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Blue Grit

Avan Becerra’s epic rise through the sport of outrigger paddling.

group of construction workers in neon yellow shirts working outside.

A few times a week, Avan Becerra's alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. He makes breakfast and lunch, organizes his tools for work and drives half an hour to Honokohau Harbor, his home base for paddling, for an early workout. At 19, Becerra is one of outrigger paddling's most promising athletes, closing out the last Paddling Athletes Association (PAA) race of 2022 at the very top of the results list. That's no mean feat when you're competing against hard-core athletes with double or triple the years of experience. The win continues his trend of first-place finishes in the under-19 division, and going into the 2023 season, he's earned the target on his back.    

Making it to the top tier of paddling-and staying there-requires a tremendous amount of time in the water, paddling upward of sixty miles a week on top of land workouts. Becerra typically trains twice a day around his full-time job as a mason. Some mornings, it's a pre-dawn run up the steep grade of Kaloko Hill. Others, it's paddling sprints in the dark with a light strapped to his ama (outrigger). Then, after work, he paddles out of Honokohau, often with the young guns of Big Island Junior Vaa (BIJV), the program that launched his paddling career. "I've known a lot of kids my age who say, 'I like paddling,'" Becerra says, "but I love paddling. There's a difference. They paddle to have fun and make friends. I paddle to achieve."

man holds boat on shoulder wades in water against sunset.

At 19, Hawaii Island's Avan Becerra may well be the next paddling phenom. His dedication to the sport is equal to his talent; Becerra trains relentlessly, running before dawn and paddling sixty miles a week after putting in a long day's work as a mason.


His uncommon devotion has caught the attention of the international paddling community, including canoe builder Kai Bartlett of Kai Waa, who tapped the recent high school graduate to be a team rider. For Becerra it's a huge honor. "Kai has designed boats since he was 19. He has won five Molokai Solos and three Molokai Hoes," he says, referring to two races that are considered Hawaii's ultimate paddling proving grounds. "Every day when I'm on that boat, I think of how many years, months, days of trial and error he went through to get it to perfection and how lucky I am to be on it," Becerra says. "I come from a hardworking family, and I admire anyone who puts their heart and soul into what they do."  

On a clear morning in late November, Becerra's work crew is getting ready for a concrete pour at a multimillion-dollar residence in North Kona. Everyone arrives before 7 a.m. They don high-viz vests and hardhats as the sun peeks over the slopes of Hualalai.

"I prefer to work with my hands, so construction is ideal for me," says the journeyman, who works for his dad, Charlie, a superintendent. "My main thing is getting things done. With concrete, if you don't set up all your tools beforehand, you're scrambling to find stuff and it's stressful. You have to be ready to hit it, finish it, be done with it. Once it dries, it's gone. You cannot save it, you gotta tear it out." 

 "Usually the youngest guy is the guy that makes the most mistakes, but not Avan. He pulls his own weight," says the foreman, Jose Valdovinos. "Sometimes we have rough days and I'll start yelling at guys, but he never gets upset. He always says, 'OK, I understand. Yes, sir. Thank you.' And he keeps going."

two men in athletic shirts and caps talking to each other.

(ABOVE) Becerra talks with veteran paddler Steve Arnett at Honokohau Harbor. (BELOW) "We pour concrete, so we're doing a lot of physical hard work," says Becerra's foreman, Jose Valdovinos. "Avan tries really hard every day-sometimes too hard. Usually I tell people, 'Come on, let's go!' I gotta tell him, 'Slow down!' Of course, he's an athlete and he's got a bunch of energy, but sometimes I wonder: When is he gonna get tired?"

construction worker in hard hat looking towards you leaning on truck bed.

Also on-site is elite paddler Keakua Kaawa-Nolan. His company, Nolan's Big Island Masonry, is building the swimming pool. Kaawa-Nolan, 40, is a captain of Red Bull Waa, the winners of the 2017 Molokai Hoe, the forty-two-mile crossing from Molokai to Oahu that is the culmination of the long-distance paddling season in HawaIi. Over the past fourteen years, Shell Vaa from Tahiti has won it twelve times. (The only other team to break Shell's winning streak was EDT, also from Tahiti, in 2014.) In 2017, Kaawa-Nolan and fellow Hawaii Island paddler Daniel Chun paddled with EDT for the second stage of the Hawaiki Nui, a three-day race through French Polynesia that is the sport's most grueling-and they won. Only one Hawaii men's crew in history has won any stage of that race.

