Breaking the Boundary: How Malia Mizuno Became the Youngest Girl to Cross the Moloka'i Channel
LA JOLLA, Calif. - Over 38 miles separate the island O’ahu, which Malia Mizuno calls home, and the island Moloka’i. This expanse, called the Moloka’i Channel or Ka’iwi Channel, is often described with a single word: treacherous. The journey across the channel was braved by paddlers in three Koa outrigger canoes in 1952, sparking a yearly tradition now referred to as the Moloka’i Hoe.
The Moloka’i Hoe, which welcomes paddlers from across the globe, was not initially as inclusive as it is today. It was decades after the first crossing that women were allowed to participate in the event. Those women paved the way for Mizuno, who at just 13 years old, was determined to become the youngest girl to cross the Moloka’i Channel.
Much preparation was needed for the race, even for the seasoned paddlers who planned to participate. Although Mizuno was young, years of paddling experience helped guide her.
“I started paddling when I was around seven or eight,” Mizuno remembers. “You usually don’t start that young, but I lived right across the street and could literally walk to practice, so my parents thought, ‘Why not?’”
Mizuno’s parents supported her throughout her paddling career and particularly as she prepared for the Moloka’i Hoe. It was no surprise to Mizuno, as they were the ones who introduced her to the race as a child.
“I remember growing up and going to the finish of their races every year. They still do [the Moloka’i Hoe],” Mizuno said. “Once you get older, that’s your rite of passage to being an adult and paddling.”
As Mizuno’s peers began to take an interest in the race, she noticed something that stood out to her.
“I remember hearing about young boys that were doing it, but I didn’t hear of any girls’ teams,” Mizuno recalls. “I really wanted to break the boundary.”
Mizuno and three friends came together to form a team for the race. Not only was Mizuno the youngest on her team, but her team was the youngest group of girls competing. Following six months of training, fundraising, and traveling, the girls were able to partake in the race.
After all of her hard work, Mizuno achieved her goal, breaking the boundary and completing the Moloka’i Hoe. When she looks back on finishing the race, Mizuno recalls a challenging yet rewarding experience.
“In the end, it was really hard, but you’re doing it with your friends and you’re so happy that you don’t realize how much pain you’re in,” Mizuno described. “It was a cool experience to be able to paddle from one island to another and to do what my parents did. Instead of watching them finish, they were on the beach watching me finish, and I got to go through that whole process with my best friends.”
Although it was a demanding experience, Mizuno asserts that paddling is not the toughest thing she has done. That title belongs to a more recent experience of hers: rowing.
“By far,” Mizuno added.
She believes that she has been able to apply some of her paddling and kayaking experience as she rows at UC San Diego, but the sports are not as similar as some might think.
“Paddling and kayaking are mostly upper body, but rowing is all your legs,” Mizuno explained. “You’re facing the opposite direction and you don’t get to see where you’re going while you’re rowing. Rowing is very different, but there’s still the same concept of being in sync and being efficient through the water."
While it is not a completely straightforward transition from paddling and kayaking to rowing, it was one that was common among Mizuno’s friends back home.
“A lot of the people I paddled with were older than me,” she said. “They would go to college, then join the rowing team, and they would love it and I would hear about it. People were getting recruited from paddling and kayaking, and I thought ‘I could do that.’ Luckily, I ended up at the school I wanted to be at, doing the thing I wanted to do.”
As the senior begins to wrap up her Triton rowing career and consider what comes next, she is confident that she will end up back on the water.
“There’s no rowing in Hawaii, but it’ll be natural for me to go back to paddling and continue that,” Mizuno said. “It’s a community and I’ve been doing it for so long. I’ll probably get back into the old swing of things with paddling, and maybe I’ll touch an erg machine every once in a while,” she laughed.
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