Suzie Cooney: Aloha, Respect and Solid Expertise

 I recently had the good fortune to meet Suzie Cooney doing what she does so often: providing her expertise for community events with great energy and generosity. You can also catch her working with clients at Suzie Trains Maui.  She has done over 23 free women’s clinics since 2009 that were, according to Suzie,  completely rewarding. Experiencing her enthusiasm as we did, it’s obvious that “giving” of her talent is a natural.

She gave the group doing a “fun race” part of the Olukai Ho’olaule’a event a well-designed warm-up before our event. It warmed us up – and with her encouraging words – helped us get the jitters out.

It is not a surprise that Suzie has chosen to connect her love of standup paddling with her passion for helping others gain fitness and knowledge. Having been an athlete prior to arriving to Maui ( 1999 ), and also having had the opportunity to work with people in sports orthopedics on the mainland, having knowledge of the anatomy – putting the two together made great sense.  Suzie explains this further, “I have worked both sides of the counter so to speak!  As an athlete, getting injured, coming back and then having the chance to help people with a better outcome from their own injury gave me great compassion.  I thoroughly enjoy helping people be their best and providing them an environment to succeed.”

My husband, Ed, and I enjoyed every moment of our 3+ mile down-winder so much that we plan to train for the longer Maliko run next year. We are certain that wind and wave conditions will temper that decision – one not to be taken lightly. Suzie will be a wonderful person to help us through training and that day-of-the-event decision. She paddles that stretch of ocean regularly and shares this insight, “Maliko is a stretch of open ocean that commands respect, supreme water confidence and body endurance combined with the skill of paddle surfing and stand up paddling in the most intense and extreme conditions. A paddler who ventures on this 10 mile adventure must be ready for anything.  The swells combined with high winds usually averaging over 25mph offer a thrilling roller coaster ride down big troughs that can connect with what we call “bumps” up to 200 yards long, sometimes longer.  The exhilarating take offs and drops leave you wanting more. Ten miles of this without having to paddle your brains out is absolutely addicting!” The picture to the right shows Suzie is riding an “addictive” section of “bumps.”

Another Suzi, a recent client of Cooney’s, recently arrived to Maui and found “Suzie Trains Maui” via the internet and through friends. Whatever the fitness level the client comes with, Cooney can customize the program to best meet both needs and expectation. The “other Suzie” was already an incredible surfer, sponsored skateboarder and all around charger.  Cooney was quite busy at the time the new client arrived, but Cooney made space in her schedule for “the other” Suzie. She insisted they start training right away and together they decided Maliko was “it” – just the right event to train toward.  The OluKai race would be her first competition and so the training began.  She felt with her base of surf knowledge and water experience this would be the ultimate challenge for her and allow her to have a goal and get into tip top shape.

She actually bought Cooney’s old race board and immediately Cooney got her out training in all conditions.  She then entered on her own, a smaller local race which turned out to be a crazy, unusual race with head winds the entire way.  Suzie Cooney explains, “It was tough, but a good taste for her. The moment I saw her paddle that Naish 14 foot Glide, I knew she had a special talent. I was stoked for her.”

In talking to Suzie, it is apparent that she is in the business heart and soul. She explains, “It’s a huge reward to prepare someone for their big day down Maliko.  It can go either really great or really bad. Sometimes people think they are ready and sometimes fear overcomes them and they simply can’t stand most of the run.  Coming out of the gulch takes the most out of people. It appears very calm and mellow from the ramp in the bay and soon as you hit the point, the wind can take your board and the swell can take you down so hard and fast you don’t know what hit you.  Most go out on their knees until they get the strength and body endurance to paddle hard against swell and big side winds until you’re out quite a ways.