Kaawa-Nolan is Becerra's ghost of paddling future. They often cross paths at the same job site and in the water. "Kua's paddling before work, going to work and then paddling after. To see him accomplish winning Molokai Hoe and winning Hawaiki Nui and doing very well in the OC1 [one-man outrigger canoes]-the whole spectrum-I idolize that," Becerra says. "Because I can try to do the same. Work hard. Get paid. Be a good paddler."

At 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, the boys of Big Island Junior Vaa rig their OC1s by the stacks of canoe racks at Honokohau Harbor. About a dozen young men, ages 13 to 18, hoist their canoes onto one shoulder and make their way across the gravel lot to the boat ramp. They paddle out past the slips and a resident honu (turtle) they named Oliver, after their youngest team member. The paddlers blend in with the cast of characters whiling away the afternoon at the harbor: shoreline casters on the jetty, tour boat operators hosing down their vessels. They paddle out the channel and leave the din of the marina behind.

Becerra, a newly minted alumnus of the BIJV program, leads the pack while Charlie-now wearing his coach's hat-brings up the rear as they head up the coast. Though Kona paddlers rarely get the powerful winds that produce fun surf runs, Kona's mostly flat conditions can be an advantage. Because they're used to practicing in such conditions, Charlie says, they don't affect them during a race the way they do to paddlers who are fortunate in having tailwinds to push them along. 

"For the beginners getting introduced to the sport, it's also a lot safer," adds coach Nate Grocholski Lopez. His 16-year-old son, Nathan Grocholski Jr., is hot on Becerra's heels, notching wins in the juniors division and turning sponsors' heads. 

Becerra and Grocholski both went from competitive swimming to paddling. Their swim coach, Steve Borowski, a Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame inductee, set a high bar. "He was tough, and the boys were young and impressionable," says Becerra's mom, Asia, remembering how Borowski would move practice to the Kailua pier whenever the pool was closed. "He put them into the Triple Crown of Swimming"-mile-long sprints at Hapuna Beach, Kailua Pier and Anaehoomalu Bay-"and these 10-year-olds would be kicking the adults' butts."

group of five young men holding small boats by the beach.

Becerra (seen at far right) with members of Big Island Junior Vaa (left to right: Joshua Munoz, Kainalu Balanga, Luca Powers and Koa Berringer). Becerra trained as a member of the youth organization and now mentors up-and-coming paddlers. "It's huge for these kids to be able to paddle with, learn from, look up to guys like Avan," says BIJV coach Nate Grocholski-Lopez. "They want to be like that."

When the boys tired of swimming, paddling beckoned. Both Becerra and Grocholski started on V1s (rudderless canoes), and both got hooked. It was natural that their dads-both accomplished paddlers-would be their coaches. "At the time, there was no kids program," Charlie says, recounting the inception of BIJV in 2019. "I asked if we could get this corner of the halau [boathouse], clean it out, get people to donate lumber and build some stalls for the kids to store their boats. They gave us total support. The goal was to have a safe place for the kids to paddle and have coaches there to guide them. We welcome everybody."

During long-distance season (August through October), the Big Island Juniors field a crew that travels to Oahu to compete in the big OC6 (six-man outrigger) races. They meet other juniors and line up against Hawaii's most talented paddlers. The younger boys gain an appreciation of what it takes to succeed, and they get a chance to venture out to the open ocean. "It's huge for these kids to be able to paddle with guys like Avan. They want to be like that," says Lopez, who raced the entire 2022 solo season on an OC2 with Oliver Powers, who was 12 at the time. 

Over the past three years, BIJV has grown into a force to be reckoned with. Red Bull Vaa regularly paddles with the juniors, teaching technique and sharing knowledge. "Many of our youth don't have the support they need to thrive, and this program provides that," says Kaawa-Nolan. "The coaches go above and beyond for them. If they don't have a ride, Coach Charlie will pick them up and take them home. If they don't have a boat to paddle, the coaches will find one. Coach Nate has an escort boat, which is critical for safety. All of these are out-of-pocket expenses." 

