America’s new home for Olympic flatwater kayaking is the Ala Wai Canal, a radical change that might sound a little murky but actually makes perfect sense.
There was at least one Hawaii kayaker on every Olympic team from 1988 to 2004. When Hawaii was shut out at Beijing, it reverberated from Kailua to Chula Vista, Calif., and through the U.S. Canoe/Kayak program.
Former Australian coach Guy Wilding was named U.S. Sprint National Team coach in February. He had one deal-breaker of a demand: He would only do it if he could move the kayaking base from the state-of-the-art training center at Chula Vista to Hawaii.
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"We’ve been coming here many years and know those going to the Olympics from Hawaii are the tip of the iceberg," Wilding says. "There’s so much talent here in water sports it’s crazy."
Two of Hawaii’s most talented are Kailua brothers Patrick and Ryan Dolan. They joined other national team members to ask the governing body to hire Wilding.
"It’s given us new life," says Patrick, 22. "In 2008 I was going for the Olympic team and I didn’t make it. There really was a point where I sat back and thought, ‘I didn’t make it. I love training but there is something missing.’ With him coming to Hawaii it’s become fun … with this coach we have someone we really like and can train with on a weekly basis and it’s really something we want to do."
Morgan House, the best American sprint kayaker, is living with the Dolan family. Other national team members, including Tim Hornsby and a few from other countries, are spread across Oahu, living with friends and committed Hawaii paddling families. Wilding’s wife Shelley Oates-Wilding, a former Olympic kayaker, is now coaching the Hawaii Canoe & Kayak team.
For the next two weeks, the Ala Wai will be relatively calm. Wilding has taken the national team to Europe to train for World Championships, which start Thursday in Poland.
His wife will take 18 Hawaii paddlers, including top prospects Tatjana Perrin, Shawn Kahookele, Rachel Kincaid and 14-year-old Kaimi Yoza, to Oklahoma City for National Championship that starts a week later.
They are the first steps toward the 2012 Games in London.
The Dolans no longer have to put their lives on hold to chase a dream, and Wilding has the home base he has craved nearly 20 years. He believed the cross-training available here and the tremendous support system would help the program flourish. The Dolans believe it is.
"They were frustrated in Chula Vista because they were doing all this work and not getting any better," Wilding said. "They said to me we’re not sure we want to do this anymore. I knew these guys were the real deal. They’ve got the potential to do anything."
Wilding even compliments the canal. He finds it very protected and fairly flat. For sure, the first thing paddlers do when they get out is wash themselves and their boat, but the best precaution against the Ala Wai unknown is his team’s talent. "These guys," Wilding says, "are at a level where they don’t fall in the water."
Instead of demanding massive numbers of miles, his training involves GPS’s and metronomes that control stroke rate. Each day is "periodized" and judged on its own merit. Each session is aimed at achieving a "specific training zone."
Immediate gratification is common, as are faster times. Boats are coming off the starting line two to three seconds faster and going a few seconds faster at identical stroke rates. In world-class paddling, that’s big.
"They are improving and they haven’t seen that in four years so they’re happy with what they’re doing and happy with life and happy being here with family and a lot of support," Wilding says.
At the heart of his push to move the U.S. training center here was a long history of observing Hawaii athletes on and in the water. He knew their feel for the water was something he could not train.
After nationals, the Wildings will be back at the Ala Wai, maybe until the 2016 Games.
"We’re employed until London," Shelley says. "In that time my goal is to make sure HCKT is really booming and there’s a good path for kids to get to the Olympics.
"Between London and Rio (the 2016 Olympics) is when we’d like to set up an Olympic Training Center. We’re definitely looking at staying here until the next Olympics. The Dolan boys and the others just don’t have enough time before this Olympics to show what they can do, but they will by the next Olympics."