Blind Paddlers to Race Liberty Challenge

| May 22, 2014 | 0 Comments


An outrigger crew comprised of three blind and three sighted men will compete in the 2014 Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge.

The NAC/Makapo Outrigger Liberty Crew, a collaboration between the Makapo Aquatics Project and the Newport Aquatic Center, will be the first mixed sighted/blind team to compete in the 2014 Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge on June 21, 2014 in New York City. This is the first time a competitive crew will be comprised of an even mix of blind and sighted athletes working together in a major international outrigger race.

The team was formed to bring awareness to the sport of outrigger paddling as an ideal activity for blind people looking to live an active lifestyle. Because no changes to the equipment are needed, those with little or no sight can immediately enjoy the activity safely alongside other sighted and non sighted participants. Competitive teams, such as the NAC/Makapo Outrigger Liberty Crew, enter in the same division as other crews, needing no changes to the racing rules.


The event is hosted by New York Outrigger, and the men’s race is fifteen miles long. The course starts and ends at Hudson River Park’s Pier 26. The course takes crews down the Hudson River, around lower Manhattan, then up the East River. After passing the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, racers then reverse direction, paddling down the East River, around Governor’s Island and towards the Statue of Liberty. Crews then turn north past Ellis Island and up the New Jersey shoreline. The final leg of the race has racers crossing the Hudson past Hoboken for the final stretch back into Pier 26. The estimated start of the men’s race is at 11:00 EDT on June 21.

“Our participation in the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge is the realization of the dreams shared by everyone involved with Makapo Aquatics,” says Executive Director RJ De Rama. “We hope that by competing against paddlers from all over the world we can inspire a visually impaired person to try outrigger paddling. Whether it be on a recreational or competitive level, we would like to share with every visually impaired person that wonderful sense of freedom and teamwork that paddling provides.”

“Outrigger paddling requires strength, endurance and athleticism but the foundation of the sport rests on respect, camaraderie and the spirit of Aloha” says Keith Tsang, Communications Director for the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge. “Having Makapo participating on equal footing with some of the world’s best athletes in the turbulent conditions of New York Harbor only proves how truly accessible and welcoming the sport is. We hope their participation will inspire anyone and everyone to get to the water and give outrigger paddling a try.”

The Makapo Aquatics Project and the Newport Aquatics Center work together to provide outrigger paddling programs for the blind and visually impaired in Southern California. Makapo also provides outreach to other areas of the country to increase the awareness of outrigger paddling and how the sport can provide a basis of a healthy lifestyle for a visually impaired person. More information can be found on Makapo’s website

In addition to racing, the team will perform outreach to the blind community in New York City.

About the Paddlers

Hometown: Anaheim Hills, California

Andrew Skvarla is a Junior at Canyon High School. He is 18-years-old and has been completely blind since birth. He has been reading braille since the age of two. He is a member of the Canyon High School wrestling team, the track team and band where he plays the baritone saxophone.

His greatest passion is flying as he enjoys listening to the sounds of airplanes and helicopters flying overhead. Andrew enjoys flying remote control helicopters due to the thrill of the sounds they generate and is able to navigate them solely by their depth of sound.

First introduced to paddling by Makapo Co-founder RJ and Makapo Coach Kirsten, his first experience did not go smoothly when the canoe he was in flipped during a paddle towards Dana Point. Undeterred, he soon realized how supportive his new Makapo teammates are and soon signed on with the organization. One month later, during a race in Kona, Hawaii, Andrew recalled, “I thought that we did really well out in the ocean.” He adds, “I can’t wait for the race in New York because all of the guys on the NAC/Makapo Liberty team are very strong and are very nice to me.”

Hometown: Costa Mesa, California

Dave Krueger attended Foothill High School where he played basketball. He went on to row crew for OCC where he realized his passion for the water. He became an indoor rowing instructor before becoming involved with the Newport Aquatic Center (NAC). He continued to row for a few years at NAC before being convinced to paddle in an outrigger canoe.

