Competitor Magazine: Danny Ching, Outrigger King

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By Roy M. Wallack

Danny Ching is the unknown superstar next door — The Man in a tiny, off-the-radar sport that hardly anyone has ever heard of. He’ll probably never achieve any great fame or wealth from it, he knows, but he doesn’t care.
“I was born into it,” says the handsome 5-foot-8, 170-pound Eurasian with the huge shoulders. “My uncle paddles. My dad paddles and was a champion in his day. My mom used to paddle. In fact, that’s how she met my dad in Redondo Harbor. Outrigger paddling’s in my blood.”
Cool. What’s an outrigger?
An outrigger is the high-speed canoe you might remember from the old TV show Hawaii Five-0 — a super-stable, pontoon-balanced dugout virtually unchanged from the same craft that intrepid Polynesian sailors used two millenniums ago to roam vast distances, colonizing islands from the South Pacific and Tahiti to Hawaii and Easter Island, 3,000 miles to the north and west. Those amazing boats held many sailors and cargo at once. When it became a sport — big in Hawaii and small but growing fast on the California coast, Washington and Oregon, and some east Coast locales — outriggers were limited to six men.
Ching, 22, is number-one in California and number-three in the world in the hottest outrigger category: one-man.
Formerly used just to keep in shape in the off-season, one-man ‘riggers are fast — twice the speed of a kayak. Fitness kayakers who switch over say that it’s like a cyclist going from a beach cruiser to a racing bike. Ironically, Ching has moved so fast so quickly that he has a chance at making it onto the 2008 Olympic team — as a kayaker. Here’s how it happened:
In high school, Ching would have laughed if you’d mentioned the word Olympics. Yes, he was a natural and exceptional athlete who “couldn’t stand sitting still,” competing in volleyball and roller hockey; and winning MVP honors in soccer, water polo and swimming at Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Outside of school, he surfed and raced surf skis, once finishing sixth overall in the latter sport’s state championship. Although he’d always paddled outriggers as a kid — three decades ago his father Al Ching, a native of Hawaii, founded the local Lanakala Outrigger Canoe Club, now the largest in California with over 300 members — he didn’t do it in earnest until three months into his senior year in high school. That’s when startling things began happening.
Outrigger paddling is by nature a social sport — six men in a boat, working as a unit. One-man outriggers had traditionally been used only for off-season training. In the summer of 2001, Ching put in a lot of miles training juniors, then jumped in a one-man at season’s end. One day in November 2001, he was stunned to find himself leading some of the best solo paddlers in the state in a race at Redondo. He finished the 10-mile race in one hour, 10 minutes — just 60 seconds behind the sport’s biggest names, often 10-15 years older.
“I was shocked,” he says. “I didn’t think I had progressed so far so fast. I knew then that I could win this with more practice.”
Others thought the same thing. By the next weekend, Ching had a sponsored boat, a sleek Kamahi OC1, and advice from his hard-core paddling uncle, Josh Crayton: “Keep training.” He did, taking second place in a race in Oceanside in December and third place in Santa Barbara in January 2002.
The reaction in local paddling circles was disbelief. ‘How’d that happen? Maybe this is a fluke,’ Ching recalls people saying. In a four-month period, he became The Man. Then he didn’t podium again the rest of the season.
Training on a six-man team through the regular 2002 season and throwing in a couple of one-man sessions, Ching’s confidence grew. In April, he won second place at the 39-mile Avalon (Catalina Island) to Dana Point one-man race. By the start of the 2002-03 one-man season, after he’d accepted his uncle’s invitation to move up to Santa Barbara to attend junior college and train every day, he was on fire. He swept through the entire eight-race, November-April schedule undefeated.
“It created a sensation,” Ching says. “I wasn’t untouchable — I wasn’t winning by all that much — but still, it wasn’t bad.” His secret? “The miles. I was putting in twice as many as anyone else. And I had improved my technique, which is huge. It’s actually more important in calm California flat-water than a super windy place like Hawaii.”
From the previous July through October, combining his training and teaching juniors, Ching had honed his stroke mechanics, focusing on using his legs to drive and his body weight to move the blade. Also, he put in 100 miles a week. Most people in this amateur sport, squeezing in training before and after work, can manage 20 or 30 miles per week, max.
In January 2003, Ching went to Hawaii and took second to then-current world champion Karel Tresnak. “Whoa,” he thought. “I could actually beat him!”
By the next season, Ching’s conditioning and training was so dialed that he “got to the point where I was sure I’d win whenever I raced.” In fact, he won every race he entered. By 2004-05, he beat Tresnak in two dead-flat races, one by five seconds, and another by two minutes.
“People’s eye’s lit up at that one,” recalls Ching.
By now, Ching was regularly jetting to Hawaii on weekends, including competing in the superbowl of one-man paddling: The Molokai Solo — 31 miles from Molokai across the Kaiwi Channel to Oahu, considered one of the most treacherous channel crossings in the world. Six-foot swells with winds gusting to 40 mph.
“You can get swept up to Alaska or over to Japan,” says Uncle Josh. “Eddy Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, got pulled off his boat a couple years ago.”
In 2004, Ching finished the Molokai in third place, in a time of three hours, 40 minutes, just three minutes behind the winners. He was fifth in 2005, and took third in 2006 after leading much of the race.
This year, sponsored by Patagonia and some private individuals, he was able to fly to Hawaii seven weekends in April and May. He’s now a senior at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, working part-time as an L.A. County lifeguard and hungry for a Molokai Worlds win next year.
Yet Ching’s future may not be with a one-bladed outrigger paddle at all — but with a two-bladed kayak paddle. It turns out that outrigger canoeing is looked at as a feeder for Olympic sprint kayaking. In February, Ching took third against some of the best solo kayakers in the United States in Newport Beach, and the coach handed him his card. At the National Kayak Trials several months later, he took 10th place, just missing a chance to accompany the team to Europe.
“That turned a lot of heads,” Ching says. “I trained for it in my one-man outrigger. I’ve got a lot of room for improvement.”
The coaches at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in San Diego agree. They want him to come live at the center. Ideally, he would attend the M.B.A. program at San Diego State University as he trains for the 2008 Olympics.
Switching from outriggers to kayaks is not new. Lauren Spaulding did it in the 2004 Olympics. Can Danny Ching do the same? Stay tuned.

Mahalos to Kelly Trimble of GEN-A MEDIA & MARKETING for allowing us to post this. Thanks to Josh Crayton for sending it in. And of-course Competitor Magazine and Danny Ching.

This article is featured July 2006 Issues of:

Competitor Magazine (distribution 100,000 in Southern California),
CitySports Magazine (distribution 90,000 in Northern California),
CitySports Northwest Magazine (distribution 70,000 in Oregon/Washington/ British Colombia) and
Florida Sports Magazine (distribution 75,000 in Florida)

Posted by keizo on Mon, 07/10/2006 - 6:56pm

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