Faces of the Diaspora: A Hawaiian Waterman’s Lifelong Love of Paddling

Photo: Kevin Loy Kealiʻi Olds
Kevin Loy Kealiʻi Olds – Courtesy Photos

Kevin Loy Kealiʻi Olds is, at his core, a waterman.

Much of his 60 years of life has centered around a devotion to outrigger canoe paddling, riding the highs and weathering the lows of the Polynesian sport. “It never let me go,” Olds said.

One of four siblings, he spent his childhood in Glen Cove, N.Y. His father flew jets in the military before taking a job at Pan American Airways.

With Kānaka Maoli ancestry on both sides of his ʻohana, Olds traveled to Hawaiʻi each year with his parents. And when Olds was in elementary school, his family relocated to Oʻahu.

His family first made a home base in the Kuliʻouʻou Valley. Olds joined the Hui Nalu Canoe Club and became a “water-based baby,” fishing and playing in canoes, he said.

“Once we started learning what Hui Nalu really meant and the history behind it, the pride was there,” Olds said. The club was founded in 1908 by Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian surfer and swimmer, along with Knute Cottrell and Ken Winter.

As Olds grew up, he embraced the changes in his ever-evolving sport. In particular, he warmed to the single-man canoe – a different vessel from Hawaiʻi’s standard six-person canoe.

“I learned to adapt to that pretty early, and I excelled,” Olds said.

His family reconnected with paternal relatives in Tahiti as a result of a voyage by Hōkūleʻa. Olds remembers staying with relatives in the village of Tautira. His father took a team of paddlers to Tahiti to race, and they returned with a pair of small, wooden canoes. A curious Olds begged to practice on one of the single-person canoes – to no avail.

Undeterred, “one day, I just rolled over on my skateboard, put the canoe on my shoulder and skated down to Kuliʻouʻou Park, and then put the boat in the water and took off,” Olds said. He started to learn on his own in secret, often paddling several times each day in Maunalua Bay.

“It was just magic,” he said.

In 1978, at the age of 14, Olds competed in the first single-person canoe race in Hawaiʻi – and won. From then on, “I could count 13 years that, every race that I competed in, I was fortunate enough to still beat these men,” he said. “Some respected that, and a lot resented it.”

And Olds still faced trouble integrating as a Hawaiian born in the diaspora.

“People used to say, ‘Hey, brah, you’re not Hawaiian. You weren’t born here,’” he said. “But people give grief.”

As a student at Henry J. Kaiser High School in Honolulu, Olds served as the president of the Nā ʻŌpio Canoe Racing Association, graduating in 1981. His next goal: To be the first Hawaiian to make the Olympic team in canoe paddling.

Olds enrolled at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. He began training with the Offshore Canoe Club, but “I couldn’t bust into that group, so I came back to Hawaiʻi.” There, he made the Molokaʻi team for the Outrigger Canoe Club.

After the tragic deaths of loved ones, Olds left Hawaiʻi, shifting his focus to training for the Olympic team. In 1986, he made it to a European national team and traveled the world. He also moved around the U.S. for training camps in Indiana, Florida, and New York.

However, training on Olympic flat water canoes put stress on his body. “One month before the Olympic trials, I blew my shoulder,” Olds said. It hurt his performance in the finals – a “very upsetting” time in his life, he added. Two operations allowed him to continue paddling.

Afterward, his priorities shifted from sport to ʻohana. In 1989, Olds and his ex-partner of 17 years had their daughter, Skye Kolealani, in Huntington Beach, Calif. Their son, Kyle Kanaʻiaupuni, followed soon after, and the family moved to Mesa, Ariz., for eight years.

With its dry, hot climate and bodies of water, “it reminded me of Nānākuli,” Olds said. He spent his time canoeing the rivers, exploring old mine shafts, and riding his motorcycle.

Back then, he represented the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team. Olds helped develop a plan for a potential aquatic center for rowing and paddling, but it fell through. The disappointment spurred Olds to move back to California in 2001.

Today, he works as a rigger for the entertainment industry, climbing the rafters of stadiums and theaters to set up for events. But paddling always calls him back. He builds canoes and serves as the head coach of the Offshore Canoe Club.

Photo: Offshore Canoe Club
Olds serves as head coach of Southern California’s Offshore Canoe Club, pictured here.

In recent years, a paddler invited him to a showing of a film about Kahanamoku’s rescue of capsized yacht passengers in the nearby harbor. It left Olds inspired to create a local monument to Kahanamoku. He plans to form the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Legacy Foundation and raise funds for the statue.

“I believe it’s going to be one of the most looked upon, viewed and visited places in all of Southern California,” he said. “This is pono.”

He and his partner – a retired policewoman of Hawaiian descent – are considering possible moves to Arizona, Texas or Hawaiʻi. For now, when Olds needs a reminder of the islands, he looks around his yard in Anaheim, Calif., with its waterfall, strawberry guava and yuca.

“Everything happens for its reasons,” he said. “Sometimes, things have to fall apart to come back together.”