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Wahine o Hawai`i
1999 Kawika Sands

Sheila Conover

Sheila has gained recognition in both the competitive outrigger canoe racing `ohana and in the Olympic world. We were introduced by Peter Wilson at her office in the Olympic Training Center in Mission Valley, San Diego, California. Sheila was warm, attentive and receptive. A feeling I received at every encounter with her.

Upon telling her of my vision for the Keiki Outrigger Camp this past summer, her very first question was "How can I help?" Her willingness to share and participate extended to the Keiki when she appeared at Camp to give them a paddling demonstration, talk to them about her Olympic career and meet with them on a one-to-one basis. Perhaps even inspiring a future olympian?

One thing I didn't really notice in her office when we were all in casual attire was her stature. After her presentation at Camp, when Sheila and I spoke to discuss the following interview, I noticed how much TALLER she was. And (embarrassingly for me), how buffed! I can only imagine the kind of shape she was in during the height of her Olympic training!

An Interview with Sheila:

How did you first get into paddling?

"My (Portuguese) mother was born and raised in Hilo. She met my father on Guam when he was the Administer of Public Health in the Trust Territory. On occasion, my father would go canoe sailing and canoe fishing with his friends from the Marshall and Palau Islands. When I was too young to paddle canoes I would run up and down the beach as my three older sisters would practice paddling and their regatta turns. They paddled for Grampa Kalama's Newport Outrigger Club in Newport Beach, California.

Paddling sort of went away as my sisters went away to school and it wasn't until Billy Whitford and Bud Hohl put together a new outrigger club in Newport did I get my chance to fall in love with the paddling. I was 15 years old. This was the beginning of what was soon to become the Offshore Canoe Club."

How did you find your way to the Olympics, THREE times?

"Billy Whitford had just returned from the 1980 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Trials. He went to the trials with 4 local athletes, 3 of them already Olympians. Upon his return he had a meeting with the women's canoe team and told all of us about this exciting sport of Olympic style canoeing and kayaking. He rounded up some equipment and about 12 of us women spent the next three months flipping. I had just turned 18 and was still eligible to compete at the 1981 Jr. World Championship Team Trials.

Billy took me to Tennessee and I raced with no expectations other than my sheer determination not to flip. In order for me to make the team I had to win because I didn't have a doubles partner. Shockingly surprised, I won! I went to Sophia, Bulgaria and placed 9th at the Jr. World Championships. This was all within my first 10 months of sitting in a kayak. I deferred from the university to train for the senior team. I made the team in 1982 and decided to train for 1984.

I raced the K1 and K4 in Los Angeles and placed 6th and 4th respectively. Without any hesitation I started my training for 1988. In 1987 I herniated a disc and paddled with incredible pain. I tried to keep my condition quite and therapy was helping as an operation was out of the question. Although I didn't win the Olympic Trials I was the fastest K1 American paddler going in to the Seoul Games. I paddled the K2 and K4 and placed 7th and 9th respectively. Too much pain and bitter disappointment made me lock my kayak paddle in the closest.

I went back to finish school at UC Berkeley. I tried to put kayaking behind me as I was still suffering from back pain. I learned the value of a cane. For a few days I couldn't have gotten to class because walking was too painful. After three years of taking care of my back I coached canoeing and kayaking at the Newport Aquatic Center. Our team went to the National Championships and to help my club obtain points I entered in 5 events. Again, shockingly surprised, I won all 5 events.

I still had it in me to compete at a high level. I thought I could put my life on hold one more year and train for 1992. Being extremely cautious with my back I paddled my way back on the Olympic team. Again, I didn't win the Olympic Trials but I was the fastest K1 American paddler by the time Barcelona rolled around. This time I got to race K1 and K4. One point six seconds separated the gold and tenth place. I was tenth in K1."

How many times have you done Moloka`i?

"I paddled the first official Na Wahine O Ke Kai when I was 16. Since then I have only missed 6 races due to my back or work."

Any humorous anecdotes?

"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing""

What are your plans for the future?

"I owe my paddling career to Billy Whitford. He opened doors of opportunity, and taught me how to be appreciative, humble and how to do my best. Winning was important to Billy and I but it was never emphasized. Rather Billy's philosophy instilled in me was to take the risk by being better than I had ever been and accept the outcome as a "gracious loser or as a humble winner." It's my turn now to give back to the keiki's in outrigger canoeing and kayaking by providing the guidance to life enriching opportunities while instilling the same championship philosophy bestowed upon me."

What advice would you offer an aspiring paddler?

"To keep paddling in perspective with their family, friends, and responsibilities. To remember that the fun and love of paddling comes from the training experiences that lead to the start line, then to finish line and then to the next season. Outrigger paddling is so special; for me outrigger canoeing is the "fluff" in my life that anchors me, spiritually inspires me, motivates me and keeps me coming back for more whether I win or lose a race. I simply love to race in an outrigger canoe."

Part 36<< -|- Index -|- >> Part 38

Hele on to Canoe Club News

Last Modified: Monday - 19991115.12:29 EST
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