I try to encourage people to interval train at high intensity because getting out of the gulch can take a lot of energy and there is no time to dilly dally. It’s full on until you get to turn the nose of your board down and head towards the amazing Iao Valley.  I teach people how to read the reefs along the way, where to have land marks and how to manage the changing conditions and often change half way down.  Keeping calm is the most important thing and relaxing your body if your not used to winds blasting at your back up to 40 mph.  Most people who have a wind sport in their life, like windsurfing or kiting do very well. They know how to read the water and wind which helps. 

All of Suzie’s clients first must do mini downwinders withher. A short down-winder could be like the one Ed and I did  from Paia Bay to Kanaha.  That experience serves to get novices  used to all that motion in the ocean.  From Suzie’s experience with many first timers, ” It’s a pretty big deal when we get to the harbor mouth and turn that tight corner in and then this sigh leaves their body, shoulders drop and the tension leaves their bodies! It’s pretty awesome.  Some are shaking, a couple have cried tears of joy and maybe a little relief.”

The people most likely to be labeled “watermen” (or waterwomen) are the least likely to adopt that label for themselves. Our time in Maui, especially at the Olukai Ho’olaule’a event, made us very aware of the waterman culture and spirit. We asked Suzie about that, “I believe always in giving back, for the more you give the more you get, especially from the ocean.  I’ve always admired how long time waterman and waterwomen have taken me under their wings and taught me how to respect the powers of the ocean and I wanted to do the same. So many people have no idea what it’s like to manage big or small waves, about the currents, the tides, the winds and how everything affects all aspects of what we enjoy out there.  Kula Sunn, Rell Sunn‘s sister is the biggest inspiration to me as she has spent a lot of time showing by example in all that she does.  We’ve surfed and dirt biked together and she would give her last gallon of gas or the shirt off her back.

It seems like a lot of athletes focus on what they won last or how many sponsors they have, and it’s really too bad.  They should be rewarded by the good deeds they do around their sport. SUP seems to attract kind and giving people who want to share with the world their joy for the sport. I love that.”

We were very fortunate to get to know Suzie. The true spirit of Aloha resonates within her spirit! When you’re in Maui looking for expert fitness and SUP training, call Suzie Trains Maui and Standup Paddling Fitness. 

SUP Perspective – Honoring and Conserving our Ocean

I recently had the good fortune to visit Honolua Bay on Maui. It was quite a different experience from the last time I was there for the Billabong Women’s Surf competition. In early May, the waves were small and the view from Lipoa Point stretched forever. Snorkelers were bobbing over the reefs toward shore, reefs that have enough threats from water temperature changes and need knowledge and protection for their future health.

One surfer had begun a paddle out from the smallish was breaking off the point. He was easily a mile or more offshore. From our vantage point high above the sea we could see a line where two currents and the out-going tide collided. The teeny silhouette of the paddler prone on his board approached the line. Suddenly we saw a consistent movement of splashing. It looked like some huge fish feeding – or a school. Then it got closer and we saw that it was a pod of spinner dolphin. They were leaping, spinning and playing right at the current line.

As the paddler approached he slipped off his board and into the water. the dolphin continued playing, surrounding him while keeping a safe distance. This went on for about 20 minutes, then they began heading further out to sea and around Lipoa Point – with the spinning and jumping show still going full on! The entire experience was breath-taking. The gift of having this area on West Maui is no small thing.

Like most other spectacular places on earth, developers have taken full advantage of deep pockets and real estate for sale. Singer and song writer, Bill Keale tells the story of this in his beautiful way in “Waimanalo Blues” – take a listen.

Lipoa Point is no different. Luckily for the area, there is a strong group of people dedicated to saving Honolua Bay and its unique environment and sea life. I saw a May 30 post on the KIALOA Facebook page that made me very happy. Not the topic (Honolua Bay threatened by development), but the message (youth working with community to make a difference). Please take a look at this video by Joseph Graves.

