When it comes to any open water swim race, one of the most unpredictable variables are the conditions. That certainly rang true for 25 participants who competed at Sunday’s 32nd annual Alii Challenge — a grueling 6-mile open water swim race starting from the beautiful shores of Keauhou Bay and finishing on the white sands of Kamakahonu Beach.
“The conditions started off really nice and then we got some headwind,” said race director, Tom Sena. “The current was coming with us from the south in the beginning, but then the swells started to pick up so we stayed way outside because there was a lot of turbulence inside.
“Those who got caught on the inside, closer to the shoreline, would’ve had to fight the turbulence, swells, and wind. So those who stayed on the outside, like we did, caught the advantage of the current heading north.”
According to Sena’s binder of results dating back to the inaugural race in 1987, male and female course records belong to Nathaniel Goodale (2012) and Alisa Prendergast (2011) with their times of 2:08:00 and 2:14:16, respectively.
So when the clock neared the 2 hour and 30 minute mark and still no visible signs of swimmers approaching Kamakahonu Beach, both Jennifer Stabrylla and Cory Foulk, who were helping to time the event and waiting beachside, agreed that the conditions must’ve been “pretty rough out there.”
“Something’s definitely happening out there as it’s taking them longer than usual,” Stabrylla said.
Then just a few minutes later, the first swimmer and kayak appeared. It was none other than the relay team of Duke Becker and Aiden Ankrum, who tagged off each other the entire way to finish in a great time of 2:43:05.
The dynamic duo has excelled at recent open water swim races around the island, with 14-year-old Becker’s win at the Richardson’s 1-mile Rough Water swim race in Hilo two weeks ago, and 13-year old Ankrum’s victory at the Hapuna Rough Water 1-mile swim in June.
Both swim for Steve Borowski’s Kona Aquatics Team.
“It was good, but it felt long this year,” said Becker who is a freshman at Kealakehe High School. “It felt like it took forever to get to the Ironman buoy. It felt like we were in the wrong spot because the current was affecting us.”
In addition to being caught in turbulent waters and fighting strong trade winds that made navigating a straight line nearly impossible, the duo also encountered jellyfish stings.
“I felt these tentacles wrap around my shoulder,” said a smiling Becker. “Yeah, it hurt. And during mid-way, whenever we saw the bottom we kind of got scared because you see like a big shadow and you think that it’s something coming at you, like a shark. Then you realize that it’s just a big reef.”
Ankrum added that once they reached the infamous Ironman buoy, then it was an easy cruise toward the finish waiting at Kamakahonu Beach.
“Once we got to the Ironman buoy, and because we always do that course, then it was easy,” said Ankrum, who is an eighth grader at Kealakehe middle school. “Then from the 1.2-mile buoy and in was fun because we know that course like the back of our hand. Probably most enjoyable of this entire race is this watermelon and finishing.”
Next to complete the grueling challenge was the top individual (solo division) and female, Brenda Avery, in a fantastic time of 2:48:40.
“It feels great and it was definitely easier,” said the 53-year-old of her second attempt at the distance. “Mentally I just knew that I was in it for the long run. I knew that after an hour, I would have another hour and then some after that.”
Avery, a Kailua-Kona resident, agreed that the conditions definitely affected her mid-way.
“I just stopped,” she said. “It definitely got rough and choppy. It started out smooth and it was really nice the first hour to hour and half. And then I think the winds picked up because I felt like I was swimming against the current and it got really choppy. From the Ironman buoy on in, it was a lot of up and down and catching a lot of water when breathing.
“I just told myself that I’ve done this before, keep going, stroke after stroke, keep your head down, focus on body position and trying to remember all of those good techniques.”
Leading for the men and in third overall was Phil Kim, who finished in a time of 2:55:50.
“It feels good,” Kim said. “I think I went a bit too close to shore as I caught more of the inshore currents. But it was my first time swimming this so I should’ve gone out a bit wider. I couldn’t get out of (the turbulence) so I just had to swim through it. I went a bit short and got caught on the inside.”
The 35-year-old Hawaii County Firefighter used the event to help prep him for the prestigious Maui Channel Swim race in three weeks — a 9.5-mile rough water swim race from Lanai to Maui that is also known as the Lanai Challenge.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Kim said. “I’ve kind of gotten away from being in the water, so this summer, I kind of wanted to refocus on getting back into the water with swimming and training. One thing that kind of just put me over the edge was to sign up for the Lanai Challenge race.”
Kim said he grew up in California and swam competitively until he moved to Kauai at age 23 to be a lifeguard. His passion for water sports and living on Kauai’s north shore enabled him to swim, surf and prone paddle on a daily basis. Once getting into the Fire Department, Kim moved to the Big Island four years ago to work at the Keauhou Fire Station.
“This is a good start for the Lanai Challenge because I actually just started training for it just three weeks ago,” he said. “It’s about 10 miles and I may be the only one signed up for it this year. There will be 25 teams but most are doing it as a relay.”
The Maui Channel Swim boasts being “the only masters inter-island relay race in the world,” as most people complete the event as a team. Kim however, plans to swim the entire 9.5-mile distance on Sept. 2 — solo.
“I try to squeeze in swim training as much as I can between work and family,” Kim said. “The distance is challenging, but I’m excited.”