By JOHN DE GROOTE
Stephens Media Hawaii
When 17-year-old Leahi Camacho swam ashore at Sandy Beach on Oahu on Sunday afternoon to television cameras and a welcoming crew of family, friends and fans, she did not look like someone who had just taken on 26 miles of rough open ocean, a nearly debilitating Portuguese man-o-war encounter and the adventure of a lifetime.
“It all happened so fast, it still feels like a dream,” Camacho said. “I was so overwhelmed by the amount of people waiting on the shore supporting me. It took away a lot of my fatigue.”
The Kealakehe senior walked out of the water the youngest ever to complete the grueling Kaiwi Channel swim.
A mere 15 hours earlier, Camacho was standing alone, in the dark at Laau Point on Molokai — the start of her record-setting swim.
Laau Point is the southwestern most point of Molokai and the designated starting spot for the Kaiwi Channel challengers. However, Camacho and her crew had to travel nearly 6 miles by boat to reach the point, giving her a chance to reflect on what she was about to take on.
“I was scared, quite obviously,” Camacho said. “Being with my dad was a comforting moment. I wasn’t trying to think about it because I didn’t want to overthink. We hugged it out and he took my mind off everything.”
To make the swim official, Camacho had to start from land, which was an endeavor in its own right.
“There are not many sandy spots at Laau Point,” said Camacho’s coach, Steve Borowski. “Since the swim had to start on shore, she covered her hands and feet and climbed onto the rocky shore and made her way to a small spot where she could find room to stand.”
Camacho laid ti leaves on the ground as a blessing for a safe journey, and jumped into the moonlit water, never looking back.
The day before the swim, Borowski’s and Camacho’s phones were ringing off the hook with calls from experienced channel swimmers from around the world saying to abort the race because the winds and the swells were too strong.
One of those calls came from Linda Kaiser — the only woman to have swam all nine channels between the Hawaiian Islands.
“(Kaiser) called and said we should call it off until next Wednesday when the winds settled down,” Camacho said. “I didn’t want to push it back it all. There was so much build up. I was so ready to swim. If I pushed it back, I might have an excuse. I didn’t want to have any reason for excuses.”
Despite Kaiser’s warning, the swim proceeded, but the conditions were not in Camacho’s favor — winds of 20 mph, 6-to-7 foot swells and unpredictable currents attempted to stifle her attempt at history.
The swells were so bad that a few members of Camacho’s support crew became seasick.
In the water, Camacho battled through the conditions Mother Nature threw her way. Other than an early tough current that slightly threw her off course, the swim was going well.
Just as the sun began to peak over the horizon Sunday and Camacho neared the halfway mark of her journey, the boat crew heard an ear-piercing scream from the water.
A Portuguese man-o-war had stung Camacho.
On top of nearly debilitating pain, Portuguese man-o-war stings can cause fever, shock and interference with heart and lung function. On rare occasion, encounters have even led to death.
As Camacho lay motionless in the water with the sting that covered her face, back and arms, her team tried to comfort her as best as possible.
“She was an inch away from aborting the race,” Borowski said. “We were trying to push her with motivational words, but were also thinking about her safety. If she touched the kayak the race was over. So many people would have simply given up.”
Her tears leaked into the ocean as she floated in the swells. Camacho’s legs began cramping and back spasms set in as the poison spread throughout her body.
As her crew feared the worst, the young swimmer never uttered her safe word that would signal the crew that the swim would end — pineapple.
“She would try to swim for a little, then stop because of the severe pain,” Borowski said. “It went on for a little, but then one of our kayakers came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you jump in and swim beside her?’”
Without another word, Borowski did just that. He grabbed a suit and jumped in to accompany his pupil in her time of need.
“It was so comforting to have him next to me and see that familiar face,” Camacho said. “There is human contact to an extent during the race, but it’s just for nutrition. When he jumped in he said ‘Hey Bubba, lets do this.’ I was so excited he was there.”
With her mentor at her side, Camacho pushed through the pain.
“We swam very slowly at first,” Borowski said. “After 30 minutes she was back on track. We did our normal nutrition stop and she continued on. She was so tough. I was in the water only half-an-hour, and it felt like an eternity.”
Mile after mile Camacho pushed, eventually looking up to a welcome sight.
“I saw Oahu as soon as the light came out,” Camacho said. “I could see the beach and it would peak in and out of existence, almost like it was taunting me. Once I started making out people I knew I was almost there.”
The final 2 miles tested Camacho, with increased surf and another strong current that led her slightly off course.
“I started thinking of my friends, Dan Gampon and Keoni Smith, who are part of the Waverider Triathlon Club with me and are training to do the Ironman,” Camacho said. “What I was doing was so much better than being on a bike or running that long. Me and gravity do not mix.”
Camacho also looked down at the band she wore around her wrist for inspiration that read “Hope for Hazel.”
Hazel Hammersley is a 3-year-old from California enduring 18 months of chemotherapy. Camacho learned of Hammersley though her work with the Talbert Family Foundation. Whenever she struggled, she looked to the wristband to remember that there are people out there who have it a lot worse.
Camacho rode the waves into Sandy Beach to become only the 27th person to complete the swim. She finished in 14 hours, 43 minutes — good for the ninth fastest recorded time.
Upon her return to the Big Island, Camacho was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Nearly 100 people gathered at the Kona International Airport with signs and banners, welcoming home the fatigued swimmer.
“My friends and supporters are so amazing,” Camacho said. “I couldn’t have done this without the help of everyone involved.”
Now it’s back to the life of a high school senior for Camacho.
“I was so amped to go back to normal life,” said Camacho after her first day of school Tuesday. “I got to third period calculus and was drained, but at least there are no more crazy training sessions I have to go through for a while.”
Camacho hopes to conquer more channels in the future, but right now she has a different set of goals in mind.
“Right now my mind is on college applications,” Camacho said. “On top of that is also passing my AP calculus and other exams. I was so lucky to have summer to do all of this.”