The Babe Ruth of pad­dling

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BART WRIGHT

Half a life­time ago, Cherisse Ago­ras­tos made the adult de­ci­sion to go against her mother’s in­stincts and give pad­dling a try.

She had pro­fessed an in­ter­est ear­lier, in high school, but back then, her mother, Blos­som, tried to nudge her in the di­rec­tion of hula, and you can prob­a­bly guess the con­cern peo­ple may have had a cou­ple decades ago.

They thought pad­dlers de­velop shoul­ders as broad as NFL lineback­ers, that they build up their arms and legs at the gym and when they got in pad­dling shape, you could pick their mus­cle­bound bod­ies out of a crowd.

None of that is true, as Blos­som later learned, but it was a widely held per­cep­tion all the same. When you meet Cherisse Ago­ras­tos, you see a wo­man in good shape but, at 5-foot-6, 155, you see noth­ing like the mother’s con­cerns when Cherisse was at­tend­ing Hilo High School.

If any­thing, you would be sur­prised at the weight, be­cause she is in such good shape, she could be mis­taken for be­ing 20 pounds lighter. The height fits the weight and it all comes to­gether in a pack­age de­fined by her ex­tra­or­di­nary pas­sion to com­pete and by her drive to lead others.

You put it all to­gether and you have some­one who has achieved at the high­est level — 40 mile races, for in­stance, from Molokai to Oahu — and is known to in­sid­ers as “the Babe Ruth of pad­dling.”

All she does is win, whether it’s one-man ca­noe races or the glob­ally com­pet­i­tive long runs, which she — with her as­so­ciates on Team Bradley — al­ways seems to win.

You could start a dis­cus­sion with se­ri­ous pad­dlers over which is the best team on the planet, and while peo­ple from other places may have a lo­cal fa­vorite, it is al­most blas­phemy to not in­clude Team Bradley — named after leg­endary Oahu ca­noe builder Sonny Bradley — among a small hand­ful of the best dis­tance pad­dle teams in all the oceans of the world.

“If there’s one (team) bet­ter,” said vet­eran Kai Opua Ca­noe Club pad­dler Ch­eryl Vil­le­gas, “they need to come over here and beat (Team Bradley), to prove it.”

Team Bradley has set records for the win­ning these 30- and 40-mile ocean races that pull in the strong­est teams from around the world and when they talk about the team, they al­ways start with Ago­ras­tos.

“Babe Ruth?” said Vil­le­gas, “that’s about right.”

While she ad­mits hav­ing heard the flat­ter­ing com­par­i­son, when asked what she thinks about it, Ago­ras­tos re­sponds with hu­mil­ity.

“Oh well,” she says, seem­ing to brush aside the is­sue, “I don’t know about all that.”

There are dif­fer­ences, ob­vi­ously, and they go be­yond one sport be­ing played in flan­nel jerseys and spikes back in the day by an over­sized guy with an over­sized ap­petite for things both good and bad in life.

Ago­ras­tos is noth­ing like that. In pro­file, she would look a lot like many other pad­dlers, but what she brings to the game is some­thing spe­cial.

Peo­ple who have worked at this sport for years will tell you it’s about three things — mind, spirit and body. The best pad­dlers have a full men­tal grasp of what they are in­volved with, they have a body pre­pared to com­pete and they have the en­ergy, the drive, to press for­ward.

Ago­ras­tos is the com­plete pack­age, and then some.

She is of­ten found in the first seat, the stro­ker po­si­tion in a 6-per­son ca­noe race, the one who sets the pace, “feels’” the ca­noe prop­erly and knows when to change stroke rates, or to lengthen or shorten strokes. In seat 2, she is an as­sis­tant in a sense, but a leader in that this is the seat that calls out changes and can pro­vide an in­spi­ra­tional boost, which it al­ways does when she is there. Seats 3, 4 and 5 are the en­gine room, where the power stro­kers work and the sixth seat is the steers­man, usu­ally the most ex­pe­ri­enced crew mem­ber, es­sen­tially the team cap­tain.

