Kala Alexander tells me he doesn’t like to leave Hawaii much. And who could blame him? But it didn’t take much twisting of the arm to get the man to come to New Zealand for two weeks. Coincidentally, the Mauli Ola Foundation is holding its first ever New Zealand surf camp for a handful of families, teaching young children with Cystic Fibrosis to surf. Coincidentally, Kala says he never has a problem leaving home for Mauli Ola, a foundation in which he’s served as Vice President since 2008. For at least one day about a dozen children are getting the chance to receive some genuine, even doctor prescribed, saltwater therapy. The extremely thick mucus that builds up in their lungs causes pain and countless challenges for them and their families. Both exercise and saltwater alleviate those symptoms, even if just temporarily. So the Mauli Ola Foundation has brought surfing to more than 1,300 CF patients over the years, just like they’re doing here in Auckland.
And the more Kala Alexander shares stories of the families he’s met through taking children surfing, the more the coincidences seem like they’re piling up. Alexander is here to compete against seven other men from all over the world in The Ultimate Waterman, an eight discipline contest with a goal as straightforward as its name implies: to find the planet’s best all-around waterman. It’s less than two weeks after the Hawaiian competed in the ninth running of Quiksilver’s Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau, so that mark on his resume alone would be enough for the normal person to understand how he’s become one of the eight men competing for this title. But Kala has done more than just surf big waves in Hawaii to get here. The Mauli Ola event is kind of an unofficial kick off party for the contest. According to Alexander, that part isn’t a coincidence.
“We’re starting this off with the purest, truest form of why we do this,” he says. “The healing and the mana that you get from the ocean – to share that mana, that knowledge with young children like this who are going through a battle – just to see them feel like normal kids and smile and have fun, forgetting about being sick, is great.”
But more than just putting a smile on the face of a five year old like his tandem partner in Auckland, Oliver, is the impact it clearly has on parents. “These parents have no choice but to try and be as positive as possible. They deal with it in the most positive way they can and try to make their kid’s life as normal as possible. So I have a lot of respect and admiration for the parents. I can tell you these are some of the toughest, most inspirational people you’ll meet.”
The surf camp is a perfect example that this entire trip is, in Kala’s own words, “Way more than a competition.” This is another reason why it wasn’t that difficult to pull the man away from the home he loves so much.
“It’s in my blood. Our knowledge of the ocean, our connection to the ocean, that’s an amazing thing. It’s nice to come here where a lot of the Māori speak their language and are still in touch with the old values of respecting the island, respecting the land and ocean, co existing with it and nurturing it.”
So maybe none of it is a coincidence at all. While so many people yearn for vacations and adventures far away from home seeking something outside of themselves, here’s one man who does the exact opposite. When he leaves home it’s to bring a part of what he already carries with him to other parts of the world. He doesn’t put it into those exact words for me, but that’s what I’m hearing. When he’s pushing children with Cystic Fibrosis into their first wave, he’s sharing an experience he had for the first time as a two year old. Just like he said, it’s the truest form of why he and his competitors get in the ocean every day. When he travels across the Pacific for a contest like this, it’s to keep up with a lifelong practice of paying respect to his heritage. And when he jumps at the chance to do it all 4,000 miles away from home one has to assume it’s because this is one of the only places that could reconnect him with those roots.
“You go in the ocean and – you do anything you love and it recharges you – for me, as a Polynesian, that’s where I get it from. In the ocean.”
These things could all be coincidences. But they probably aren’t. Because what you find when you leave home isn’t as important as what you bring with you.