by Teri Skillman
The first kayaks were introduced to Hawaii’s athletes over 40 years ago at the Ala Wai Boat House. John Bustard, heading the Amateur Athletic Union, envisioned the potential for finding Olympic talent in Hawaii. In 1959, he said “ With our natural interest and ability in water sports and a vast field of outrigger canoe paddlers to draw from, kayak racing could be a natural for Hawaii.”
The first boats were imported from Europe and Canada. George Downing of the Outrigger Canoe Club was one of the first to master the craft and handled most of the coaching. Then, Miklos Tottossy, a Former Olympic Hungarian Team member, was brought to Hawai’i by the Amateur Athletic Union to coach Hawaii’s paddlers. Coached by Tottossy, Karen Knudsen (17) and Anna Naone (18) were selected to attend the Olympic Trials. The pair finished second, missing a berth on the 1960 team by one spot.
In 1962 the Amateur Athletic Union received 3 four-man kayaks to be used to train high school athletes. I’olani High School was the first U.S. school to start a kayaking program. University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Lanikai Canoe Club and Hawaii Kayak Club also started a program in 1962. 1963 was the year of the first kayak regatta in Hawai’i featuring singles, doubles and fours. By 1964, four Hawai’i paddlers were selected to attend the Olympic Trials – Karen Knudsen, Anna Naone, Tom Schroeder and Bernard McKeague.
It was not until 1968 that the first Hawai’i paddler earned a place on the Olympic Team. Hawaii Kayak Club coach Bob Schroeder, a former U.S. Olympian, “discovered” Virginia Moore at a surf meet in Makaha. He encouraged her to try a kayak and within four months she was producing times capable of winning the National Championships. In 1967 she became a gold medalist in the Pan American Games, and in 1968 became the first Hawaiian kayaker to make the U.S.A. Olympic Team.
For the next ten years, kayaking took a downturn in the islands due to lack of organizational support. In the early 1980’s the introduction of the “surf-ski” kayak breathed life back into competitive kayaking in Hawai’i. Once again Hawai’i kayakers were competing in mainland competitions and earning spots on U.S.A. national teams. In 1988, Tracy Phillips became the second Hawaii woman kayaker to make the Olympic team and Mike Harbold became the first male kayaker to make the U.S. Olympic Team.
A one time, one-year grant from the United States Olympic Committee in 1988 provided the initial catalyst to launch a long-term development effort designed for junior athletes in Hawai’i. The Hawaii Canoe & Kayak Team was this program. Founded by Billy Whitford, long-time Offshore Canoe Club Coach from Newport Beach, CA, Billy enlisted many of his friends in the paddling world to make the program a success from the start.
The first team to go to nationals in 1988 consisted of 18 paddlers. The group won a total of 76 medals including several National Championships. For the next five years HCKT was untouchable at Nationals winning every year by large margins. Not only did HCKT dominate at Nationals, but HCKT paddlers dominated the Junior World Championship and Pan American Games Teams.
In 1992, Peter Newton and Wyatt Jones became the first HCKT paddlers to make the Olympic Team joining Harbold and Philips for their second Olympics. Wyatt Jones became the first Hawai’i paddler to represent the United States in the Olympic Canoe. The 1996 Olympic team once again include Newton, Harbold and Philips.
The 2000 Olympic Team added Kathy Collin, a Punahou graduate who started kayaking in the Private High School Surf Ski Competitions now know as ILH (Interscholastic League of Honolulu). The 2004 Athens Olympics included Kathy Collin and Andrew Bussey, both graduates of Punahou High School, and Lauren Spalding-Barlett of Mau’i.
In May 2010, HCKT hired a new head coach, former Australian Olympian, Shelley Oates-Wilding. Her husband, Guy Wilding, took a job with the USA Sprint Kayak Team as the senior men’s coach and moved the Olympic team to Honolulu to train on the Ala Wai.
Shelley has been a global traveler and an athlete since her school days. She first came to the USA as a track and field athelete. She competed in net ball (an Australian sport) which gave her a chance to travel around world, quickly realizing the benefits and enjoyment of international sports.
