By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kepa Weller wasn’t big on making turns in swimming pools, which is one of the reasons why he avoided long-distance races growing up.
Weller only had to navigate one turnaround at Richardson Beach Park’s 1-mile course Sunday, and he found it more to his liking. Meanwhile, the open ocean provided surprisingly little resistance as the 19-year-old recorded his first victory in the 27th edition of Richardson Rough Water Swim.
“Pretty gnarly and chill,” said Weller, who covered the 1 mile in an even 23 minutes to beat Jim Mellon by five seconds. “Some people said high current, but I couldn’t feel it. It felt the same coming back as it did going out.”
Third overall, 47-year-old Susan Groff (23:46) was the top female finisher for the sixth time — but it was her first win since 1996.
“I didn’t get slower,” Groff joked. “Everybody else got faster.”
And so much for Flossie having any effect on the conditions. It was truly calm before the storm.
Groff enjoyed a smooth ride in and out and considered the race one of her easiest.
Nick Balingit agreed, and he would know. Balingit, 75, overcame a hitch in his giddy-up and became the only participant to finish all 27 races.
He remembers a year when Groff didn’t get in the water until the race had already started, yet still managed to reel off one of five consecutive victories she enjoyed in the 1990s.
She still looks forward to a race that she called community-oriented and inclusive, but she takes it more leisurely these days.
“My goal hasn’t been to win for a while,” said Groff, who lives in Waikoloa. “It’s just been to feel good and see what happens. I was surprised to win and I was stoked.”
She said she was oblivious to how others were doing during the race, but Teagan Rutkowski took notice near the half-mile turnaround when the blue-capped Groff streaked by and began to pull away.
Rutkowksi (24.02), a sophomore at Hawaii Prep, was the runner-up wahine in sixth overall.
Unlike Weller and Groff, Rutkowski competes at other open-ocean swims during the summer, but she prefers Richardson.
“This is definitely my favorite swim,” the 15-year-old said. “It’s my home turf. I feel a lot more comfortable out here.
“Whenever I do this swim, it makes me feel really happy to be at home.”
Weller and the 50-year-old Mellon both had other activities to attend to after the race, and it showed showed.
They led from just after the start and separated from the pack during the first half-mile. Weller outkicked Mellon down the stretch and quickly recovered when he misjudged the shallow water getting back to the beach.
“The funnest part was coming back, catching the waves in,” said Weller, who paddles for Kamehameha Canoe Club and is studying fire science at Hawaii Community College.
He graduated from Nawahi in Keaau in 2012, and mostly competing in freestyle sprints and the backstroke while swimming for Hilo High.
“Too many flip turns,” he said of longer races in high school and age-group meets.
Evan Ida (24:00) and Phillip Kissinger (24:01) rounded out the top five, and Catherine Spina was the top finisher in the fin division.
The race did not include last year’s champion, multiple winner Nakana Rivera, nor Noe Vargas, who won the women’s race in 2011 and 12.
Balingit, of course, was part of the field, though a nagging leg cramp started bothering him near the turnaround. He relied on his arms the rest of the race to keep his streak intact.
“I was very fortunate to finish,” he said. “I didn’t want to kick anymore, but I just relaxed.
“I used to swim here everyday, but I’ve taken taken up golf. Luckily, I’m used to pushing around my cart.”