Family fuel: Luuwai ohana plays big role in Hawaiian’s success

HONOLULU – Hawaiian Canoe Club owes its decade and a half of dominance at the state championships to a long list of families that have supported the program over the years.

Thanks to all of them, the club won its 12th Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association title in the last 16 years Saturday at Keehi Lagoon.

One ohana in particular has been instrumental to Hawaiian’s dynasty – the Luuwai family.

“I think they are a critical piece of our success,” said HCC coach Diane Ho.

Over the past six years, the family has captured 13 state gold medals and more than 30 total medals. Saturday, the youth group of Kawai, Hiilei, Kaulu and Mogul Luuwai combined for two golds and five total medals.

“I’m just really proud of them and how they’ve progressed,” said coach, father and uncle Paul Luuwai. “They’ve become very good steersman and leaders in the club.”

The Luuwai family’s HCRA paddling heritage began with three brothers – Paul, Kalehua and Kalei, from youngest to oldest. While all showed a passion for the sport, Paul became a lifelong student, and has been coaching youth paddlers with HCC for the past 34 years.

As their children grew, Paul took them under his wing and paddled with them every summer.

“My brother’s always taking them places all over the world,” Kalei Luuwai said of his children Mogul, Kaulu and Kawai. “They’ve gone to Tahiti, New Zealand, Canada. I mean, my kids have a passport. I don’t even have a passport.”

Paul Luuwai’s daughter, Hiilei, 14, is the youngest of the group and said they all have been paddling ever since they can remember, with her starting at the age of 7.

“It’s in our blood,” she said. “We all love it and it brings us together.”

Kaulu Luuwai is 18, while Mogul is 17.

“Life without paddling, I think I would feel kind of lost,” Mogul Luuwai said.

All of the children have been raised through HCC and have attended Seabury Hall. Paul Luuwai has been coaching at the school for the past five years and will return this fall with his daughter and a nephew, Kawai.

“He’s the only coach I’ve ever had and I’m really lucky to paddle under him in club, as well as for the high school season,” Kaulu Luuwai said of her uncle. “It’s good having family around because we all share the same sort of values and love for paddling.”

The family name brings expectations.

“Being the coach’s daughter, he expects me to do everything – but he loves me,” Hiilei Luuwai said. “My cousins, they’re my paddling models and I want to be like my cousin Kaulu when I grow up because she’s so strong.”

Kawai Luuwai, 15, said his older siblings are constantly pushing him at practice and that nearly every conversation they have ends up on paddling.

“People expect me to be like them so I have some big shoes to fill,” he said.

Kalei Luuwai said Paul drives the youths to succeed.

“There’s probably a hundred of them,” he said. “Kawai was so disappointed on Saturday with his two third-place medals. He was devastated because he was not used to losing.”

The young paddlers are hoping to add to their accolades later this month at the Va’a World Sprint Championships in Rio de Janeiro. For the first time, all four of the children will be competing at the event – in 2012, Mogul and Kaulu Luuwai combined for five gold medals.

“I’m really happy they took up paddling and made that their sport,” Paul Luuwai said. “They really help make my job easier.”

Paul Luuwai also knows that no single ohana makes a club.

“We’re just one of the many families in this big club and it’s just really beautiful to see our kids grow up and be nurtured by the older members,” he said. “You know, it’s one team, one dream, one family.”

* Chris Sugidono is at