2016 Ali'i Challenge

Pushing Through to the Finish

By Rani Henderson - West Hawaii Today
If you happened to be at Kamakahonu Beach this past Sunday for the finish of the Big Island’s longest running swim event, the Ali’i Challenge, you would agree it had a pleasant grass-roots familiarity to it.

Maybe it was the potluck-style buffet of sliced watermelon, bananas, and delicious homemade muffins displayed on top of a cooler and a makeshift table, or the few random friends and family scattered along the beachside waiting to cheer their athlete in.

After 30 years of hosting the nostalgic Ali’i Challenge 6-mile Rough Water Swim race from Keauhou Bay to Kamakahonu Beach – not much has changed, which to everyone’s delight, is a good thing.

Race director Tom Sena began the Alii Challenge in 1987 to give Big Islanders a long distance swim race of their own. For the first six years, the event began from Kaiakeakua Beach, next to the Kailua Pier, and finished in Keauhou Bay.

However, Sena soon realized that holding a long distance swim during the middle of Hawaii’s hurricane season often produced stronger currents going against the direction of the athletes. So to take advantage of a following current, he decided to change the direction of the race, starting from Keauhou Bay and finishing on Kamakahonu’s sandy beach. And it’s been this way ever since.

Yet what athletes appreciate the most is Sena’s laid-back and low-key approach - keeping it fun, first-class, and a family-oriented event. It’s no wonder the Alii Challenge continues to thrive year after year.

Nice job Kristen! 2016 Ali'i Challenge Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. #swimhairdontcare  :)

“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” Sena counted as he waited eagerly on the beach for the first finisher with his good ol’ fashioned timing system - a pencil, paper, and wristwatch. “Yep, that’s Daniel Kniseley but he won’t be here for long. I think he’s got to go to work somewhere.”

Kniseley, last year’s Triple Crown Swim Series winner, competed in the “solo” division and claimed his first Alii Challenge victory with his winning time of 2 hours, 18 minutes and 20 seconds. The 55-year old’s time was just shy of Jim McCleery’s 2012 Men’s Master (40-59 years) Individual record of 2:18:00.

And Sena was right. Not a minute after he finished, Kniseley ran out of the water and out of sight.

Sprinting toward the finish in second place and first overall in the relay division were the team of Ryan Cohen and Matthew Ostream with their time of 2:29:48. Both attend and swim for Hawaii Preparatory Academy and are 16-years of age.

“I swam it last year,” Cohen said. “Because the current was against us for the second half of the race last year, I felt that the race was a lot easier this year. The current was with us and things were pretty calm.”

Ostream agreed that this year’s conditions were near perfect with the exception of feeling some seasickness that became a mental challenge.

“The only time the ocean got rough was when the boats would pass by and cause some waves but that’s the most bumpy it would get,” Ostream said. “This was my first (Alii Challenge) but I think swimming might not have been physically the hardest. It was paddling on the board that made me kind of sick so mentally that was the toughest challenge. I got sick a couple of times but once I got back into the water then I felt okay.”

Third overall and second in the relay division were the dynamic duo of Kealakekua’s Tori Oshiro and Duke “smiley” Becker with their time of 2:33:29. Rounding out the third spot in the team division were Sarah Sermons and her younger brother, Chris Chang, with their time of 2:39:10.

Following Kniseley in the men’s individual race was Keola Oka who finished with a time of 2:41:15 – knocking off an impressive 21-minutes from his time last year. Rob Murray followed in sixth overall and third for the men in 2:50:10.

In the women’s individual race, Kona’s Kristin Old claimed her first Alii Challenge victory with a time of 2:49:20.

“Today was challenging probably more mentally than it was physically,” Old said. “I had a good support crew, Annalee Akagi and her friend Grant, so they kept it positive and kept cheering me on. It felt good till probably the IRONMAN buoy because we had a nice little current, but then after that I felt like we lost a bit of the current. I think for an endurance event like this it’s always more of a mental challenge than a physical one.”

Old, a math teacher at Kealakehe High School and advisor for the Waverider Triathlon Club, added that she swam 8-minutes faster this year and attributed her success to a season paddling with Kai Opua and her focus on endurance training for October’s IRONMAN World Championships. Old is also hopeful to be able to make the women’s crew for September’s Molokai Channel canoe race.

Duke Becker, Kona Aquatics. 2016 Ali'i Challenge.

“I think it’s an endurance thing,” Old said. “The most challenging was trying to stay positive. But when you can mentally push through something as challenging like this, it helps you with the mental aspect of IRONMAN or the mental aspect of distance paddling. You just know that when you put the hard work in, then you can cash it in.”

Rounding out the next two spots in the women’s division was Catherine Spina in 2:58:30, and Denise Boatwright in third at 3:27:30.

When all was said and done, it would be a few jellyfish stings, mouthfuls of watermelon, and lots of smiles summing up Sunday’s 30th edition of the Ali’i Challenge - and with Old’s final remarks putting it all into perspective.

“It can never be a bad day when you get to swim in the ocean like here in Hawaii.”

Updated: 
August 19, 2016 - 12:05am
Kristin Old won the women's individual competition at Sunday's 30th Annual Ali'i Challenge 6-Mile Rough Water Swim race in a time of 2:49:20. (Rani Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)