The “Save Honolua Coalition” has gotten developers’ plans for a golf course and luxury homes retracted for now, but the land is still owned by the developers. The hope is to revitalize the bay and to acquire the land as part of a land trust – using traditional Hawaiian beliefs and practices. The group is very wise in preparing not just to acquire the land but to establish a management plan. Not only is Honlua bay home to many marine species, even a rare breed of sea turtle, but the reefs are fragile cornerstones to all life in the area.

The reefs impact the unique waves for surfers and snorkeling areas – all important to the tourism industry on the island.  Honolua Bay is a state marine life conservation district, but that alone is not enough to save the area.

Please watch the beautifully created video that Joseph created for a school project and please share your ideas or experience in this type of conservation effort – together we can help each other.

Winds of (Standup Paddle) Fortune

Elder SUP paddle Bend OregonIt’s a long story (video – see below) but today was one of my last training days before next week’s 11-lap / 31-miler standup paddle in the Deschutes River following the route through the Old Mill District of Bend, OR. I bundled my iPhone in its waterproof case and logged into Nike+ GPS so that I would be certain to log my scheduled 6 mile course. I had left the house just after 7 am in order to miss the wind that had been whipping up white caps up and down the river all week.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the wind is my friend, like when my buddy Cristina Acosta and I use her hand-painted sarongs to glide down wind. But when going for mileage up and down a river, with a against some pretty hefty current, the wind is a totally different “friend.”

By the time I got ready to launch my SUP board the wind was more than 15 mph and increasing, but the flag on the stacks showed it was blowing behind me while I trekked up-current (Horray!)

So weirdly, the up current leg seemed really easy.  I got into a rhythm and a glide. The upstream turn at the rapids just past the Healy Bridge seemed to come up more quickly than usual, but it actually hadn’t been as fast as it seemed. Nike+ gave me my splits and I was a bit slower than usual. Mmmm?  The last rock on river right is my turn buoy, so I rounded it ready for the down stream leg #1. Wow! Wind in the face, but it had to be a faster leg since it was down current. Once I passed under the flags at mile 2.4 I wondered if I was going to make any headway. Tucking close to the bank trying to avoid the wind, head down and choked up on the paddle handle I started a fast and steady paddle pace. Exhilarating for sure. Elder SUP at healy bridge bend oregon

Rounding the buoy just before the spillway  Nike+ reported my pace and I had shaved 3 minutes off my last upstream mile – in spite of how the 25mph wind-in-the-face actually felt. This got me thinking. (Scary!)

Life, sometimes when we are in the flow it seems like all of our effort is driving us toward goals and successes. While paddling a rhythmic pace against a pretty strong current, the steady wind at my back made the journey delightful.  The chorus of wind ripples playing under my board as it glided up river was energizing and sweet. Reaching, planting the paddle, executing a smooth catch, stroke and return happened easily. Yet, there was a powerful current working its best against my forward movement. With its effects buried beneath the forward moving wind-powered surface of the river the paddle seemed almost effortless.

Doesn’t life do that for us – at times. Even when it’s an uphill battle something plays the role of “wind at our back” and that makes all the difference.

Similarly, when life is good – a down-wind cruise if we let it – a bit of unexpected “wind in our face” sets us back. Mentally or emotionally, what seems to be the driving force in things, what’s visible and obvious is not always so. Just like my struggle to keep the nose of my board into the wind and churning chop seemed to make that part of the journey slower, in reality the deeper down-river current provided a faster run.

Before I knew it my 6.22 miles was done – maybe it was the endorphins or the insights, but I left that training run fully charged!

Aloha Spirit the Olukai Way

Not too long ago I downloaded an app for my phone so I could learn some Hawaiian phrases. When spoken authentically it’s not only music to the ears but it’s a solid study of meaning and nuance. For many reasons, the app sits unused on my phone these days.  The more I experience the language from those who live it the less I want to “pretend” to understand it.

