Runnin’ with Rani: The 34th Alii Challenge continues tradition

  • Johnny Prehn, who competed in Sunday's Alii Challenge on a three-person women's relay team with Alli Adams and Sarah Lee, swims her segment of the 6-mile race. (Sarah Lee/Courtesy Photo)

  • Kailua-Kona's Brenda Avery smiles after winning in this 2018 finish photo. Avery made it a three-peat on Sunday by claiming the women's overall (solo) division in a time of 2:59:56. (Rani Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)

The 34th annual Alii Challenge Rough Water Swim continued with tradition on Sunday as a small group of ten individuals and eight (two and three-person) relay teams braved six miles of open ocean along the Kona Coast.

The swim challenge started from the beautiful shores of Keauhou Bay and finished on the white sands of Kamakahonu Beach.

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“The energy was so amazing,” race director Jennifer Stabrylla said. “People were so happy to be out and about with like-minded people because swimmers are just so cool anyways. There was no competitiveness, no one was being aggro, everybody was just glad to be there and thanking me for putting it on because so many other events have been canceled this year.”

The Alii Challenge perpetuates as the longest-running annual swim race on the Big Island. The event dates back to its inaugural year in 1987 when the swim began from Kaiakeakua Beach, next to the Kailua Pier, and finished in Keauhou Bay under race director, Tom Sena.

However, after the first six years, Sena soon realized that holding a long-distance swim during the middle of Hawaii’s hurricane season often produced stronger currents going against the direction of the athletes. To take advantage of the prevailing current, he decided to change the direction of the race, starting from Keauhou Bay and finishing on Kamakahonu’s sandy beach. It’s been that way ever since.

Stabrylla, an avid mono-fin distance swimmer and property manager for Coldwell Banker Island Properties, said she began helping Sena three years ago and slowly transitioned into the role of race director.

“I appreciate that he trusts me to take it over,” she said. “So, 2018, 2019, and 2020 have been the three years I’ve been involved, but this year, was my first-time race directing solo.

“I think the turnout this year was more than last year, and the year before. There were also about six swimmers who were planning to fly over from Oahu but canceled at the last moment because of all of the COVID problems on Oahu. Starting on Tuesday, the governor stated that any travelers from Oahu will be subject to a 14-day quarantine and I think there were also being proactive by making sure the Big Island stays healthy so they canceled. I told you, swimmers are great!”

Stabrylla said competitors began under partly sunny skies and very light winds, and from a spectator’s point of view on land, it looked to be great conditions for a fun and competitive swim. However, finishing times were much slower than in years past.

First to reach Kamakahonu Beach was the men’s relay team of Keahi Parker and Chad Villarin in a combined time of 2 hours, 54 minutes and 55 seconds. The duo was pushed hard by the mixed “hapa” team of Helen Meigs and Palani Greenwell who finished just a minute back in 2:55:53.

Top overall “solo” wahine honors went to Kailua-Kona’s Brenda Avery, who claimed her third consecutive Alii Challenge crown (2018–2020), in a fabulous time of 2:59:56. The next two female spots went to Staci Studer (wetsuit) in 3:26:34, and Catherine Spina (fins) in 3:42:40.

Ian Brown was the first “solo” kane who utilized fins to finish in a great time of 3:35:20. Kekaulike Kealoha and Joe Kent (fins) nabbed the next two podium spots with their times of 3:41:20 and 3:43:07 respectively.

Stabrylla said she asked the finishers about what seemed to be rough conditions.

“The swimmers who pay the most attention to those details, like those who are lifeguards or surfers, all said that as soon as they came out of Keauhou Bay there was a strong south current,” she said. “So, part of the time for them felt like a treadmill, just swimming in place. I think about half way through, they either swam out of the current or something changed, but the times were much slower.”

To put into perspective how challenging Sunday’s conditions were, current male and female overall course records belong to Nathaniel Goodale (2012) and Alisa Prendergast (2011) with their times of 2:08:00 and 2:14:16 respectively.

“Calling it the Alii Challenge is a great name because it will challenge each and every swimmer,” Stabrylla said. “The solo swimmers can be challenged by the distance and the conditions. And relay swimmers can be challenged for other reasons like getting in and out of the kayak, or maybe it’s the first time they’ve swam in deep blue water.

“Overall, people were thrilled. I was really pleased to see that people stayed in little groups on the beach, talking and sharing, that they all didn’t leave right away.”

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Stabrylla said she kept tradition by serving watermelon at the finish and hopes to grow the event in future years.

“I’ve lived on Oahu for a long time and I’ve lived here for a long time, and I’ve traveled and swam at all the other islands. But there’s no better swimming than along the Kona Coast. So, I think this is a reason why this distance and this swim are so inviting.”

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