
Sipinga is an upcoming freshman at Kamehameha while fellow freshmen Mendes will head to Hilo and Vera Cruz to Waiakea.
One of their coaches is Malani Alameda, who’s in charge of boys and girls ages 6 to 14 years old, along with Kawika Lewis and his son Makana Lewis. Alameda also teaches malama aina (care for the land) at Ka ‘Umeke Kaeo.
“They’re really good and they love to paddle,” said Alameda, who was the lead stroker on Keaukaha’s gold-winning men sophomore crew. “Hopoe always likes to get better. She just wants to go and everybody applies the same amount of pressure the whole race.
“Pua is an all-around water person. She knows the ocean like her bedroom. She’s always positive, never has a pinch of a negative attitude or vibe. She loves the whole crew. Most of them have paddled together a long time. Zoey used to paddle for Kai Opua but her family moved from Kona to Hilo. We’re lucky to have her on the team.”
They’re all youngsters, but only in age, not paddling experience. Alameda pointed out that they’re all polished paddlers. The coaches wind up the crew and let them rip.
“They’re chrome parts. It’s easy to win with chrome parts. You just have to shine them up a bit,” he said. “Kawika and Makana teach them paddling concepts, like paddling together as one. I teach them discipline. That’s it. I grew up in the halau as a baby when we were down in Radio Bay.
“I’ve always believed in discipline. I coach to honor those who coached me, Starold “Bear” Mitchell, Aunty Maile and Luana Kawelu. Coach Bear taught me with discipline you can have anything you want to put your hands on.”
The late Mitchell was a former coach at Keaukaha while Kawelu is a former paddler and official with the club. In fact, she helped land the club one of its koa canoes.
“My mom got a contract with the police department back in the early 1980s,” Albert Kawelu said of his mom. “We had to wash cars, trucks, vans and back then there were two patrol cars. We had to wash cars every Sunday to pay off for our canoe. It took us two years and I was playing junior varsity football at Hilo High and after games on Saturday we were tired but still had to wash cars.”
Kawelu, who was on the gold-winning Keaukaha 40 men’s crew, coached the Vikings football team from 1996 to 2007. When he was an assistant coach, one of the guys on the team was Alameda, a wide receiver during the 1994-95 season.
The canoe connection of life comes full circle more than a decade later. Alameda coaches two of Kawelu’s kids, Kai, 10, and Kama, 12. The brothers paddle together on Keaukaha’s 12 crew, which seized gold.
Kama paddles on the 13 crew, which also captured gold in the quarter-mile race. Kawelu’s oldest is daughter Kawena, 16, who’ll be a senior at Kamehameha and plays softball. His youngest is son Kaohu, 7, who made the PONY Baseball Pinto All-Stars.
If the boys aren’t paddling, they’re either involved in baseball, football or judo. And for family trivia, Kawelu’s maternal grandmother was the late Dottie Thompson.
“She used to be an official back in the 1960s,” said Kawelu, who shrugged that he didn’t get free Merrie Monarch tickets, instead worked in the parking lot. “Aunty Maile learned a lot of stuff from my grandma. It’s amazing how it all connects.”
Silva is like the Kawelu boys. She’s everywhere. She does the hula, swims, paddles, plays softball and surfs.
Ujano plays softball, swims and paddles. Ah Nee only paddles. But it’s the one sport that glues them together.
“It takes all six of us to work together as one,” Ah Nee said. “We try our hardest.”
Once they get into a canoe, Sipinga said six paddlers turn into one, the purest form of teamwork and the crew’s biggest strength.
“We’re all best friends. We work together and get along so well,” she said. “If you sit in the back of our canoe, it would look like one paddler. We’re all a mirror image of each other.”