In our sport of paddling, we use a lot of words, terms, and gestures that come from my home state of Hawaii. It makes sense, because so much of our sport hails from the islands or at least comes to the mainland through the Aloha State. We “throw shakas” whenever some one takes a picture of us, we call each other “brah” …a lot. Sometimes so much so that it’s easy to make fun of each other.
But in case you haven’t noticed, most of us don’t use, “Ohana,” the Hawaiian word for family, lightly. The people you paddle with, especially if you are training for a big race like the recent Chattajack 31, quickly become your family. The people who share your training plans, give you nutrition advice and are there to talk you down when the TaperWorm has you believing you are going to die a week before your event. Even the ones you talk to almost every day but have never actually met – thanks to the magic that is social media. When you finally get to meet those folks in person, it’s like you’ve known each other forever. The bond is strong. The sense of ohana is real. And it is wonderful.
Take for example my friends Joel and Maia Yang and their wonderful daughter Coli. We started corresponding soon after I discovered their awesome website, The Village of Stoke. It is full of positive encouragement and seeks to, as the motto goes, to “inspire awesome experiences.” About the time I started following the blog, the Distressed Mullet did a profile on them. Somehow Joel and I connected via social media. When I was out in Arizona, in the desert, away from my ocean and my big lakes and southern rivers, taking care of my aging parents, the Yang family was right there too, offering me support and encouragement. On the days when I had just about had enough – when navigating “senior memory care” or trying to ward off so-called friends who were either after my dad’s money or just being nosy busy bodies – I’d get a message from Joel and we’d chat on Facebook until I felt better. I got care packages from them – as well as from other members of my paddle family — and somehow, I got through those hard weeks. Coli designed a skate deck for me. They sent me a Village of Stoke coffee mug. Drinking coffee from that mug on those lonely Sun City mornings somehow made me feel just a bit stronger.
Fast forward several months and my dad has joined my mom and they are on the next part of their journey together, and they are not here anymore. It’s time for Chattajack. Dad would have been there at Hales Bar at the finish. Joel and Coli asked me some questions about him and next thing I know, I have a set of custom decals honoring both my mom and my dad – in the form of a Pacific Northwest style bear totem. It is amazing and gorgeous. The night before the race, I put the decals on my board and my paddle. Next to the decal on the board, I taped photos of my mom and dad. There were tears. During the 32 miles down the Tennessee River, whenever tears would well up, or my arms felt like they were going to fall off, I’d look down and see that bear. The tears would recede. My arms would feel stronger, and fresh.
When I crossed the finish line 7 hours and 16 minutes later – significantly faster than last year – I touched the bear.
I’m pretty sure that will be a ritual in every race from now on.
I have never met Joel in person. But he’s the brother I never had.
There are other stories about other paddle peeps too – too many to name – but they are all special to me. They have been there to offer words of strength and wisdom, to send me bouquets of Hammer Nutrition products, or Star Wars goodies, or links to new One Direction singles, or talk me into racing prone. They have all made me laugh. Most importantly, they have, just by being who they are, given me inspiration, hope, and confidence. They do that for everyone in their paddle ohana. They amaze me. They too are the brothers and the sisters that I never had. They are, in every real sense of the word, my ohana. And I am so, so very grateful.
I have been in communities of other “action sports” like triathlon or mountain biking, but there is something very, very special about this community of people who paddle. Maybe it’s because we understand the connection – that no matter where we live and what kind of craft we paddle, we are all connected by water. When we prone, or SUP or OC or surf ski, our hands and blades merge into the substance that unites us all; a substance that is a critical part of our being and our existence. One with the water. One with each other.
So say it loud, say it proud. And throw a shaka when you do.