The 2014 Carolina Cup was packed with fun-filled and exciting activities over the course of five days. Between races, movie nights, days filled with paddle demos and paling around with fellow riders, it’s hard to choose one moment that stood out among the rest. For me, it was a short speech given by renowned surfer and notorious SUP competitor, Dave Kalama.
Dave Kalama was asked to give a motivational speech to psyche up the troops, so to speak, the night before the race on the ocean-side lawn of the Blockade Runner. The Maui native seemed reticent to speak to the group who was undoubtedly feeling the first wave of nerves regarding the morning's pending race. He decided to tell a story about something that happened to him some years ago saying, “It’s a story about the worst day I ever had on the water.”
That day came during the M2O competition; the Molokai to Oahu race is one of the premiere stand up races that has been held since the late 90s. After competing in the relay with his cousin Ekolu for three years, both of the men wanted more of a challenge and so they both decided to do the race solo.
Because of his and his cousin’s competitive nature, Dave Kalama started to train vigorously to prepare. In his own words: “I went into this regime of training that would leave no doubt who the best paddler was.” He would paddle 18 miles into the wind to get himself ready, spending five hours going upwind—a really grueling tactic.
"...you want to win the last mile, not the first 100 yards."
Kalama hit a significant hiccup in his plans when he got knocked out by the flu, the result of a weak immune system after so much overtraining, for five days right before the race. Not wanting to bow out of the competition, Kalama thought he felt well enough to show up for the 32 mile race regardless of his condition. He got to the starting line the day of the race and felt all right. He woke up that morning abuzz with adrenaline and after the start, he tried to handle that “controlled chaotic frenzy coming off the line.” After all, you want to win the last mile, not the first 100 yards.
It wasn’t long before Dave discovered he didn’t quite have the energy to be a leader of the pack though he tried to keep himself within striking distance. When his cousin Ekolu made an aggressive maneuver to move forward, Dave tried and failed to keep up with him. An hour into the race, he tried again to put the pedal to the medal only to discover he didn’t have it in him.
"...I trained too hard to deal with this kind of nonsense."
It was at this point in the race that Kalama was ready to throw in the towel. He described himself as hanging his head and feeling whiny, deciding he didn’t think it was worth it to put himself through the pain of the race if he wasn’t going to be storming the beach with the lead pack. “This is it, I trained too hard to deal with this kind of nonsense.” He then began to paddle over to the safety boat so he could quit.
It was at this moment, on the worst day he’d ever spent in the water and ready to give up on the race entirely, that he flashed back to a fundraiser he had attended a month prior for cystic fibrosis. It was there that he met Emily Hager who lived with that condition every day. Dave realized that people like Emily didn’t have a life boat and their only real wish is to live one normal day without the pain and constant treatments.
He made up his mind that he no longer cared about his ego. No matter how long it would take him to finish, he was going to paddle into Oahu. “If it takes you four days to get to Oahu, you get there. You don’t quit,” he told himself.
Kalama reminded himself that he volunteered for the race, that people go through hardships on a daily basis that they didn’t sign up for somehow found the motivation to go on. He faced the idea that he might cry or whine on the water that day but he would not quit. With that notion in his head, he felt a surge of energy and motivation. Enough to finish, at least.
“I did cry from disappointment. I did throw up from my sickness. I got pissed. I got angry—probably cried again. I went through every single emotion that you could possibly associate with disappointment or frustration, anger, or whatever it was. But I did finish.”
From his self-proclaimed worst day he’s ever had on the water, Dave Kalama learned something. Some people don’t have a lifeboat and face every day without that same safety. So from now on, he doesn’t go over to that boat and he doesn’t quit.
“No safety boat. No quitting. Under any circumstances, there is no quitting.”
Kalama closed his speech by saying he realize this might not be particularly motivating to the guys who are going to be at the front of the pack. This was meant more for the racers who find themselves anywhere from the middle of the group, all the way to the back. You can always come up with good reasons to quit but no matter what, “you don’t get in the boat. You don’t quit. You keep going.”
Even though his cousin Ekolu was a top finisher that year, Kalama used that as fuel to finish ahead of him the following year.
Dave Kalama is a big wave surfer who helped develop the tow-in surf technique with his good friend Laird Hamilton. He also helped to pioneer SUP and comes from a long line of Hawaiian watermen. He has been featured in a lot of big wave surf movies as well as worked as a surfing body double in the opening scene of the James Bond movie Die Another Day. He lives in Maui with his wife and three children.