“After catching my first wave in a canoe I was hooked,” Dave says.

His first year brought him to big races such as the Moloka’i Hoe, World Sprints in Calgary and the inaugural Olamau race.

“This is the start of my third year of paddling and I am very very excited for the 2014 Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge. Having been working more with the Makapo organization and its athletes, I am looking forward to bringing more awareness to the organization and making an impact on people’s lives. Doing so through a passion of ours makes it that much more enjoyable. Overall I am a water creature, calm, collected and competitive!”

jimisoloJIMI SPOTO – Steersman
Hometown: Santa Ana, California

Jimi Spoto was raised in Southern California and has been paddling at the Newport Aquatic Center for 13 years. His early years were spent on the Junior Canoe/Kayak team competing in flat water kayak events at the national level. He raced his first Catalina Challenge in 2003 and has raced the Moloka’i Hoe five times. He is the coach of the NAC Men’s Outrigger team.

When asked what makes outrigger paddling so special, he remarked “To be able to share my love of paddling with anyone who recognizes that the Ohana Spirit can change and save lives is the best part of the sport.”

Hometown: Costa Mesa, California

Mark Oehlman’s connection to the water started eight years ago as a stand up paddler. He is considered one of the pioneers of stand up paddle boarding in Southern California. Mark is the owner of Pirate Coast Paddle Company, one of the largest and most unique stand up paddle boarding companies in California. Mark graduated from Westmont College and played professional soccer in Sweden and Puerto Rico for four years before spending the next five as a firefighter. Stand up paddling allowed for an easy transition to outrigger canoeing in 2011 and he has been racing competitively with the Newport Aquatic Center ever since.

“I am very excited and honored to be a part of this NAC/Makapo team as we paddle in the Liberty Challenge race. It’s awesome to see how the sighted and blind paddlers are able to blend together and become one unit. As a sighted paddler I am stoked to make history with this group that is made up of half blind paddlers and half sighted. This race is all about showcasing Makapo and the amazing talent and determination that my blind teammates display everyday.”

rjsoloRJ DE RAMA
Hometown: Irvine, CA

RJ De Rama is one of the founders of Makapo Aquatics and serves as the organization’s Executive Director. He was diagnosed and successfully treated for the eye cancer retinoblastoma at the age of two in 1977. His vision continued to deteriorate when, in 2004, he became legally blind. Through a chance meeting at the Braille Institute, he was invited by Makapo co-founder John Chavez to participate in the 2006 Queen Lili’uokalani Race in Kona, Hawaii, as part of the first all-blind crew to be entered. Paddling quickly became his passion. In 2010, he became the first legally blind person to compete in the Moloka’i Hoe Open Division. He currently paddles on both the Newport Aquatic Center (NAC) men’s team and the Makapo Outrigger team.

“Outrigger paddling, for me, is the best way to interact and integrate with sighted people. It’s opened so many doors and led to many lasting friendships. I hope that bringing a mixed [sighted and blind] team to the 2014 Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge will inspire other people who have lost their sight for one reason or another to trust that there is a place for them in the sighted world. It’s full of people who want to help them reinvent themselves.”

tylersoloTYLER BRAY
Hometown: Huntington Beach, CA

Tyler Bray was diagnosed at birth with nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes that distorts his vision. He graduated from Edison High School in 2012 and is currently enrolled at Orange Coast College.

Tyler started outrigger paddling in 2007 and began racing the following year. His favorite race is the Catalina US Championships due to its challenging conditions.

“Paddling is a way of being free; a way of showing people that I’m not as incapable of doing things as they think I am,” he says. “That’s why I’m so excited to be a part of this team of three blind and three sighted paddlers. Bring it on!”

For more information about the team please contact:
RJ De Rama, Executive Director, Makapo Aquatics Project

For more information about the race, please contact:
Keith Tsang, Communications Director, Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge

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