By Karin Stanton
It was one WaveRider congratulating another at a recent County Council meeting, when Councilman Dru Kanuha recognized Leahi Camacho for her record-setting swim this summer.
Kanuha, a 2003 Kealakehe High School graduate, shook hands and posed for photos with Camacho, a Kealakehe High School senior.
“Today, we honor Leahi Camacho for accomplishing the incredible feat of setting a new world record as youngest person to swim the Kaiwi Channel,” Kanuha said. “Her courage, strength and determination are truly inspiring.”
During the presentation, Dru also recalled he paddled the Kaiwi Channel with the help of nine other people in about five hours and yet he barely made it.
“The fact the Leahi swam across the channel all by her self without help is amazing,” he said. “I’m so proud of her being a fellow Kealakehe High School alumnus.”
Even as she soaks up the accolades more than three months later, Camacho still can’t quite believe what she did.
“That was probably the most insane thing I ever did,” she said. “When I finished, there was no real rush, no tears of joy. I didn’t really know what to think other than, ‘OK, it’s done, that’s it, now what?’ I was so happy to see that many people on the beach waiting for me. It was awesome.”
The Kaiwi Channel – the 26-mile ocean gap between Molokai and Oahu – has been conquered 27 times previously by lone swimmers. Keo Nakama, of Maui, was the first person to accomplish the feat in September 1961. Nakama was 40 years old.
Camacho, just 17, completed the trek in 14 hours, 43 minutes, which is the ninth fastest recorded time.
Back in the spring, Camacho was looking for a challenge and found herself idly skimming swimming websites, when she stumbled across a story about Kaiwi Channel.
Camacho printed out the page and pinned it to her dad’s bulletin board with a note — ‘We should do this!’
Next morning, Camacho found a note back from her dad, Charlie — ‘Let’s do it!’
“It was really personal. I wanted to do something different, to really challenge myself,” she said. “Just so I know I can overcome anything I want to and let kids know, you really can do anything if you set your goals and work hard.”
Camacho went to her swim coach Steve Borowski and pitched the idea.
“I liked that she initiated it,” he said. “It’s been a journey with Leahi. We’re like family. She’s come a long way.”
Borowski pauses long enough to open his briefcase and pull out a faded photo. He scans the young, eager, hopeful faces and points to one girl, about 8 years old. “That’s Leahi. She was so shy and introverted back then. Now she comes to the pool after school and volunteers with the 7-11 year olds. She’s giving back and that’s pretty cool.”
Borowski stuffs the photo back in his briefcase and continues. “The big question was: Did we have enough time to prepare?”
Coach helped recruit a support team, work out the logistics and make sure she was ready for the over-night swim.
A shoulder injury nearly thwarted the bid, but Camacho powered through. “That was so hard, so annoying when I couldn’t swim,” she said.
“The shoulder was bad,” Borowski said. “She was an inch away from not being able to do it.”
However, once the shoulder healed and the tides were right, the team was ready. About 10 p.m. Aug. 17, Camacho picked her way across the ragged shoreline at Molokai’s Laau Point and launched her record-setting swim.
“It was pitch black. I didn’t get any weird eerie feelings,” she said. “I was so numb in a way, kind of like a robot on cruise control. Didn’t even really think much. It was like a weird trance.”
Borowski said he was as nervous as Camacho’s father. “It really was pitch black. We needed rubber gloves and shoes to get her into the ocean. And she had to follow the kayaker’s headlamp. It was super wavy and super windy. But she did well, kept her positive attitude.”
Camacho was following English Channel rules, which means she had a swim cap and regular Nike swimsuit (black – “because it makes me look skinny”). She was accompanied by an escort boat as well as kayaks, kitted out with a shark shield.
As the sky began to lighten, Camacho was hit by a Portuguese man o’ war, which almost derailed the entire swim. With welts swelling up along her face, back and arms and fatigue setting in, she faltered.
