As the crowd moved forward at the start of the race, Meira Va’a’s son Kanoa had his eyes on his sister. Meira was looking at the road ahead.
Six miles up and down country hills is a long way to pull an extra 122 pounds, though Meira had done it once before.
Meira’s daughter Aulani, an 11-year-old fifth grader, is an athlete with the Leeward Jaguar Special Olympics. For the last four years, Aulani’s coach Jim Ritchie has brought his team to the Wahiawa Pineapple Race, a friendly 10k sponsored every year by the Navy Chief Petty Officers Association.
Ritchie knew Meira was looking for ways to get Aulani into the community. Meira says Ritchie told her, “I already signed her up,” to which she replied, “Then let’s go!”
For Aulani to participate meant someone had to push her wheelchair. Aulani was born with a condition called holoprosencephaly, meaning her brain is underdeveloped. She doesn’t walk or speak but is able to let the people closest to her know how she’s feeling with facial expressions and noises of joy or complaint.
“I was told she wasn’t going to live past three years, but she beat that,” Meira said. “I was already an adaptive person myself, so in some ways it was easier.”
Meira uses the term “adaptive person” to describe her situation rather than some of the other words people fumble over. For her, it is a particularly apt term. She is an accomplished paralympic athlete who has competed in adaptive surfing, paddling and track and field. With some adaptive measures, she can do pretty much anything.
Meira had a rough road early in life. When she was a child, her mother died of breast cancer; her father abandoned the family. At 15, Meira was in a car accident in Samoa that fractured three vertebrae, damaged her spinal cord and left her in a coma for almost four months.
She credits a visit from “a guardian angel at my bedside” that helped her get out of that hospital bed. It was Mother’s Day, 2001, and the son of the woman in the next bed came to visit his mom. He got to talking to Meira’s family. It turned out he was the physician for the Samoan rugby team. When he heard of Meira’s condition and the recommendation that she not be moved from the hospital lest her injuries worsen, his response was, “Who told you that? Take her home and help her get well!” Her aunties took his advice and brought her home, where her recovery began. She moved to Hawaii soon afterward.
“I honestly feel, and this is going on 18 years now since my accident, I feel I will be able to walk again,” she said. She has progressed from years in a wheelchair to under-arm crutches, then elbow crutches. Now, she only uses one crutch.
Meira’s goal as an athlete is to do a triathlon. Her goal as a mom is to have Aulani with her. She’s been training in the pool with a 40-pound float, working up to being able to handle Aulani’s 52-pound body. With her custom hand-cycle, she hooks Aulani’s 70-pound wheelchair on with a tow-bar. Pulling that weight is hard, but Meira was all smiles on race day.
“I always want her with me,” Meira said. “It’s about inclusion, just to be involved in the community, to do what the community is doing and to have people see her. And she loves it the whole time.”
Meira, Aulani, Kanoa and Meira’s boyfriend Alex Nelson, along with the rest of the Leeward Jaguars wearing their orange team shirts, started the race near the back of the 1,300 runners. Last year, Meira and Aulani completed the race in just about an hour. This year, an hour passed, then another half hour, then it was nearly two hours with no sign of them.
Coach Ritchie was worried. He texted Meira but got no response. The team supporters were concerned about Kanoa. He had never raced before, and it was a long course for a little second grader to keep up with his athletic mom, even with Alex there to support them.
Then, there was a flash of orange at the end of the street. Yes, that was them!
When Team Aulani rounded the corner and Ritchie let out an “Oh!” of surprise. Aulani’s wheelchair was no longer attached to her mother’s adaptive bike. They had stopped along the way and Alex had taken the wheelchair off the tow bar. Meira was cycling on her own. Kanoa was pushing his sister. He looked tired, but he looked determined.
The family got closer, and Kanoa suddenly dug deep and put on a burst of speed, sprinting down the road past his mother to triumphantly cross the finish line with Aulani.
Meira slowed and watched her children with pride. It was Aulani’s race. It was Kanoa’s victory, too.
“Being a mom is all about doing the best you can,” she said. “As long as you’re doing your best and doing the right thing, that’s all that matters.”
Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or email@example.com.