In the big cross­ing races, such as Molokai-to-Oahu, wher­ever she is po­si­tioned in the ca­noe makes that po­si­tion the strong­est in the race.

It all started for her about five years after high school when she jumped in her first Novice B ca­noe and found that it felt like home.

“As soon as I stepped in, I felt the ca­ma­raderie, there was def­i­nitely some­thing spe­cial about it,” she said. “Ev­ery­thing felt just right, the peo­ple, the chal­lenge, the de­sire, it was all there.”

She went to Novice A in 1996, then the next year, the late Beanie (Har­ri­son) Heen from Maui ap­proached her on the beach and said, “I want you to come pad­dle for me.”

At that mo­ment, she got the idea that she might be good at this.

A few years later she met Nick Ago­ras­tos, an avid pad­dler him­self, and a ro­mance be­gan to build.

“We each did our first solo cross­ing (Molokai to Oahu), in 2002,” she said. “He waited for me at the fin­ish and we both had stars in our eyes.”

They mar­ried and con­tin­ued com­pet­ing. Nick re­tired from the sport in 2013 when Cherisse, a leas­ing co­or­di­na­tor for Kame­hameha Schools, had her baby, but by 2015, after a few months of firm­ing up and get­ting back in com­pet­i­tive shape, she was back at it.

She might be bet­ter now than she ever has been, and that should not come as a sur­prise in the opin­ion of Vil­le­gas.

“It takes a kind of A-type per­son­al­ity to do this to be­gin with,” Vil­le­gas said, “and be­lieve me, she has that. She is very, very tal­ented at this but she also knows how to drive that team, how to say the right thing at the right time, how too keep them in­spired.

“But if some­one thought she would take a back step after child­birth, I would say they don’t know women and this sis­ter­hood we have, very well.

“I find the ladies who come back from child­birth are of­ten stronger, bet­ter than they were be­fore,” Vil­le­gas said. “Child­birth — I guess I should say the ob­vi­ous — is not an easy thing, it’s not a com­fort­able thing, it puts de­mands on you like you’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced.

“After that, you can get the feel­ing you can do any­thing, you now know when you need to dig down for more, there’s a lot there wait­ing for you.”

Vil­le­gas men­tioned that most women pad­dlers don’t share Ago­ras­tos’ ver­sa­til­ity. A lot are smaller, so they of­ten don’t have core power for the en­gine room seats 3, 4 and 5, others are big­ger, like Vil­le­gas, at 175, who is used al­most ex­clu­sively in those power seats. You don’t want that weight up front or all the way back in seat 6.

“She’s a lux­ury,” Vil­le­gas said. “She can drive in those (3, 4 and 5) seats, she can def­i­nitely fill any spot and she will have her team mo­ti­vated like crazy.”

You may not be as good as Cherisse Ago­ras­tos, who will com­pete again in the long dis­tance races at the end of the sum­mer. Don’t worry about be­ing as good as she is, that’s an un­re­al­is­tic goal. But, she says there’s plenty of room for new­bies.

“I tell peo­ple any age, weight, what­ever, don’t feel in­tim­i­dated, just go down (to the Bayfront pad­dle clubs), and let them know you’d like to try,” Ago­ras­tos said. “I think of pad­dling as a door opener, be­cause you may not end up in a ca­noe, but you will meet peo­ple, you will get in­volved and that will make you feel bet­ter.

“The most amaz­ing thing is feel­ing a part of some­thing be­yond your­self. To no­tice your progress after two-three weeks, to feel your im­prove­ment and think about the fu­ture?

“That’s the most awe­some feel­ing you can have,” she said.

Take her word for it, she’s The Babe of Hawaii pad­dlers.

HOLLYN JOHN­SON/Tribune-Herald

Some who would know re­fer to Cherisse Ago­ras­tos as “the Babe Ruth of pad­dling.”

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