"It goes deeper than just paddling," says Charlie, who grew up in a rough neighborhood where it was hard to get sports equipment. "It's life skills. You start something, you complete it. You go through different emotions during a race, you learn how to overcome those and you finish the race. You start a job, you finish the job. You don't quit."

person in teal shirt and baseball cap canoes away from land.

Last fall, Becerra trained in French Polynesia, home to the world's best paddlers, where he developed a deeper connection to the sport. "I'm starting to feel the mana [spiritual power] in the water," he says. "It's supernatural in a way." Above, Becerra paddles off Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, with Honokohau Halau in the background.

Outside of Hawaii, Tahitian legends like Heiva Paie-Amo, Steeve Teihotaata and Rete Ebb have been major influences on Becerra. Paddling is the national sport in French Polynesia, where the best paddlers are paid professionals and treated like celebrities. For three weeks last fall, Becerra stayed at the home of V1 champion Kevin Ceran-Jerusalemy, one of the sport's most accomplished and amiable talents. In the mornings he pedaled a bicycle down to practice with Ceran-Jerusalemy's crew in the lagoon at Huahine. Some days they would venture outside the reef where the water is rougher-not more technical than Hawaii, Becerra says, but different. 

Ceran-Jerusalemy dived every day and caught fish that his mom would cook. They welcomed Becerra "just like family," he says. Ceran-Jerusalemy invited Becerra to paddle the second leg of Hawaiki Nui with his Huahine crew, the chance of a lifetime. "I know the potential of Avan and what he could do for the team. Avan is a very good person and a very good paddler. He has a strong mind to be a big champ one day," Ceran-Jerusalemy says. "We came [in] fifth of the top teams of the world. I hope he learned that everything is possible."

 Becerra saw the dedication with which the Tahitians train-running in the mornings, putting in time at the gym. "But the way they paddle is just effortless," he says. "Instead of a high-revving, big stroke rate through the bump, they just go easy. It takes a while to learn that feeling. That's how they describe it-the 'easy feeling.'"

At the end of his trip, strong winds whipped up the sea surface, creating a conveyor belt of waves that stacked up for a mile. "These little kids, maybe 10 or 12 years old, were playing on their V1s, ripping," Becerra recalls, describing how thrilled they were-the same stoke that keeps him fired up. "That was awesome to see."

shirtless man walking through tall grass holding boat.

In 2023, Becerra will no longer be competing as a junior. He'll be paddling against top athletes on the Mainland and abroad, as well as crossing the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu solo for the first time. But whether he lives up to others' high expectations is secondary. "I love paddling," he says. "I love the people I paddle with, the community. They're a special group and I want to keep them around in my life as long as I can."

Back in Kona, Becerra applies everything he's learned. "I'm starting to feel the mana [spiritual power] in the water. It's supernatural in a way," he says, explaining that being in his element gives him a sense of comfort. Even on his recovery days, he'll go surf the shorebreak with his younger brother, Ethan. I always wondered why I love going to the ocean, and I think it's because of this spiritual feeling."

Kaawa-Nolan recognizes Becerra's commitment-and potential: "When he was younger, Avan was on our escort boat watching us race while most boys were playing with their friends. The passion is his foundation. As long as he doesn't lose that, he will be the best."

Becerra is excited for the 2023 season-the first in which he'll compete in the open division, not as a junior-which will take him to races on the Mainland and abroad. If the Molokai Solo is held once again post-pandemic, he's eager for his first chance to race across the Kaiwi Channel. Obviously, he's out to win, "but I'm also here for the journey-exploring everywhere, developing new skills, meeting new people," he says. "That's a big plus for me." 

Until then Becerra will be getting up early, putting in the work at his job and his passion, determined to become the champion he's got the potential to be. "I'm always watching the ocean, trying to find new ways to push my canoe to a faster speed in different conditions," he says. "When I come out, I feel so refreshed. I go straight home, I shower, I eat and I go to bed. I don't stay up late. I cannot, because that's my life."


Story By Catharine Lo Griffin

Photos By Hayden Ramler

V26 №3 April - May 2023