CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sixty-three-year-old Tom Conner, seen at the Outrigger Club in Waikiki, has a distinguished reputation as one of Hawaii's best competitive steersmen.
Legendary paddler leaves the competitive urges in his wake
Tom Connor, now 63, still competes in senior races, but doesn't worry about winning
Tom Conner isn't ready to hang up the paddle just yet.
Though Conner, 63, can't compete the way he used to in his glory days of canoe paddling, the onetime Outrigger Canoe Club steersman and current coach of Lanikai can't stand to be anywhere else but around the sport he loves.
The Big Island native and Kailua resident saw how Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre chose to end his career this year -- a storied run that ended in resignation to the wear and tear of another brutal NFL season. Conner, though, is determined to keep himself involved as long as he can out on the ocean.
He is a legend in his own right when it comes to the yearly Molokai Hoe race, in which he has steered a winning crew to 11 overall wins -- believed to be the highest count for one person dating back to 1952.
The decades, going back to the 1960s, in which a six-man crew relied on his steady hand to steer the Molokai Channel to Oahu are long behind him, but there have been other methods for Conner to extend his time on the water. To counter Father Time, the retired fire captain has scaled back his workload to propel one-man canoes in the Kanaka Ikaika circuit. He's constructed several hundred of his own surf ski designs for friends and family over the years.
On one hand, Conner laments his inability to match the exuberance of youth in a time of an increasingly mainstream and regimented sport. But he still goes out on the Windward Oahu waters for an hour and a half, three or four times a week in his one-man craft to keep himself active.
"I still love the workout, it's just the competitive fire to stay on top just doesn't burn very bright anymore," he said. "It's getting to be a lot more painful than it is exhilarating."
Still, he manages to conjure positive results. There are only three in the circuit older than him in the 60-and-older division (kahuna), and he estimates there are hundreds who are younger. His longtime comrade, 60-year-old Jeff Metzger, gives him the biggest challenge and keeps him motivated.
On Feb. 10, Conner took fourth overall in a one-man short course race (more than 8 miles) from Hawaii Kai to Kaimana Beach, a reminder that he can match youth with veteran experience and superior technique, and he edged Metzger by less than a minute in their division.
In between the Kanaka Ikaika events he chooses to participate, Conner finds time for some Ironman six-man events with Team Bradley, a crew of old friends from Outrigger and other assorted clubs.
OCC member Mark Buck, Conner's former paddling coach and teammate on the University of Hawaii men's volleyball team, caught up with his former pupil last weekend by paddling with him for the first time since 1984.
"It was great, it was like we never (went without) paddling together," Buck said. "Someone who's good and been around, you adapt and acclimate pretty easily."
Buck credits Conner with helping coax along several innovations to the sport, including bringing the surf ski (an elongated, open-cockpit kayak) to Hawaii, which was passed down to him by Australian Hayden Kenny.
"He's very smart and outspoken," Buck said. "He's a doer, he doesn't like to sit back and status-quo things, I think that's why he helped with the evolvement of our canoes with surf skis. He's a very fierce competitor."
Conner dabbled in coaching about 30 years ago with OCC, but didn't like the split of his duties between both paddling and constant instruction. Now, with Lanikai Canoe Club, he can focus on the latter.
He humbly downplays his accomplishments -- the Molokai-to-Oahu victories (nine with OCC and his final two with Tahitian club Faa'a) and countless triumphs with Outrigger in his heyday -- as being part of the pre-mainstream age of paddling. To him, it's a team sport and should be recognized as such.
"I really don't look at myself as having a legacy or (being) an inspiration," Conner said. "There's a lot of other people who look up to me, and say 'Wow, I hope I can do what you did.' Most of the younger guys, they just say, 'Well, there's no way, just no way I can do that.'" He shook his head at the notion.
When asked about his longevity, Conner just grinned. "I don't foresee (Kanaka Ikaika) coming out with a 70s division, but ..." his voice trailing off.
With him involved, you never know.