For example, at the recent Olukai Ho’olaule’a events the experience surpassed the words. To quote from the event’s website, “Ho’olaule’a – literally means “celebration”, but for [Olukai], it’s also an expression of gratitude. Each May, we hold our interpretation of this storied Hawaiian tradition on Maui’s north shore. The event blends elite competition with family-friendly cultural activities and gathers some of the world’s best SUP and OC1 paddlers to race the legendary 8-mile Maliko downwind run. Friends and families come together to enjoy canoe sailing and surfing, ancient Hawaiian games, traditional luau, hula, and live music. We take this opportunity to recognize and honor our ‘Ohana Giveback partners, as the community shares collective gifts of time, energy, and spirit.

After the event, Ed and I strolled down the beach to wait our turn for a ride on the Olukai sailing canoe. The team’s canoe had been blessed in the traditional ceremony just the evening before. A group of guys wearing the yellow Olukai shirts were sitting in the sand, so we joined them. One, Ross Ka’a we later learned, greeted us with a smile and drew out our stories of sailing, our love of the ocean and such. We learned a bit about his life, paddling and a few races but not much more. It was obvious that he was a waterman, but the extent of his spirit of aloha hadn’t hit us yet.

We took our turn on the sailing canoe, zooming through the surf and sun – WOW! what a chicken-skin ride!

Soon after that it was time for the awards ceremony. At the front of the stage was a full sized outrigger paddle made of a blend of koa and native woods. It was set on a base carved in the shape of four Makau, or bone hooks. That Makua is the Olukai mark, the traditional Polynesian symbol worn for strength, good luck, and safe passage over water.

Later during the awards ceremony for the Maliko Gulch competitors for the Ho’olaule’a event we had another treat. Little did we know that we had been chatting on the beach with Ross Ka’a, the master craftsman who created that award. He never gave a hint as to his relationship with the team or his expertise in building traditional paddles and crafting with wood. Speaking with some who have known Ross for decades, we learned he is a master wood worker gifted in the craft of making art pieces from native woods. He has been a friend to Olukai for a long time.

Toward the end of the awards ceremony Ross was called up to present the trophy he’d created to Olukai team leader, Marvin Otsuji. Marvin has been leading Team OluKai as master steersman for 25 years. The team broke the longstanding record in the Na Holo Kai race and captured the overall 2008, 2009 and 2010 season championships. Marvin led the team to the most winning record for the past 15 years straight.

Not only is Marvin a great waterman with an innate knowledge of some of the trickiest channels in the world, he competes with pure “aloha.” In a sport where wind and weather, equipment and demands of the sport can wreck havoc on any given race, his consistent success could be rooted in his love of the sport – without expectation. That’s pure aloha mixed with tradition and culture.

Yes, I think it is time to delete that app from my phone. Learning to pronounce a few Hawaiian phrases pales in the face of experiencing the meaning behind the words. Practicing pronunciation – not so much. “Living” a life with aloha and embracing the day with Ho’olaule’a – now we’re talking!

Sailing Canoes, Hawaiian Culture and a Jazzy Good Time!

Look at that sailing canoe! Even sitting on the sand it looks fast and elegant. Except for the block on the main sheet the entire craft is made the traditional way with ropes, knots and wood. Ed and I had the chance to take a ride with part of the Team Olukai as part of the activities around the Olukai Ho’olaule’a event.

Since 1987, the Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association has been leading the charge to ‘learn, revive, educate, and practice ancient Hawaiian skills as they relate to sailing canoes and the Hawaiian culture.’ As the team races various courses across the Hawaiian island chain, at each stop the team offers free canoe rides to locals and tourists, educating them on the cultural and historical importance of the craft. We hopped aboard with three of the team members and set off for exhilarating fun.

Throughout the sail the team shared stories and information, tradition and obvious commitment to their sport. The winds and seas were probably quite mild compared to what they’d usually experience in a crossing, but we had the jazzy, sea-splashed pleasure of getting a taste of the experience. 


