Ho’omaka’ana The Beginning
We had tossed through two nights of jet-lagged sleep before the Royal Lahaina’s elevator doors opened at 5:30 a.m. to reveal four nearly naked, tattooed men clutching tall-boy cans of Hawaiian beer. They had, as Hunter S. Thompson put it, “the fear of Lono” in their eyes: the kind of menacing, rum-soaked stare that suggests good times could collapse into calamity at any second.
I could relate. Maui waters host more tiger-shark attacks than anywhere in the islands, and in three hours, I’d be swimming in the deepest part of the nine-mile Au’au Channel between little Lanai and Kaanapali Beach. Hell, at least shark attacks are quick. Better that than the brutal southern rip that sweeps around Kahoolawe. That craven current has tossed swimmers seven miles north to Molokai — if they were lucky — and to the outer Pacific Basin, if they weren’t.
“Aloha,” I offered as the doors closed on the elevator dudes. They resumed their crazed ascent. Beazer and I, a.k.a. “The Lost Boys” (missing items between us so far: one phone charger, one set of headphones, one swimsuit, one sunglasses case, one wristwatch), punched the down button. We were running late for our ride to the Lahaina Pier, where even now Captain Norm Ham was loading fresh bananas into the cooler strapped to his 1999 fishing boat, My Girl.
But wait. Before I tell you about the beginning of the day, I should tell you the start of the story.
No one told me Lake Mendota froze. That would have been good to know. Had I known, this Kentucky boy would have readjusted his college choice from UW-Madison back to Auburn. Fact is, I’d already given the Auburn swim coach a verbal commitment. In 1975, that was a good-as-gold promise. Still, when I got the call for a recruiting trip to the UW, I hopped on it. I figured I’d never have a reason to travel to Wisconsin again. I’d take Bucky’s free flight, party for a few days in the Big Ten, and then, on schedule, become an Auburn University War Eagle.
“Where were you this weekend?” my mother asked. We were in my parents’ powder-blue Grand Prix at the Louisville airport upon my return from Madtown. I had just told her of my change in plans.
“Wisconsin,” I said. Madison has a way of drawing you in.
No one was more surprised than the Auburn coach, since his school had the number-one swim program in the country. On the other hand, let’s face it — in the mid-seventies, sports were not Bucky’s forte.
But State Street? The campus? The capitol? The lakes? Have you ever been to Opelika, Alabama?
It was a no-brainer.
In time, along with getting to know the Plaza Bar’s jukebox by heart, I achieved world ranking in the 200 breaststroke, got a diploma, married a girl from Milwaukee, raised three children, and sprinted into middle age.
So along with everything else swimming has provoked in my life, it was only a matter of time before it also caused a reunion. In Hawaii. This past September. Exactly forty years after my arrival at the UW.
Competing on an NCAA Division I sports team is like joining a fraternity, only without the annoying rituals and pastel shirts. Plus, you get to travel. The downside is that it’s like having a forty-hour-per-week job while you’re in college.
But oh, man, the ohana.
I was recruited to swim at the UW by Brad Horner ’77, MS’80, ’83, MBA’90, whose list of degrees is nearly as long as his swim accomplishments. The Pan American butterfly medalist also recruited me to join the relay for the 2015 Maui Channel Swim, the oldest continuously running rough-water race in the world. The Grumpy Old Badgers, as we called ourselves, entered three six-person teams in the channel swim. My team, the Silver Bullets, was a rogue’s gallery of UW alumni swimmers from before, during, and after my time on campus.
Minneapolis native Jim “The Beaze” Pohle ’76 is Badger swimming royalty. His father, the late Paul Pohle ’43, is a UW Swimming Hall of Fame backstroker. Beazer was a sprinter at the UW with a long reach, which came in handy midway in the channel race.
As manager of the swim team when I was at Madison, Steve Katz ’77 of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, can claim to have woken me up for morning practice approximately seven hundred times. While I was on Maui, Steve called to tell me I was late for a team picture. Some things never change.
If Katz woke me up seven hundred times, Silver Bullets team captain Art Luetke ’68 shot a pistol at me seven hundred times. Well, not at me, but into the air at Big Ten home meets. After his own impressive swim career, Luetke became one of the conference’s most respected deck officials. The Madison real-estate developer swims like a seal at age sixty-nine.
In addition to his full-time work as an IT consultant, Racine native Doug Bosley ’85 is the election commissioner of Somerville, Massachusetts. The most serious masters swimmer among us, Bosley led us off from the beach at Lanai and plowed through the choppiest segment of the race in later legs.
Australian Neil Rogers x’77 was a finalist in the 100 butterfly at both the ’72 Munich Olympics and the ’76 Montreal Games. To say he’s well known among Australian swimmers is a Down Under-statement. Whenever we passed an Aussie boat during the channel race (or it passed us), someone would yell across the water, “Hey, mate! Is Neil Rogers aboard?” Rogers now coaches the Bondi Icebergs Swim Club in Sydney.
