After paddling the first two miles of an 18-mile canoe race on the Big Island on Saturday, Lihue resident Vic Allen and his crew knew they were on to something special.
“It was nice being able to paddle with great paddlers and being able to excel in the largest canoe race in the world,” Allen said.
While the rest of his teammates on the 55-59 division team saw the finish of the Queen Liliuokalani Long Distance Canoe Race at Kailua-Kona, Allen felt the victory with his six-man team, the Motley Crew.
What makes Allen so incredible is that he’s blind and performs at a high level, said teammate Fred Atkins.
“It was very inspirational for me to see what a gentleman like this can do,” Atkins said. “The guy’s incredible. He’s so amazing, you forgot that he’s blind.”
Out of 114 teams, the Kauai team took 34th in the men’s overall.
“We took off, paddled for a while, and when we got to the point, which was about a couple miles, you could tell there was something special going on here,” Atkins said. “There’s certain kind of mana in the boat.”
Originally from Huntington Beach, California, Allen lost his sight in 1994 after a group of six men mistook him for another person and attacked him outside a tavern in Southern California.
“When I got jumped, they put their thumbs in my eyes,” said the 59-year-old paddler. “I should have gone to the hospital right then, but hung out with my buddies and didn’t go until late, and ended up getting an infection and ended up losing my sight.”
Six months later, Allen’s life took a turn for the better.
While skiing at a blind recreation center, someone asked Allen if he was interested in blind ski racing.
“I was like, ‘Blind people race and ski?’ he said.
He raced and he consistently won and placed near the top.
“I was the No. 1 blind skier in the U.S. and No. 2 in the world,” he said.
He continued his success in athletics with blind baseball.
He and his team, the West Coast Dawgs, won seven blind baseball world series, traveling the world.
“Between skiing and blind baseball, that wrecked my knees,” Allen said.
Competing in sports such as rugby, baseball, basketball, and wrestling his whole life, Allen needed to find a new way to fuel his competitive nature.
When he moved to Kauai in 2004, he found it.
“Paddling is the hardest because it’s six guys with one paddle in one canoe,” he said. “You need to relax the timing and apply your power at the same time.”
Allen competed for the first time when he turned 50, and helped his team to win the island championship.
“Just being competitive and loving to compete, I learned that paddling blind can be an advantage,” he said. “If you had six blind paddlers and a sighted steersman, you’d be a great crew. It’s all about the feeling of the canoe.”
One person who has been a big part of Allen’s life is his wife, Annie.
“For 35 years, I was a paid observer,” said Annie, a retired professional photography. “What he fell in love with was the fact I could look at something and tell him very precisely so he could see it like we see it.”
She added: “We have this incredible bond because I’m responsible for what I tell him I see.”
Allen said he encourages others with disabilities to follow their dreams.
“Something ends, a new beginning starts. That’s how I try to live my life,” he said. “You just never know when your card gets pulled. I just let the day unfold and let my purpose be served as best as I can.”
In two years, Allen and the same six-man crew who competed at the Queen Liliuokalani Long Distance Canoe Race will compete in the VAA World Sprint Championships in Tahiti.
“We’ll paddle together and try to win,” he said. “You need to look to your dreams. You can’t let somebody tell you you can’t. I’m going on 60. I’m blind. You don’t have an excuse with your headache.”
A previous version of the article said Vic Allen assembled the crew. Blake Conant assembled the original crew.