IronMana teaches sports to next generation

Wim Lippens

Hereani Teahurai was just 11 last year and required a waiver and her father trailing her boat during the races in which she won the women's division and finished in the top 50 overall.

Alyssa will be checking in each day from the 2012 IronMana Bora Bora Liquid Festival. Come back here for updates throughout the week.

The Road to IronMana: Intro | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

This morning, we all joined in on the pass-it-along program and participated in the kids' clinics on Matira Beach. In each of the two sessions, about 50 children ages 10-12 came with their teachers from Vaitape School -- what we would consider an elementary-middle school back in the States -- and took lessons in stand-up paddling and paddling the Holopuni outrigger sailing canoes.

Before the sessions, (event organizer) Stephan (Lambert) told me 90 percent of the kids had never been on a stand-up paddleboard and 100 percent were paddling the Holopuni canoes for the first time. It was so much fun to see how excited they were to learn these new sports, but it was also surprising to me that these kids live so close to the water yet say they rarely come to the beach.

And then I thought about my own friends in L.A. and southwest Florida, where I grew up. Many of them go weeks, months, even years without stepping foot on sand. Heck, I didn't learn to wakeboard, water ski or surf until I was an adult living in New York City. If the sports aren't something your parents do, and if you don't have the money or access to the necessary equipment and instruction -- as few of these kids do -- then you spend your time doing what you know.

But although they were new to the sports, these kids were competitive. It didn't take long for the Holopuni lessons to turn into Holopuni races. They also raced the SUP boards and finished off with a sprint-swim-sprint race from beach to the ocean and back to the beach again. After the races, I asked a few of the girls, with Stephan's help as a translator, if Tahitian girls traditionally participated in sports. "The girls dance," an 11-year-old girl named Victoria said. "The boys play sports." Since they'd just spent two hours playing sports, I asked the girls if they liked sports.

"Oh yes!" they chimed. They said that in physical education class, they play basketball, soccer, badminton and ping-pong, and they love all of it. But none of them play organized sports. (A few of them compete in Tamure, a very physical traditional Tahitian dance.) When I asked what their favorite sport was, nearly all of them selected the sport they'd just learned today. "We love to paddle," said 11-year-old Kaualani. "I will do it again."

Wim Lippens

Girls in Tahiti are more likely to dance competitively than play sports, but they fell in love with the stand-up paddle boarding and Holopuni canoes.

Later in the afternoon, at the Under-18 OC-1 race (OC-1s are single-man outrigger canoes, known in Tahiti as Va'a canoes), it appeared that only boys had shown up to compete. But then, there she was: one 12-year-old girl had come to mix it up with the boys.

"That's Hereani Teahurai. She won the women's division last year," event photographer Wim Lippens said. "She finished in the top 50 -- of men and women -- in the final-day 45-kilometer race. And that's out of 150 paddlers, many of them experts."

In fact, he told me, the event is only open to athletes 12 and older and Hereani was only 11 last year. But event organizers made an exception because her father agreed to shadow her in another boat throughout the race.

In today's sprint race, she finished near the back of the pack, but she was impressive. And she never stopped smiling or competing. Afterward, I asked her how she learned to paddle. "When I was 8, I started with my dad," she said in French. (This time, Wim acted as my translator.) "There aren't many girls in my paddling club, but I love it because it's so much fun," she said. "I like to compete."

I asked her what she liked about competing in events like this. "I like it because I'm a girl and I like to show the boys that girls can do it, too," she said. Someday, she said, she wants to compete in the Molokai Challenge, a 38-mile crusher from the island of Molokai to Waikiki Beach in Honolulu and the most prestigious canoe race in the world. Tahitians all but rule this race, and Hereani said she would like to help continue that tradition. But at Molokai, men race men and women race women. There are no mixed divisions and no mixed teams in the six-man canoe division. I asked her if she would be happy competing against other girls. "Yes," she said. "And the boys."

So she wants to change the rules and do both? "Yes, of course," she said. "Why not?"

Next up for Alyssa: The adult races begin. First swimming, the SUP, and Friday night Hereani will compete in the shutdown OC-1 race (a one-on-one single-elimination event). Saturday, she competes in the IronMana. But this year, she doesn't require her father's shadow.

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