Half of Hawaii’s kids can’t swim, and pools are less likely to be located near lower income communities.

In 2000, when Kahuku High School graduate and swimming standout Makana Whitford won a prestigious water polo scholarship to the University of Hawaii, she faced a serious problem: Kahuku did not have a swimming pool where she could practice and prepare for the challenge.

More than two decades later, aspiring aquatic athletes in Kahuku are still without a pool.

In fact, there are no public pools at all on the 42-mile coastal stretch between Kaneohe and Waialua. North Shore residents call the absence an injustice to a part of the county that has produced a string of great athletes, despite the odds.

A group of North Shore residents drove the point home at Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s town hall in Laie in April. Many would like to build one at Kahuku District Park, which has an open field they say could be configured to accommodate a pool and gym.

Makana Whitford Leiataua, born in Kahuku and now a mother of five who teaches Spanish at Kahuku High School, told the mayor she has been waiting on a pool all her life.

Makana Whitford Leiataua, a teacher and coach from Kahuku stands in Kahuku District Park where advocates believe a competition-sized facility could be located. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Kahuku produces fine ocean swimmers, she told him, but none have been given the opportunity to compete fairly at the state or national level because they have been denied an essential resource for training. They also want a pool for children to learn swimming and water safety and for seniors to use for exercise.

“We need this pool,” the former water polo coach said.

Blangiardi, a former football coach who prides himself on knowing a lot about Honolulu’s athletic landscape, told them he was stunned to learn that such a large geographic gap existed on the island, calling it “mind-numbing.” He promised to try to get them a pool and said he would make sure it was competition-sized.

Blocking Full Potential

The Honolulu City Council has already endorsed the effort. Council member Matt Weyer who represents the North Shore, has sponsored a resolution that calls for the development of a multi-purpose recreation facility and 50-meter swimming pool in Kahuku. It passed the council unanimously on May 17.

Area residents have been waiting for a pool for “decades,” Weyer said. “It’s an obligation the city should have been looking at.”

Weyer said generations of local school children have been blocked from reaching their full potential.

“They are competitive with limited resources,” he said. “Imagine what they could do with full resources.”

The Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial has languished for years and other pools on Oahu have also fallen into disrepair. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2021)

There’s a long history in Hawaii of disparate treatment of communities and inadequate access to amenities like swimming pools.

In a 2015 book called “The Three-Year Swim Club,” author Julie Checkoway described how a group of plantation kids on Maui in the 1920s and 1930s learned to swim by practicing in polluted irrigation ditches while their competitors practiced in pristine pools. Some of them nevertheless became national competitors and even made it to the Olympics.

Most of the 21 city pools on Oahu are clustered in eastern and central Honolulu. Well-funded schools including Punahou, Iolani, Kamehameha and Mid-Pacific Institute all have their own pools.

Competitive swimmers need regular and uninterrupted access to a standard-size pool to stay fit and ready. Successful water polo players should practice swimming for 1 ½ hours each morning and then participate in the sport for three hours each afternoon in addition to weight training, says Leiataua, who coached the Kahuku girls to victory six times between 2008 to 2014 in the Oahu Interscholastic Association.

Currently kids in Kahuku can’t really practice in that way. They have limited use of the pool at Brigham Young University, a private college in nearby Laie.

“They give us two-hour slots based on availability but if they have school closures or a graduation or finals week, they close the pools for the duration,” said Gina Ahue, the current girls water polo coach, who also teaches science at the high school. “We have to work around that.”

“We’re not their priority,” Leiataua said. Swimmers instead are forced to commute a long distance to pools elsewhere, or in some cases, to rely on small backyard pools to try to stay in shape.

Surfing is the salvation for Kahuku, and what keeps the girls competitive, Leiataua said.

“At least 75% of the team have been surfers, and that’s why we can win,” she said. “But to have surfers beat year-round swimmers, it doesn’t happen very often.”

And that may explain why Kahuku has never won a state water polo contest.

“We cannot compete with Punahou, Iolani or Kamehameha,” she told the mayor at the town hall.

“Why do we have a district park without a swimming pool?” asked Kekela Miller at the meeting.

Power company AES has offered as much as $4 million as part of a community benefits package linked to its wind turbine project on the North Shore. The city would need to match with $1.5 million. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Lack Of Access Not Unique

Former state Sen. Gil Riviere said that part of the funding for a pool may already be available.

AES, the power company that placed wind turbines in Kahuku in 2019, had offered at the time a community benefits package to help gain support for the project. AES could contribute as much as $4 million, if the city provided a matching $1.5 million, which could be a “game-changer,” Riviere said.

Blangiardi said that was news to him, and that he would bring it up with AES officials.

In a statement, Sandra Larsen, AES Hawaii Market Business Leader, confirmed that the firm had committed up to $4 million “to continue supporting projects vital to the future of the area, like the proposed recreation center and swimming pool in Kahuku.” She added that AES officials support it because “of the positive impact this new facility will have on children, teens and families in the area.”

Blangiardi has since met with AES officials and intends to meet again to find out exactly how that contribution could be funded.

“I want them to up the ante, but my initial meeting with them went very well,” he said.

Blangiardi said building the complex would likely cost about $25 million.

“I’d like nothing more than to provide that community, that side of the island, that kind of facility,” he said. “That would be a very satisfying thing to do.”

A special education student survived a near fatal drowning in 2017 at Kalani High School. Nearly half the children on Hawaii are unable to swim, an issue related to income inequality and access say advocacy groups. (Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2017)

The kids in Kahuku today aren’t alone in lacking places to be taught to swim and compete in aquatic events. Nearly half of the children in Hawaii are unable to swim, despite living in an island state, according to sports advocates. A 2019 study called this shortfall “a marker of poverty.”

The problem isn’t unique to Hawaii but is a nationwide phenomenon that is raising the risk for drowning, said Dean Schmaltz, presidents of the Hawaii Aquatics Foundation, a water-sports advocacy group that supports making swimming instruction available to more people.

There are big gaps in access to pools because they are expensive to build and to maintain, Schmaltz said, while other recreational facilities, such as baseball fields, can be cheaper to operate and can serve more people each day. He said that in the United States, more pools are being closed each year than open for business.

That means pool access is frequently limited to those in urban centers where pools are located or who have the right of access to elite facilities, he said.

Meanwhile, some of the island’s pools have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. The Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial, the grand facility where the swimming prowess of Olympic gold-medalist Duke Kahanamoku thrilled crowds of spectators, is a ruined shell. The pool at Farrington High School has been out of commission for years.

But the Kahuku situation has galvanized the attention of civic leaders who are promising to move ahead with an amenity that has been accessible in other parts of the county for decades.

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