Vargas 1st female to finish in Richardson Rough Water Swim

He moved her, brightly, toward the ocean and one of his favorite spots, Richardson Ocean Park.

“He was here a lot, he’s the one who introduced this place to me, so it’s always special, but a little more so now,” said Noelani Vargas, 27, of Waimea. “I thought about him a lot out there today, it motivated me, for sure.”

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Vargas was the women’s winner of the 31st annual Richardson Rough Water Swim, finishing in a time of 21 minutes, 53 seconds Sunday morning under blue skies and a pleasant breeze at a place she knows well and an event she has now won for the third time.

Of the three, or any of those that she may yet win, this is the one she will remember decades from now, as it occurred just two weeks after her father Roger, 71, a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Basin in Hilo, was killed in a head-on collision on Saddle Road. Vargas, a physical therapist, said her father loved the water and she learned her respect for the ocean through him.

“I’m sure it sounds cliche,” she said, “but I really wanted to do this for him. It doesn’t make anything better, what happened still happened, but it just felt so good to get out there and swim and go for it.”

Winner of the men’s side of the event was Duke Becker, a 14-year-old from Kailua-Kona who will be a sophomore at Kealakehe High School next month. He made it through in the day’s best time of 20:40 on his first participation in the annual event, and the first time he had ever been to Richardson.

“We have a lot of open water competitions on the Kona side and I’ve entered a bunch of them,” Becker said, “but I’ve never been here before. My dad was talking to somebody about it and I decided at the last minute to come along, I just registered here this morning.”

You might think of it as beginner’s luck, but several contestants said they were unfamiliar with the course design this year that gave the event a different feel.

“Before I started I looked out over the course to see where you come out and where you turn back,” Vargas said, “but when I got out there I realized there were five buoys instead of three, which is all I ever remember.

“I had to push up a bit at the buoys to check on the next one,” she said, “but I guess everyone had to do that.”

Vargas said carrying her father’s memory transcended any race strategy, but she felt if she could stay with, or just ahead of multiple Rough Water winner Mina Poppas, she had a chance.

“My pacing was all about Mina,” she said, “but I knew, coming back, you have to let it all out and go really hard, as hard as you can.”

By that, did she mean she was conscious of saving energy on the first half to load up for the return?

“No,” she said, laughing, “you go hard from the very start, then you just make yourself go harder.”

Results were delayed after a couple of high school swimmers inadvertently missed a buoy and effectively made a short cut, but other than some of those awkward buoy moments, the event was a solid hit.

“Most of you may not know,” Mason Souza, recreation administrator for Hawaii County Parks and Recreation, announced to the assembled as winners were set to be announced, “but we almost had to cancel this last month for budgetary reason, but we got it approved and our staff did a great job of putting this all back together in the last few weeks.”

There were roughly 140 contestants, including a few who didn’t register and just joined in for the competition, but some of them are already thinking to next year.

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“I’m always going to be here,” Vargas said.

“I have to come back now,” said first-time winner Becker, “and I definitely will.”

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