SUP in Maui – Aloha!

Michelle Sommers SUPI just returned from OluKai Premium Footwear’s 3rd Annual Ho’olaule’a Stand Up Paddle Board and OC1 Races that were held May 14-15, 2011. OluKai invited me as their special guest and Athleta Ambassador, to experience the event for myself and participate in one of the paddling events.

The Ho’olaule’a is a two-day ocean festival celebrating Hawaiian tradition by offering family-friendly activities (a real luau with hula dancing, sailing canoe rides and live music) along with elite competition in the SUP and OC1 races. Through the OluKai ‘Ohana Giveback Program, donations and volunteer time went to benefit local Hawaiian organizations including the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association, Maui Cultural Lands and the Lae Ula ‘O Kai canoe club – all very important to the Maui community.

I opted for the three mile fun paddle because I wasn’t sure what to expect and know the conditions in Hawaii are much different than here on the East Coast. We don’t have the similar downwind paddle conditions that Maui has. Even though my husband, and others, had faith in me to do the big race (8-miles), I wasn’t confident enough to attempt the ocean in such extreme conditions.

The legendary 8-mile Maliko downwind run is a perfect scenario for any ocean paddler – current, swells and wind going in the same direction. As a surfer, you want to catch as many waves as you can, and on these downwind runs, that’s mostly what you’re doing. Training in flat water is nothing compared to the paddling you will be doing in these races. It’s more difficult because you have so much water moving beneath you. Just staying on your board is hard enough.

The key to doing these ocean downwind paddles is to surf the swells, finding one bump after another, catching each one to push you further. The paddlers who finish first usually paddle the least because they are able to work with the ocean so knowing how to surf is a benefit to anyone participating in this type of downwind run. Of course, people without surfing experience can participate and have a lot of fun, but in order to make it down in a timely manner, it is imperative to ride the swells down the coast!

I woke up early each morning and ran on a nearby beach. The views were magnificent; the ocean was warm and blue. Everywhere I looked I saw something beautiful – mountains, trees, coastline. Being by myself for an extended period of time is something that I hadn’t experienced since becoming a mom. I was beginning to appreciate being Michelle again, and not just “Mom.“ Being independent for a few days is nice and important to do when you can.


On the morning of my paddle, I was pretty nervous, to say the least. I did not know what to expect and only completed one downwind run in Hawaii a few months before. There were over a hundred participants in the 3-mile paddle and even though this wasn’t a timed race, I felt like I needed to do well for my own personal goal. Watching the locals arrive with their boards had me feeling a little intimidated! This paddle was on the same course that the 8-mile Maliko race would be held that afternoon.

I was thrilled to finally meet Suzie Cooney (2010 Athleta Featured Athlete) in person while on Maui. Before the paddle, she led everyone in a stretch session to get us all warmed up and ready to go. After that, everyone stood in a circle, held hands and there was a traditional Hawaiian blessing for the participants. I am a spiritual person so this meant a lot to me. Almost instantly, I felt at peace and knew I was ready.

The fun paddle was geared more towards being, well…fun! Most people were on stand up paddleboards, but there were canoes and prone paddlers as well. There were families paddling together in the canoes and even a father with his young daughter on the front of his paddleboard. I saw a lot of women paddling together, young and old. It was great to see everyone together enjoying themselves around the ocean.

As I grabbed my board to get in the water, I heard someone call my name and turned to see my friend Teene from Oahu. Teene introduced me to my only downwind paddle in Hawaii a few months earlier, which was amazing! I was thrilled to see him again, this time on Maui supporting another paddler who was participating in the Maliko Run. It also made me want to do my best so he would be proud of me since I consider him a good friend and mentor.

Before I headed out, Suzie made sure I knew where I was going and answered any questions that I had. It was a little overwhelming entering the water with that many people paddling around, but as we all paddled out past the reef and turned to go downwind, I was suddenly relaxed and felt confident in my abilities to do this.

Michelle Sommers

It didn’t take me long to get the hang of the paddling and soon I was catching the little swells that were rolling behind me. Before I knew it, I was ahead of most of the people and having the time of my life! The helicopter was flying over dropping flowers, which was beautiful, and the views I had of the coastline were incredible. I actually got emotional at that point when I realized what I was doing, where I was and this opportunity I had been blessed with. I was experiencing one of the happiest moments of my life. I decided then that I was going to see how well I really could do– and began paddle surfing down the coast.

At one point, I was so far ahead that I didn’t know where to go! Everyone told me to just follow the herd but nobody thought I would actually be in front of the herd — especially me! I had my sights on an experienced paddler in front of me who I just tried to keep up with and watched him. Then a guy paddling behind me told me I was hard to keep up with. Really? Me? That made me want to paddle even faster, partly because I didn’t want him to pass me, and before I knew it, those 3+ miles were gone and I was paddling into the beach and the second woman on a SUP to finish!

I was thrilled that I did as well as I did and relieved that it wasn’t as difficult as I made it out to be in my head. I wanted to do again because it was so much fun! It was an experience where I was completely out of my element, but soon realized I was more “at home” with it than I thought! This was one of my favorite memories in my life, for sure!

I must admit that I was really proud of myself–and thrilled that I did this. Knowing my family was happy for me was great, but realizing that one day, my two young boys will hear what their mom did was pretty special too. I hope it makes them proud of me – and perhaps even think that their mom is pretty cool! I found a little part of myself that I haven’t experienced since becoming a mom and I know I can do a lot more than I think. Don’t let yourself talk you out of doing something challenging and out of your comfort zone!

I am a little disappointed in myself for not participating in the Maliko race but now that I know what to expect, I am definitely heading back next year and doing those eight miles…so watch out for the gal from the East Coast! Kala’i Miller from Ocean Paddler TV and the host of the event, kept telling me to “charge the 8-mile sista,” and that is exactly what I’m going to do next year! Others knew I could do it and now I do too! Training has begun – who wants to do it with me? Only 11 months to go…

Michelle Sommers SUP

I have to say Mahalo to OluKai Premium Footwear for giving me and the families of Maui such a wonderful experience. You can check out the Ho’olaule’a event on NBC Universal this July. Alex and his crew from Ocean Paddler TV filmed the entire weekend, including all of the downwind paddles so be sure to see for yourself what kind of wonderful event OluKai put on.

CLICK HERE to watch a video from the event!


June 09, 2011 at 7:55 am

Michelle, Your SUP/surfing adventures on Oahu and Maui never cease to inspire a need to hop on the first plane to the Islands; and the open invitation to participate in next year’s event is oh so tempting… No doubt you’ll inspire many with your Aloha spirit and SUP-stoke.


June 09, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Great Job on paddling in the Olukai Ho’olaulea fun race! glad that I cwas able to see you just before the race started! I guess you are addicted to the downwind! After the race on Saturday we flew back to Oahu… And Laura got a second in the women’s unlimited division Hawaii Kai Downwinder at the Battle of the Paddle!
Keep up the good work and see you next year!
Aloha Nui!


June 13, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Loved the article and photos — even more the second time around!

Linda Powers

June 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm

You had a great adventure Michelle and even though you were conservative this trip it gave you an opportunity to really assess everything and get your bearings and to take time to enjoy! So don’t be disappointed in yourself. There were a lot of “firsts” associated with this trip. As a result, you learned a great deal and now you are ready to raise the bar. That is a great position to be in. You left Hawaii eager to return and do more and now you are looking forward to the challenges ahead. Sounds like a successful trip to me!

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