Learning, and listening, in a whole new way

Nick Beck

Alyssa Roenigk, right, receives important advice and knowledge from Stephan Lambert.

Alyssa will be checking in each day from the 2012 IronMana Bora Bora Liquid Festival. Come back here for updates throughout the week.

The Road to IronMana: Intro | Day 1 | Day 2

The other day, a friend asked me, "If you could only do one activity for the rest of your life, what would it be?" It's a good question, and it was a lot of fun to think about once I traversed all the obvious, smart-alecky answers flooding my brain. One thing? For the rest of my life? I doubt I could commit to one activity for the rest of the week.

And then it hit me. The answer was so obvious: I would learn.

I know that sounds like a cheater answer akin to wishing for more wishes. But it falls within the rules of the game and it's the activity I love more than any other. I love learning new skills. Mastering them, that's another question. But there is a magical quality in doing something for the first time and then exploring that skill in the way you did when you first took the training wheels off your bicycle or learned to write in cursive. Today, I realized my love of learning -- and of people who are willing to share their skills with strangers -- is another reason why I'm drawn to this event.

The official competition kicks off tomorrow (Wednesday), so today, Stephan, Nick and their Channel Crossing crew (see yesterday's story if you aren't yet on a first-name basis with these guys) taught a handful of us the art of the sailing outrigger canoe. It was an important step for us neophytes, seeing as we'll be racing them in a few days.

Before today, my paddling experience was limited to a few SUP lessons from my friends Nicole Sanchez and Maria Souza, who are both expert paddlers from Maui, and a handful of just-for-the-fun-of-it days of SUP and canoeing around vacation spots. But correct, efficient paddling technique? Before this afternoon, I had none.

Nick Beck

'Use your core, Alyssa!'

Around 9 a.m., a group of nine of us boarded three Holopuni OC-3s and set off for an hour-long sail to the motu, or small outer island, where Stephan lives. I drew the lucky straw and scored a seat in Nick and Stephan's bright orange canoe with the yellow-orange-and-white mast. For the first part of the trip, I watched Stephan paddle and studied his stroke (although, in hindsight, he might have thought I was simply staring at him), while Nick gave me lessons in reading the wind, steering and tacking, a basic sailing maneuver used to turn the bow of the boat. Then, for the last half hour, Stephan handed over his paddle.

But instead of watching to see if the reporter girl knew what she was doing -- the ol' sink or swim technique -- he immediately started coaching me. Athletes from all over the world pay major money to train with Stephan, so I opened my ears and listened closely.

"Straighten your outside arm ... Keep the paddle parallel to the boat ... Use more of your core muscles ... Engage your lats ... Pretend the paddle is a pole vault ... breathe."

Instead of taking a siesta or chatting with his friend, Stephan coached me, without prompting, for the remainder of the trip. And by the time we pulled ashore, I was paddling pretty well.

To me, those 20 minutes encapsulate the spirit of this event. Yes, it is about competition and pushing yourself, but it's also about being better than you were yesterday. And for its organizer, it's about sharing what you know and helping others grow, too.

During our hour on the water, the three of us talked about why Nick and Stephan are so driven to resuscitate this once dead mode of transportation and how difficult it is, as outsiders, to preach an ancient art form to the very people who've let it go. "Engines made life easier," Stephan explains. "A lot of people here think these boats are old-fashioned and unnecessary." And, quite frankly, they don't want to be taught about Tahitian culture from a French ex-pat.

"When I was living in Hawaii, what I liked most about the locals is if a Hawaiian sees that you don't know how to do something, he will say, 'Oh, you're not from here. Come. Learn from me,'" he says. However, while Tahitians are known for being some of the most warm, welcoming, giving people, Stephan said he has struggled to break through their hesitancy to share with outsiders the aspects of their culture they feel make them most Tahitian. "It's taken a long time," he says. "But now I am accepted."

Today, as the recipient of his sharing spirit, I tried to soak in as much learning as I could. On the way back to the hotel beach, Stephan and Nick decided my paddling had progressed enough to let me paddle from the front seat of the canoe. From this position, I would be required to set the pace for the paddler behind me and, if we were racing, it would be on me to keep a winning pace. Of course, we were not racing, but I tried to paddle as if we were. I tuned out the burning sensation in my shoulders and core and paddled as hard as I could, with the best technique I could muster. At several points, I closed my eyes as Stephan suggested, which allowed me to, "breathe in the island and feel the movement patterns."

When I opened my eyes, we had reached the main island. And I was a little bit better at something than I was yesterday.

Next up for Alyssa: Teaching local kids to sail the outrigger canoes, then the IronMana Liquid Festival opening ceremony, short-course OC-1 and SUP races and ... dance classes!

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