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Kohler finds balance in family life, sports

AOY Rewind

Lahainaluna High School graduate Aina Kohler sits in front of her surf company with dogs Sunny and Lilikoi in this recent photo. — Courtesy photo

While life as a student-athlete was balancing school, grades and training, life now for Aina Kohler is balancing being a wife and mom of 9-year-old twins, a surf instructor, business owner and a firefighter.

Whether it was starring on the basketball court and softball field, or fighting fires and coaching kids, the former Lahainaluna High School standout has kept the same mentality — work hard, problem solve and communicate with the team.

“You know I always had to balance school with sports, and now I have to balance kids and work and sports programs and husband and a house, and so I think balance in life is what I learned the most from being a student-athlete,” said Kohler, who was The Maui News’ Maui Interscholastic League Girl Athlete of the Year for 1995-96 and 1996-97. “It’s about staying active and staying healthy and understanding with the athletic part that I can push my body to certain limits and I’ll be fine.”

After returning back to Maui full-time a little over three years ago, Kohler searched to fill a need in the youth sports community.

With the help of fellow 1998 Lahainaluna graduate and longtime friend Chyna Colorado, she started the LahAina Surf Shack to offer surf lessons to children during after-school programs.

Former Maui News staffer Andrew Jacoby talks with Aina Kohler following a Lahainaluna High School softball game in the 1990s. — Courtesy photo

“Aina is a big idea person, like, expansive, no limits, anything is possible,” Colorado said. “So once she bought the surf shop, it was all about starting community programs.

“I thought it was so important because, if we do this and do it well, we can create a new surf school business model.”

The surfing school has also conducted summer camps, sells retail and offers board rentals for residents and tourists of all ages and skill levels, but its focus is on “providing opportunities for our keiki,” Colorado added.

“My plan when I got back was to make a youth basketball program, but then I saw the need for surfing, I’ve always surfed, my brother is an extremely good surfer and it’s always been in my family, but I saw the need for a kids surf program,” Kohler said. “There were like 10 surf schools in the surrounding area but none of them ever did a kids after-school program, or nothing, and it was kind of astonishing, and there are so many kids that need to learn water safety, water basics, learn how to surf.”

Although Colorado doesn’t work full-time with the surf school anymore, she said the school has always stayed true to its mission statement.

“Because of Aina’s focus on the community, and the kids, and being involved with people here, she was able to keep the shop open and keep instructors going, and keep kids programs running,” she said. “I think it’s really a beautiful success story that, when businesses begin to provide for the community, you can succeed and will succeed.”

Between being a mom and wife, Kohler also spends three of every six days on Lanai to fulfill her firefighter duties. But when she is on the Valley Isle, her effort also goes into giving youths more opportunities to grow and discover new skills like she had growing up.

“Aina has never been one to just sit and be satisfied, she’s always looking to improve, to improve life, and get as many little ones involved as possible, so it’s awesome she came home,” said Earle Kukahiko, who coached with the Lunas softball team for 14 years and helped to develop youth teams in Lahaina. “She’s a very giving person, you know, she has great parents, a great family that supports her.”

Kohler grew up on the west side playing baseball with the boys as an overhand pitcher until she was 12 years old. She said that the sport of softball wasn’t prominent in her neighborhood until a group of coaches realized a girls program was “much needed” in Lahaina.

Kukahiko coached boys little league teams at the time, but transferred over to help get a girls youth softball team started. The first team yielded 14 girls aged 14 and under. From there, the youth program grew to upward of 200 kids ranging from 4 to 18 years old.

“Aina was a big part of having a lot of these girls to see the opportunity, putting in the hard work and so on,” he said. “She really did play a big part in that. A lot of sacrifices, you know, a lot of late nights, we were out there just about every day – she would work on her pitches and work on her form.”

In the midst of learning to fast-pitch underhand, Kohler also grew up playing basketball and volleyball, and participating in the occasional swimming and track seasons. She was named Gatorade Hawaii Girls Basketball Player of the Year and was part of the 1998 Hawaii High School Athletic Association Hall of Honor class.

“It’s always an honor and I was always surprised, but we had such a great group of friends that went from sport to sport and I think we were having the most fun, having the support and being part of a sport, having the coaches,” she said. “The coaches that I had would spend the extra time with me, with us, after practice and before practice.”

When asked if she still reminisces about her high school career as a Luna, Kohler said “all the time.”

“I love it, you get chicken skin when you go to football games, and sing the alma mater, you know all this stuff is still very traditional and it’s all the things that make the school so special,” she said. “I think anybody who has gone there and liked it, and had a good experience, is stoked. I’m just happy that I was a part of it, part of a school with so much tradition.”

While the town and Lahainaluna’s athletic facilities have expanded over the years, Kohler said the programs remain authentic and Luna pride is still strong.

“You can see how it’s changed, which is really cool because now they have the football field up there, they have a softball field, and we didn’t have any of that,” she recalled. “It was kind of our years that started that in motion when we were up there.”

After high school, Kohler island-hopped to Oahu to live out her dream of competing at the collegiate level on the University of Hawaii women’s basketball team. She then finished her up her college career at Concordia University Irvine before playing a year overseas in Australia.

While at Concordia, Kohler was named an NAIA All-American in 2000-01 and twice earned All-Golden State Athletic Conference honors. According to the Eagles’ record book, Kohler is still ranks in the top 10 for scoring average at 14.8 points per game, and is listed second for both her game averages of 1.5 blocked shots and 6.0 defensive rebounds.

Kohler worked as a firefighter in Oregon for seven years before returning home to Lahaina.

“It’s a great career, helping people, with the team camaraderie, staying physical, not being at a desk all day,” she said. “That’s what I kind of realized I wanted, so that’s what drew me into the fire department.”

Through her years of high-level competition, she hopes other young student-athletes understand the importance of confidence and effort, and surrounding yourself with positive mentors or coaches.

“There are thousands of kids out there doing what you’re trying to do and to not let that discourage you,” she said. “Let that drive you and understand that if you’re working hard, someone else is working harder. If no one is there to help, there are so many tools out there to help yourself — go online, look up videos — because if you really love something, do it.”

No matter the skill level and how crazy the dream, Kohler said that as long as they put the time in and work hard, “You will excel.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com

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