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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

Going for gold in golden years

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser East Honolulu Writer

Ann Cundall, left, and Mary Fern, center, along with the rest of the team prepared for the competition yesterday at the Ala Wai Canal.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

When six women from across the state board a jetliner next week bound for Tahiti, they'll be carrying paddles, a little money and a lot of rice.

It wasn't easy coming up with the $12,000 needed to travel to and enter the International Va'a Federation World Sprints outrigger canoe race, so they'll be cooking their own food and staying someplace cheap. But these women — actually seven in all — aren't used to having it easy.

Among them, these women — average age 51 — have paddled the Moloka'i Channel 27 times, have 17 children and four grandchildren. They have practiced and trained for three hours a day since dedicating themselves to winning the women's senior masters division in the world championship. They don't have a coach or sponsors. One of them just got divorced.

And one has breast cancer.

Team O'ahu is undaunted.

"I'll be back in the boat this summer," said Susan Heitzman, who won't be able to travel with the group because of a chemotherapy treatment.

Her attitude speaks volumes about these women, about their spirit, grit and determination.

They thought about quitting when Heitzman learned that she had cancer. Instead they decided to forge ahead and to dedicate the March 11 race to her. They will be among 15 teams from Hawai'i competing in Bora Bora.

"We feel that we are within our goal and that is to bring O'ahu a world championship in 2002," said Deborah Kasnetz.

The women are a tight-knit bunch, bound together by their love of paddling. They come from as far away as Kaua'i, and know each other from paddling circles. During Hawai'i's regular outrigger season, they paddle for various teams.

The idea to go to the World Sprints, a weeklong international regatta that draws paddlers from around the world to compete in dozens of races, came to them when they were preparing for the Moloka'i-to-O'ahu race in August 2001. They talked to other paddlers they knew and gradually put together their team: Laola Lake, 49, of Kaua'i; Mary Fern, 51, of Niu Valley; Tiare Richert-Finney, 52, of Nu'uanu; Ann Cundall, 56, of Makiki; Laurie Lawson, 46, of Kahala; Kasnetz, 49, of Hawai'i Kai; and Heitzman, 57, who lives in Kaka'ako.

For three of the women, Fern, Lake and Richert-Finney, the paddling has been a reunion of sorts. All graduated together from Punahou but had gone their separate ways, Richert-Finney said.

"We had never hung out together when we were in school," she said. "Now that we're grown up, I'm rediscovering them."

Lake has paddled with Team O'ahu only a few times. Living on Kaua'i, she has had to train largely on her own.

For each of the women, committing to the race meant a big sacrifice for their families, too. But all said they have their families' full support.

Reichert-Finney said her family joked that they'd have to fend for themselves for dinner while she is gone.

"My family were very supportive," said Lawson. "They said it was a chance in a lifetime. I'm not getting any younger."

Said Richert-Finney: "The sport knows no age boundaries and you can still do it no matter what age."

The women will compete in seven races total. But the women's senior masters championship is what they really want. It's 500 meters, all out.

They say they have a secret weapon: their speed. They won't reveal what their time is, but Kasnetz said their 500-meter sprint is faster than the winning time of 2 minutes 29 seconds recorded in Fiji two years ago. Hawai'i teams have fared well in past races. In 1998, Hawai'i won 18 gold medals and 38 overall medals for its best showing in the event, which has been held every other year since 1984.

But even as they talk about the race and winning the world championship, their thoughts inevitably return to Heitzman.

Each woman will be wearing Heitzman's name on her sleeve when the team takes the starting line.

When Heitzman is out of earshot, they say that she is the brave one, that her strength provides the courage for them all to do the unthinkable: Win a gold medal in their division at the World Sprints.

"We don't want to draw attention to the fact that we're old ladies," Richert-Finney said. "We want to be known as athletes."

Reach Suzanne Roig at sroig@honoluluadvertiser.com or 395-8831.