Inquiring about the ti leaves and wreaths on the canoe, we learned that it had recently been completely re-built. That day was its first launch since being blessed the evening before. The more we learned about the entire story the more engaging it became. For Ed and for me the experience riding along with the team was more than impressive. It provided a unique combination of harnessing wind, surf, paddles and camaraderie – all dear to us. We can’t wait to return to Maui and the Olukai Ho’olaulea next year.

Finishing with a Grin is a Win

As each finisher in the Olukai Ho’olaulea race came to shore, they tossed their paddles, leaped from their boards and sprinted to the finish – sometimes on wobbly legs. Not so for our friend, Deja Howard, we had met earlier in the week at Hawaiian Island Surf and Sport where we’d rented our SUP gear.  Splashing toward shore she added a quick “thank you” to the volunteer hauling her board out of the surf and with her trademark grin she started the sprint to the finish going strong.

The energy expended in the run from Maliko Gulch had to be killer. Ed and I took our time heading on up to congratulate Deja thinking she’d need a few minutes to catch her breath. Not so!

By the time we made our way through the crowd she’d located a fellow paddler named Peggy and they were into re-hashing their race already. Peggy, it seems, had been right on Deja during the entire race – sometimes they jockey-ed for position but they spent the run neck and neck.  Deja was quick to thank Peggy for the constant push, “I wouldn’t have booked it so hard if you weren’t right there on me the entire time.” 

Graciously, Peggy smiled and they continued on – now about the wind, the waves and the fun. Although both women were obviously strong competitors (having placed in their respective age groups) the journey was the WIN!

If you have the chance to visit Maui, swing by  Hawaiian Island Surf and Sport and plan to talk story with the team.  You can schedule a lesson and enjoy meeting new friends there. It’s that kind of environment.

Until next year, we plan to practice our technique and maintain those smiles – it’s the way to go!

Super SUPer: Fun and Focus

Whenever Central Oregon’s (Bend) Brit Oliphant is out on the water training or competing there are two things you’ll notice: brilliant smile and laser-focus. A busy teen, Brit balances her many outdoor interest, friends and work with a dedication to training toward her standup paddling goals.  That’s not to suggest she spends all of her time on flat-water.  Give that woman a glassy wave, open ocean chop or wind-whipped swells and you’ll make her one happy camper!

Take a look at a short video clip of Brit and fellow SUP competitor, Vanina Walsh in the 21012 Quicksilver Waterman Waikiki Paddle SUP Contest.


Paia Youth and Cultural Center Rocks the Airwaves and the Waves

We had the opportunity to visit the Paia Youth and Cultural Center on Paia Bay in Maui last week. It was the host site for the start of the fun race portion of the larger and longer Maliko Gulch run of the Olukai Ho’olaule’a. The  first thing we noticed as we were signing up and getting to know some of the other 100 fun-racers out on the lawn was the great selection of music playing.  Then a voice that sounded like a very young DJ came on the air – what was that all about?

I saw a person who seemed to be organizing some of the paddlers and seemed in charge of the building so I introduced myself and came to meet Peter. Peter told me that the music was provided by the youth staffed radio station located just above my head in the second floor of the center.  It was just 7:30 am on a Saturday so it was obvious that a dedicated team of youth were managing the station.

He explained that the Paia Youth & Cultural Center had just completed a long round of fund-raising. The celebration was coming up soon. Part of their effort in hosting this event was in appreciation of all the support that Olukai has provided them through the years.

Peter proudly showed me some of the new paddle boards and windsurfers they had been able to acquire for the youth in training. We didn’t talk long. He had some young paddlers to encourage and help with their equipment and consequent launch into the ocean just out in the back. Throughout the extremely neat and clean clubhouse were slogans and posters supporting recycling, not smoking, respecting each other and the Hawaiian culture.