A knee injury forced Shelley to quit playing net ball. When she worked in marketing for the Australian Institute for Sport, Shelley decided to look for a sport that would not require her to use her legs and would give her the opportunity to go to the Olympics. In 1988 she watched the Olympics on television and thought the kayakers didn’t use legs. So wrong! That’s how she found kayaking. Because of her drive and focus, Shelley was able to improve quickly and she made the national team to compete in Europe.
Shelley made and missed national teams over a span of 24 years. She competed in 2 Olympics and 12 World Championships in kayaking. She also competed in World Championships on the surfski and outrigger. As a member of Team Bradley for several years, she raced Na Wahine o ke Kai. Switching between paddling crafts made her realize how techniques in one paddle sport can be helpful for paddling the other craft.
Shelley first came to Hawai’i in 1992 for paddle sports with the off shore team from Molokai. She stayed on to help coach the Punahou ILH kayaking kids. This started Shelley’s love-affair with Hawaii. She made many friends and fell in love with Hawaii’s paddling community and culture.
After 2000 Sydney Olympics, Shelley and her husband-coach Guy Wilding moved to Gainesville, GA to coach kayaking at Lake Lanier. Guy took the USA National Junior Team to their most successful World Championships in 2004.
Following Shelley’s final participation in the Beijing Olympics in 2004, Guy and Shelley wanted to move to Hawaii to give back to paddling by coaching and teaching. They realized that Hawaii is a hotbed of great talent with positive attitudes for paddling. Finally in 2010 HCKT was able to offer Shelley employment when Guy accepted a job with USACK.
Shelley and Guy came with a vision and a dream – to expand HCKT’s programs and opportunities for paddling athletes, and, to establish the Hawaii Center of Excellence [HCE]. With support from Honeybee Developments, DLNR, City & County, and the State of Hawaii, the new HCE is due to be completed in August of 2012 at the mouth of the Ala Wai where the old fueling dock was located. HCE will be a world class training facility to bring paddlers in all paddle sports – kayak, outrigger, paddle board, SUP, surfski, and va’a to Hawaii for training camps and competitions. HCE will also provide support for our youth and paddling community through with classes, training camps, and seminars. It will provide storage and launching facilities for our regular community paddlers. HCE will boost specialized tourism in paddling, and perpetuate the Duke’s dream of developing watermen and women from Hawaii. HCE will bring international teams from all over the world to train on the Ala Wai, giving Hawaii’s kids the chance to interact with global watermen and women.
To compliment HCKT’s structure, Shelley developed the ASPIRE philosophy which is the backbone of the rejuvenated programs. Don Murphy supports ASPIRE initiative with a monthly award to one of the bronze, silver or gold squad members.
The official Hawaii State sport is paddling but there are no paddling teams at any university in Hawaii. Shelley would like to expand paddle sports into the educational system again by beginning programs HPU & Chaminade. Efforts to rekindle the kayaking program at UH Manoa would be easy to accomplish given the proximity to the Ala Wai halau! Extending the ILH program up through the university level would give Hawaii’s youth an option to train here in Hawaii while attending college. At present, there are many high school athletes who show promise in paddling but have no avenue to continue in college unless they switch to rowing. For some students, this is a viable option and scholarships are available at institutions on the Mainland. HCKT would love to be instrumental in offering opportunities for our young paddlers here in Honolulu.
Shelley and Guy along with HCKT would like to thank the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, the Friends of Hawaii Charities, the Hawaii Convention Center, the Hawaii Tourist Authority, and individual donors whose support has made the development and expansion of HCKT possible. Mahalo nui loa to the paddling community who have supported the HCKT athletes and the hālau.
According to Shelley, “At the end of the day everyone is doing their best. The common goal is to be the best that you can be regardless of your passion in science, sport, music or dance. The Olympic journey is like life. Paddling can make the world a better place.”
For more information on HCKT, visit <www.hckt.org>.