HONOLULU — Kai Ehitu had a dozen chances to win a medal at the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association state championship, and the club’s first attempt turned into gold, making for a poignant father-son memory.
The West Hawaii club competed in Division AA (7-12 events) on a windy, blue-sky Saturday at Keehi Lagoon, facing an old rival in the boys 12, the fourth race of the day.
Kai Ehitu’s crew of Hiram Anakalea Jr., Iokepa Aponte, Kevin Gladden, Abraham Kalavi, Malosi Laasaga and Baba Weza topped Kai Opua, crossing the quarter-mile finish line in 2 minutes and 9.30 seconds, ahead of their westside neighbor’s 2:10.81.
The rivalry between the two Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association clubs is a good one. During the regular season, each beat the other four times. Kai Ehitu placed first, and Kai Opua was fifth at the Aunty Maile Mauhili championship, carrying momentum over to Oahu.
“I was really nervous before the start of the race,” said Hiram Anakalea, the winning crew’s coach. “I told them to do the same style they’ve been doing the whole season, reach and dig deep.
“No words can express it. I’m just happy. It feels good and wonderful. I lost my voice.”
His son, whose nickname is Nana, and Aponte are the only returning experienced paddlers.
“I had a strong feeling they would do well. It’s an all-Polynesian team. We’ve got a 6-foot Tongan kid (Kalavi) in a power seat,” Kai Ehitu coach Richard Kimitete said. “Our steersman (Laasaga) is Samoan, and between them are Hawaiians.
“When we go to states, it’s a good experience for everybody to see the different styles and personalities. It’s a good way of learning. What we learned is going against the wind we had to dig deep and pull hard. When the wind hits you in the face, it’s a whole different experience.”
The four others are green rookies, including Kalavi, who has the size to be a future football prospect for Kealakehe High.
“When he first started, he didn’t know anything about paddling,” Anakalea said. “I coached him and gave him the same basics as Uncle Richard (Kimitete). He’s come a long way, and now he loves it.”
As during the Moku O Hawaii season, it was neck and neck between the two rivals. But when Kai Ehitu needed to turn on the jets, the canoe got a helpful power boost.
“As they got closer to the flag about 30 feet away, they just took off,” Anakalea said. “I tell the boys to listen to their hearts and just go. That drive you can only talk to them about it. They have to do it themselves. They made me proud.”
It’s Kai Ehitu’s first gold since 2007, when the mixed 12 took first. The club’s last medal was in 2009, when the boys 14 captured silver at Hilo Bay.
Then it was Nana’s turn to talk about the shiny gold medal hanging around his neck, a piece of priceless hardware that will connect the day to the father and son for a long time, or at least until the next gold.
“My first medal feels super awesome,” Nana said. “We had good communication with each other and were in sync with each other. My dad always tells us to be humble, stay focused and never give up.
“As soon as we drew closer to the finish line, our stroker, Baba, picked up the stroke, and we followed. My goal is to get more medals. It feels so good to beat the best of the best.”