Ocean Paddler Adventure Splashes Us on the Couch

During the long, cold, snowy winter in Oregon we love to alpine ski. For the most part that quells our need for adventure and fun. But often during the winter evenings – which could be from November through May in Oregon – we start to crave islands, oceans and paddling.  Luckily for us we can record all the shows we want from the Ocean Paddler TV.  While I am not much of a television-watcher, I can watch the same segment of a canoe paddling race or raging SUP big wave event again and again. My husband, Ed, is even more tuned in to the show’s options.

Imagine his pleasant surprise when we arrived at Paia Youth Culture Center in Paia on May 12 to find his favorite television crew there on the scene. It was great to learn that they were not only going to cover the phenomenal Maliko Gulch portion of the Olukai Ho’olaule’a race, but the fun 3 mile segment we planned to do. 

Suzie Cooney with Elder Sup, JudyEven before the fun-race started the crew was diligent in making sure they talked to most of the competitors and connected many of the nervous first-timers (us included) with local SUP trainer Suzie Cooney. Suzie lead us in a series of stretches, cardio and wicked warrior chants to get use psyched and ready.

The team from Ocean Paddler set up shots from all locations with interviews taking place continuously. From the Olukai team sailing canoe to preparation from some in-the-water filming it was great fun to watch the detail and professionalism all the way.  When the Ocean Paddler big yellow chopper zoomed in to take some shots of about 100 of us at the start, we couldn’t have felt more jazzed. Butterflies were replaced by plenty of quick paddle strokes out past the first reef to a safe deep-water area to turn down-wind and become a part of Hawaiian SUP tradition.

Ocean Paddler ready for water with Elder SUP

Can’t wait to re-live the event again and again from the sea-splashed comfort of our couch next winter.

Olukai – Strong tradition of giving

On May 12 we were fortunate to be on Maui and to have the chance to experience the last 3 miles of the famous Maliko Gulch run as part of the Olukai Ho’olaulea paddling event. From the first contact with the team from Olukai at Paia Youth and Cultural Center to the finish of the final participants a Kanaha Beach Park it was obvious that Olukai lives their vision and mission daily.

It is a lot more than the excellent products they deliver.  To summarize from their website, “OluKai was conceived from a desire to create a better class of products for the life we live in and around the water. There is a strong tradition of giving an offering or tribute in Polynesian culture.”  Let me share a story of just one of the dedicated Olukai team members I met and observed at the event.

Michelle St John, on the far right in the picture, first started chatting with me after I finished the 3 mile fun race segment and we were waiting for the Maliko Gulch racers to arrive in an hour or so. In the Olukai booth, she and some team members were answering questions, and generally giving us kudos and smiles for having done our first Maui North Shore down-winder. Suddenly, Michelle looked at me (62 year old, salt sprayed, sweaty person) and asked, ‘Are you thirsty?”

Heck yeah I was thirsty – I didn’t think to bring water on the SUP journey. The ice cold bottle of water she handed me was about the best tasting refreshment in the world! Because of that exchange I happened to notice Michelle throughout the rest of the day.  She didn’t remain standing casually on the beach for long. As you can see by the banners, the wind had picked up by 1:00.  

Paddlers started arriving in droves, 10-12 at a time. As they sprinted to the finish, they ditched their boards and dashed off. The hand full of strong young teens ready to collect the boards and stack them out of the way were overloaded in no time.

Without a moment’s hesitation I saw Michelle dash into the fray, giving a hand or managing to collect and move 14 foot paddle boards for as long as it took.  Splashing knee deep in the surf or slogging through the deep wet sand there was one consistent thing – a big smile and plenty of energy.

 That’s the spirit that pervaded the day and the event.

This annual event blends elite competition with family-friendly cultural activities including canoe sailing, ancient Hawaiian games, traditional luau, hula, and live music. We had an amazing time – from the incredible clear waters and knee-knocking swells to the luau feast and traditional games.  What a great way to support Olukai and to be able to benefit their “Ohana Giveback Program.” We saw it up close and first-hand. This is not a “your logo here” company! Way to go, Olukai.