The Beaze and I strolled up to the Lahaina pier as the marina came awake. One by one, the Grumpy Old Badgers appeared on the deck. We stared off in the direction of Lanai’s silhouette, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
We climbed aboard the My Girl and Captain Norm steered her through the Lahaina Harbor. Maui born, Hawaii proud, Norm was used to having wealthy anglers on board. You know, people pulling things out of the water, not diving into it. We explained our specific needs: keep the boat on our breathing side. Props in neutral as we come off and on. Watch for other swimmers. Help us read the currents.
The Silver Bullets chatted above the thrum of the diesel motors as we made the one-hour crossing to Lanai. I grabbed two bananas, savored their sweetness, and watched the sun slowly rise over the towering Mauna Kahalawai range of west Maui, growing more distant by the minute.
Kinohi Loa The Very Beginning
Forty-three million years prior to our departure for Lanai, Maui was one big island. Volcanic eruptions split the mass into four smaller islands: Lanai, Molokai, tiny Kahoolawe, and Maui. The underwater bowl that is the Au’au Channel, over which we swam, is a mere three hundred and fifty feet deep in the center. In winter, it’s a protected hot tub for the humpback whales that swim in for a three-month-long orgy.
We anchored one thousand yards offshore from Lanai. Luetke called for a warm-up and then a team meeting in the water. A cheer was sent up for the Grumpies. We patted Bosley for good luck and sent him to shore.
Back aboard the My Girl, the radio was tuned to the designated race channel. The receiver’s ominous hiss was interrupted by a voice giving final instructions just before the 8 a.m. start. Team members’ ages were added together to determine team categories. The Silver Bullets, 362 years old, qualified for the Grand Makule division, along with seven other teams whose boats had to fly a green flag.
Green swim caps helped the Makule teams spot their lead-off swimmers, and when the starting flag dropped at 8:07, my stomach dropped with it.
“Where’s Boz?” became our chant almost immediately. The waters were a confusing gumbo of swimmers and boats. Experienced swimmers can recognize a person in the water by the shape of his or her stroke.
Bosley has a high recovery, the crook of his elbow framing his face when he breathes to the left. After ten minutes of searching, we found him — in the upper middle of the pack and with a swimmer immediately behind him drafting on his toes. Against the rules!
Each swimmer does a thirty-minute leg for one rotation followed by ten-minute legs until the finish.
Bosley got us well into the channel. Rogers was up next. We started peppering him with encouragement. “Don’t get me too revved up, mate,” he said as he strapped on his goggles. “I want my last fifteen minutes to be better than my first fifteen.”
As I soon found out, trying to pace ourselves was a tall order. You don’t train for months and travel for miles just to take your time about things. Still, an unexpected calm came over me just before my first leg. But did I tell you my left shoulder was killing me? And I have two fake hips? Yeah, that.
I dove off the bow of the My Girl after Rogers and Beazer finished their first legs. The adrenaline shot through me so hard that for a moment I didn’t notice how warm the water was in the middle of the channel. After a summer of record Hawaiian heat and cross curls of hurricanes, it was hot. Too hot. But man, was it clear.
Crossbeams of sunshine darted down, down, through the limitless, blue depth. The surface water was relatively calm. Just beneath was another story. That southern rip was pulling my suit off, dragging me toward Molokai — the wrong island. Twenty minutes in, my body burned from the inside out.
While captains of other, much fancier boats had been watching their million-dollar electronics, Captain Norm had been watching the setting of the moon. Old school. His corrections, and a hell of a lot of yelling to our teammates, helped us maintain our position in the sleeves of currents.
In Olympic competition, finishing in the top three is called medaling. At the Maui Channel Swim, it’s called toweling for the beautiful, customized beach towels awarded to the top three teams. We wanted those towels.
That’s why we kept track of the green-flagged boats as we stroked our way to Maui. The old competitive juices boiled over. The Beaze swam the last leg to Maui, crashing home on a shore break in a glorious display of body surfing, then running up the beach to the finish line.
The UW’s Silver Bullets placed third.
He wai e ola Water
Water is to Hawaii what jazz is to New Orleans. A mainlander looks at a saltwater sea and says you can’t drink it. A Hawaiian says you can’t live without it. I thought about the blessing of water in my life as The Beaze and I rested on our hotel balcony after the race banquet, sipping our last cold beers of the night. We gazed out toward Lanai, where our day had begun — 4,127 miles from Bascom Hill.
In the salty, still night air, voices arose from the hotel pool seven stories below. I looked. Even from that distance, there was no doubt in my mind that the father and son were local. They were in the midst of the small child’s first snorkeling lesson.
The boy got it. Head down, he wiggled across the surface like a water snake. Awash in pool lights and against the black bottom, the long white sleeves of their aqua shirts lit them up like they were an X-ray. It may have been the fatigue, but the sight sparked within me a profound connection to them.
I was witnessing the first strokes of another boy who was born to swim.