“I was screaming, swearing words I didn’t even know I knew, yelling things like ‘I hate swimming’ and ‘I don’t wanna do this,” she said. “I was shaking and convulsing and starting to have dry heaves. I thought I was done.”
Had Camacho touched the boat or the kayak, her attempt would be done. All she had to do was mumble the safe word — pineapple — and they would have pulled her immediately from the water. However, she’s tougher than that and Borowski was not about to let her give up.
“She screamed and cursed like I’ve never heard her before,” he said. “That was the frustrating part. She was shaking and getting chills. She easily could have gone into shock. We had to get her moving again.”
He jumped in and, with his encouragement, Camacho slowly began to propel herself toward Oahu’s Sandy Beach.
“I figured I had a few choices: I could be in pain and stay right there; I could get in the boat and still be in pain and not finish; or I could be in pain and make some progress,” she said. “That’s what got me going again.”
From then on, Camacho was determined to walk out of the ocean on that Oahu beach.
“I was like, don’t tell me how far it is, don’t tell me what time it is,” she said. “I think I was just mad by then. Coach Steve swam about a mile with me, but I was still pissed. It was really great to have a familiar face right in there with me after 8-9 hours. But I was still mad.”
Borowski was right with her, stroke for stroke. “It was very emotional for me. To see her put it all together and see that never-give-up attitude.”
After the pain and drama of the jellyfish, Camacho said the second half of the swim was more relaxed.
“It was kinda cool to see the fish, to see something out there beside me,” she said. “I kept calculating in my head how far to go. The worst part was the currents. They ripped us way over from where we started and had to adjust to hit the beach.”
Most of her support team jumped in and swam the last 1/8th of a mile. “That is a lot further than I remembered,” she said.
Borowski was the first one to sweep her into a huge hug. “It was quite something,” he said.
Camacho said the welcome she received was touching, although her favorite memory of the finish was reaching the hotel room.
“First of all, hotel showers are amazing. I had the most luxurious shower ever. I don’t even know how long I was in there, it must have been 30 minutes” she said. “It was warm and there was soap!”
Because her mouth was swollen from the sea water, food was not on the agenda, and the adrenaline meant she couldn’t sleep.
“My phone was blowing up. I had 90 messages and about 200 on Facebook,” she said. “It was very humbling. When we finally got home and arrived at the airport and the whole team was there, that’s when I cried. That’s when it started to sink in.”
The entire endeavor cost more than $7,000, including an escort boat and kayaks, flights between Molokai, Oahu and Kona, food, lodging, and a shark shield. Camacho did some fundraising and accepted donations to cover expenses.
“I could never have done this without all my friends, family and supporters,” she said. “It wasn’t just me.”
With her summer swim behind her, Camacho has had time to reflect on her accomplishment.
“I was so stressed out the last year. I got negative comments about trying to swim the channel. I remember those hurt the most, but they just made me turn it on full force,” she said. “I had to remember to not be the one who says you can’t do it. That can destroy it all. It’s just a battle between your mind and your body.”
Camacho said she has always been quite comfortable in the ocean, although she does admit to being a bit timid when younger.
“I was terrified of waves and currents. I remember one time with my dad when I was about 7 or 8. He was pushing me around on a boogie board and I just got pummeled by the waves,” she said. “From then on, I’d go way far out past the waves. My friends would all be playing on the beach and I’d be way out there swimming.”
“I played soccer, cheerleader, piano, karate, but I never stopped swimming,” she said. “Now I do triathlon. The way you push yourself is different on the bike and the run, but I love it. My dad and I are going to do Ironman the year he turns 60. But we have a few years to train.”
In addition to eyeing triathlons, Camacho, who carries a 3.5 GPA, is mulling offers from mainland colleges. Of course, she’ll swim competitively at the collegiate level, and intends to study business and psychology.
Karin Stanton is the editor of the award-winning Hawaii 24/7 (Hawaii247.com), and has more than 20 years of journalism experience on the Big Island.