On weekday mornings, say 5:30 a.m., most kids are sleeping.
Kai Norman, however, usually leaves the warmth of his Koloa home at 4:30 a.m. and an hour later, is in the pool at the YMCA in Lihue. There, depending on the workout planned, he’ll swim around 3,000 yards. Butterfly, backstroke, freestyle, the 11-year-old churns out laps, back and forth, one after the other, under the watch and guidance of his father, John Norman.
Young Kai makes it look easy, almost effortless, as he slices through the water, leaving small ripples in his wake. You would think he must be one of those kids introduced to swimming when he was a toddler and has aqualungs and flippers built in. Lots of natural ability, right? Wrong.
He didn’t even get into a pool until he was 8 years old.
“He kind of took right to it, had some great coaches help him out along the way,” John said. “But it takes an extreme amount of training to swim well.”
Kai actually preferred motocross. He loved the thrill of riding fast and furious, but he and his dad weren’t wild about the crashes and dangers that went along with it. Kai sought a sport that offered the same thrill of motocross racing. So he took after his dad, a high school water polo player and swimmer and today a strong recreational swimmer.
“When he first started three years ago, he could hardly swim 25 yards,” John said.
But he’s a quick learner.
These days, Kai is a member of Kauai Swim Aquatics and swimming 100 yards so fast, a little over a minute, he earned a state championship at that distance last year.
While father and son love the pool, they love the ocean even more.
“It depends,” Kai said. “Sometimes, the ocean is fun. It’s challenging. The pool is fun to race against other people.”
Adventures await in the ocean.
You can find them swimming back and forth in Hanalei Bay, or from Kee Beach to Hanakapiai. They’ve cruised along the Na Pali Coast together and swam at Polihale, covering up to 10 miles on their outings.
“It makes pool swimming a cinch in some way,” John said. “There’s no waves or current or getting crunched between waves.”
But all those swims were preparation for what they did last year — swim from Molokai to Lanai. That’s nearly 10 miles, in case you were wondering. And the day they went, it wasn’t all sunshine and calm waters. Try stormy, rolling waves, winds, whitecaps. They kept going. Stroke after stroke after stroke.
“It became kind of a journey, in and of itself,” John said. “Let’s try to do this.”
Not many have. Fewer than 30 people.
The two, with glow sticks tucked into their swimming shorts and wearing goggles, set out at 3 a.m. on Sept. 25, well before the rising sun.
“We just jumped in,” Kai said.
Their first task was to swim toward the safety boat that would lead them across the channel. For this to be official, they couldn’t touch that boat. Couldn’t get in it. Their help could toss them food and drink. That was it, so every hour or so, each downed a gel pack and a bottle of water.
The weather wasn’t ideal. A bit rougher than expected and they were close to calling it off. But who knew when there might be a next time. It’s a short window, September and October, when such a swim can be attempted. And the investment had been made. The boat was there. They were there. The jellyfish weren’t expected to cross their path. So they went.
“We thought we had the perfect day coming,” John said.
The first five miles went well — it was really beautiful, with a moment shared by father and son they’ll never forget.
“We were right in the middle and the sun came out,” Kai said. “You could see Lanai and Molokai.”
The good times didn’t last. The weather suddenly changed.
“Like a light switch, it was a completely different story,” John said.
Relentless, giant swells rolled in and over them. Waves turned the Normans around, pushed them off course and shoved them back. A few times, they were picked up and dropped, prompting them to just look at each other. The swells rose so high, the Normans couldn’t see Lanai. They didn’t consider climbing into the boat and giving it a go on another day.
Instead, they looked at each other, put their heads down and stuck together as they powered ahead — kind of.
“We were in one area for probably like three hours, not moving,” John said.
“If you’d stop, you’d move like 20 feet sideways,” Kai said.
Kai, 10 at the time, remained calm. He was well aware, whether it’s surfing, paddleboarding or snorkeling, there’s risk involved when you’re in the ocean.
“You try to think about the positive things,” John said.
When the two finally saw land, they were separated as they each went around a reef. Kai went all out once he saw the beach and the bottom of the ocean again.
“I actually got out of the water before he did,” Kai said, smiling.
“He beat me,” John said, laughing. “That’s what he’s saying.”
Each collapsed on the beach, about a quarter mile apart. After about 15 minutes, John walked to his son.
“He was asleep,” he said.
Their day wasn’t over. Both still had to swim a mile back out to their boat
Their celebration was going out for burgers — which they couldn’t finish.
“We were starving,” John said. “We took one bite and that was it. We were just tired.”
It took them nine hours to complete the crossing. John estimates it would have been five and a half with better conditions. But because they had to tack back and forth, he believes he probably swam about 15 miles — and more for Kai, a sixth-grader at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School who likes video games, hanging out at the beach and surfing.
While dad recognizes his son’s gifts in the water, he wants him to enjoy the moments — not feel pressure to swim fast or finish first.
“Swimming is just a great activity,” he said.
More ocean adventures are ahead for father and son. They plan to swim from Molokai to Oahu, 26 miles, in September or October, and are in training already. Ironically, John’s wife and Kai’s mom, Nyree, isn’t much of a swimmer but supports the duo’s quests.
They enjoy their time in the water, especially together. As they talk about their journeys, they laugh and smile. There is a bond that comes from crossing an ocean channel during a storm.
No matter what comes in the years ahead, they’ll always share their conquest of Molokai to Lanai.
“It’s kind of like climbing Mount Everest,” John said. “It’s something we get to talk about for a long time to come.”