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Maui kupuna to compete in first-ever 75 races at World Sprints in London

London-bound 75-and-older women’s division paddlers Joy Nelson (from left), Kekoa Enomoto, Audrey Quinn, Gloria Lee-Jones, Renee Riley, Victoria Smith, Mary Akiona, Wanda Shirreff, Maxine Magnani, Diane Wetzel, Marcie Davis and Donna Neuhart pose for a photo after practice at Kihei Canoe Club last month. brucekurosakiphotography.com photos

Hawaiian Canoe Club’s Mary Akiona has never left early from an HCRA State Championship Regatta throughout her decades of canoe paddling.

This year, she’s making an exception.

After racing in the women’s 70 division early Saturday morning on Oahu at Keehi Lagoon, Akiona will head back home to Maui before flying out that evening to London, where she and several others from Maui will represent Hawaii in the first-ever 75-and-older races at the International Va’a Federation (IVF) World Sprint Championships.

“So, we race our race and then I have to leave,” Akiona said with a laugh on Wednesday. “I’ve never left a state race early in my life, but this time I am.”

But the busy travel schedule will all be worth it.

The Kihei men’s 75s crew, with two alternates, competing at World Sprints in England include Ken Pearsall (front row, from left), Kimokeo Kapahulehua, (back row, from left) John Salse, Steve Magnani, Bob Brooks, John Wetzel, Mark Standfeld and Guy Davis.

Considered the Olympics of outrigger canoe paddling, the weeklong event begins Wednesday in Windsor, England, and features women’s and men’s competition in youth, adult and paralympic divisions.

“I’m very excited. I never ever dreamed that I’d be going to Europe. I had never planned to go to Europe and never thought that would happen in my lifespan and now I’m going to London,” Akiona said. “It’s really exciting that we’re going on the inaugural year of the 75 division. … I just look forward to racing and I just love being with our girls, everybody just gets along so well and I just love the feeling that we have, that camaraderie.”

The 500-meter World Sprints races will be held at Lake Dorney, which is the 2012 Olympics rowing venue about 28 miles west of London. Conditions there will be much calmer than Kahului Harbor’s headwinds or choppy surf, Akiona noted.

Much like surfing, the state of Hawaii participates as its own country at the World Sprints, separate from the USA-Outrigger Racing Canoe Association on the Mainland. Akiona said it’s an honor to compete alongside hundreds of other paddlers from the islands.

Over 100 paddlers from Lae’ula O Kai, Na Kai Ewalu, Hawaiian and Kihei canoe clubs are set to join the Valley Isle 75s in England.

Maui will field one men’s and two women’s crews in the 75 division.

Akiona’s women’s 75 crew also includes Hawaiian’s Donna Neuhart, Kihei’s Wanda Shirreff and Diane Wetzel, and Big Island paddlers Maxine Magnani of Kamehameha Canoe Club and Marcie Davis of Waikoloa Canoe Club.

The off-island teammates have traveled to Maui to practice with them about four times, including this past weekend. Akiona is looking forward to the competition in the masters age group and for the crew’s chances of winning a world championship medal.

“All of us have paddled together and known each other for a long time,” said Akiona, who’s been a paddler herself since 1975 and competed at five World Sprints. “These girls are awesome. They all just get into the canoe and blend really well. It’s just awesome. It feels so good to have those kinds of quality paddlers, you know, the ones that can just jump right in.”

The men’s 75 crew representing Maui has paddlers from Kihei, Kamehameha, Waikoloa and the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society. The crew, including two alternates, consists of Bob Brooks, Guy Davis, Kimokeo Kapahulehua, Steve Magnani, Ken Pearsall, John Salse, Mark Standfeld and John Wetzel.

The other women’s crew comprises Kihei Canoe Club’s Kekoa Enomoto, Renee Riley, Gloria Lee-Jones, Audrey Quinn, Victoria Smith and Joy Nelson. In addition to competing as a crew, they will also team with Akiona’s crew for the 75s double-hull race.

Enomoto said on Wednesday morning via phone that she’s also “super excited” to return to Europe after having not been there since she was 20 years old for a few months as a college student.

Enomoto has paddled for Kihei for a handful of years, though began paddling for Hawaiian Canoe Club in 1999. She previously competed in the World Sprints in 2016 in Australia, where her HCC 70s crew won gold and bronze medals.

Most recently, Kihei had competed at the 2020 Sprints trials in Hilo, but organizers called off the World Sprint Championship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For two and half years, it’s been building up to this,” Enomoto said. “We are all thrilled and excited to be going, but we still are holding our breath that we remain healthy and uninjured going into this international race.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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