A Stand-up Guy
By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer
"I didn't stand up. The Lord lifted me up." That's what John Zapotocky, 91, of Diamond Head, said when he stood up again recently on a paddleboard for the first time in four years, after a lifetime spent pushing that paddle.
Zap, as he is called by other Waikīkī watermen, has been stand-up paddling since the mid-1940s. He's spent so much beach time at Waikīkī that he's often called an "honorary beach boy," and he's recognized by surfing veterans as one of the earliest practitioners of stand-up paddling.
After two total knee replacements, Zapotocky took a few years off from stand-up paddling, but he's in physical therapy to work on regaining strength and agility that will allow him to spend more time on a stand-up board.
"He's one of the few guys from that old-school bunch doing this sport," said Todd Bradley, 50, of Pālolo, owner of C4 Waterman, which specializes in stand-up paddleboards as well as teaching the sport. "My partner Brian Keaulana and I — well, to us, he's one of the true pioneers of the sport."
It was Bradley who recently encouraged Zap to get back up on a board.
"He's got the heart of a lion," Bradley said.
TAUGHT BY DUKE
While many of today's stand-up paddlers came from the sport of surfing, Zapotocky considers himself a stand-up paddler first and foremost. He was out surfing on an 11-foot redwood surfboard in Waikīkī in the mid-1940s when Duke Kahanamoku paddled up next to him on a stand-up paddleboard.
"I asked him about it and he taught me and I've been doing it ever since," Zapotocky said during an interview in his sun-drenched Diamond Head home.
Surfer Glenn Shea, 66, of Mānoa, also calls Zapotocky a pioneer of the sport.
"Only two guys used to stand-up paddle: John and Pop AhChoy," Shea said. Shea labels Zapotocky "an inspiration to others."
"He used to be out there all by himself," Shea said. "He's been amazing. He always joked that he did stand-up because he didn't want to get his hair wet. He was out there almost every day. He would even carry his own board until fairly recently."
Surfer Gerry Lopez, author of the book "Surf is Where You Find It," remembers seeing Zapotocky stand-up paddling in Waikīkī in the '60s, when Lopez was in high school.
"He's been doing it for, like, 70 years," Lopez said. "He's a sweet, sweet person."
Zapotocky was ahead of his time, Lopez said, noting, "Right now, stand-up is the fastest-growing segment of the surfing world."
Stand-up paddling is a sport that can be done by many well into their senior years. The paddle offers balance, while the boards are built wider and longer for ease in getting up and staying up.
Zapotocky's stand-up paddleboard is 10 feet 8 inches long and 28 inches wide.
For many years Zapotocky and his health-oriented wife, Anne, tended organic gardens. They also shopped largely at Down To Earth and other health food stores.
He's a member of the Vegetarian Society of Hawai'i. "But I'm not 100 percent vegetarian," he said.
Zapotocky now lives alone in the Diamond Head home that he and Anne lived in for 54 years. Anne has dementia and resides in an assisted living home. It is his fervent hope they will be able to live together again very soon.
Zapotocky said he prepares his own meals. He eats oatmeal with wheat germ and sunflower seeds or eggs for breakfast.
For lunch it's usually a salad and organic soup from the health food store.
For dinner he catches a cab to Safeway or a Chinese restaurant to pick up a salad, brown rice and fish, or Chinese food.
"If you're gonna eat something, eat something fresh" is his approach to eating.
He snacks on papayas and mangos, which he grows in his backyard.
Anne was a dedicated swimmer, walking down the right of way across the street to get to the ocean every day. She and Zapotocky also played tennis for many years.
For Zapotocky, the ocean plays a critical role in his life and his health.
"I want to be out there surfing until I'm at least 100," he said. His fellow watermen are hoping the same thing.