Never Too Old for Gold

Outrigger Champion Barbara Leites

By Haven Livingston
Photos by Mike Grummell

Barbara Leites and her paddling partner Rita Melamed.

BARBARA LEITES WAS 71 YEARS OLD the first time she paddled an outrigger canoe. At 74 she brought home her first gold for her country from the 2016 International Va’a (outrigger canoe) Federation’s World Sprints Championships in Australia. This summer at age 76 she is full speed ahead eying more medals from her second IVF World Championship event in Tahiti. Some have questioned whether an athlete of her age is up for the rigors of these races. For Leites, age is irrelevant.

The spritely petite woman with crystalline blue eyes and a bright smile is a power house of energy. Her work-out schedule would challenge any college athlete to keep up between daily weight room work outs, paddles, and cardio sessions.

Leites doesn’t like to hear excuses from people who think they are too old to try new sports. “You just have to find the right thing that doesn’t aggravate your problem,” she said. She feels lucky because she found paddling and fell in love with it. It’s the perfect fit because she can do it from a seated position and take the stress off of her problem knees. As a youngster she tried out various sports, but never in any formal way and never very seriously. After a career as a fine arts painter and teacher she took a recreational class to learn outrigger paddling. Something clicked for her, connecting her life-long love affair with water into a new passion that gave her an outlet for her competitive drive.

“Retirement is an opportunity to start something new, go a new direction, change it up. Find something to be passionate about again that is different from the last job. A new hobby, new sport, new anything that takes you off the couch!” said Leites.

Age is a nonissue for Leites’ paddling partner too, Rita Melamed, 49. “Barbara is definitely my inspiration to keep training,” said Melamed. “She keeps pushing me and I am just very lucky to accompany her through the bucket list she has set up for paddling races.”

The two met up while paddling with Outrigger Santa Cruz club. Melamed, who had been paddling for two years, immediately saw herself in Leites — the drive, determination and sheer love for being on the water. They became fast friends and came up with the idea to race a two-person canoe under the moniker Team 47-74 (based on their ages). They wanted their name to send the message that you can still get after it no matter what your age.

In 2016 Team 47-74 traveled to Hawaii for the Queen Lili’uokalani Canoe Race and won first place in the two-person five-mile event for the 40’s age group. Team category is determined by the youngest person on the team. After Hawaii Leites became unstoppable in her pursuit of competing in all of the big outrigger race events. Melamed was thrilled to have a training partner as motivated as she to keep striving for more.

Never Too Old for Gold

Digging deep at a regatta in Alameda.

In April of 2017 they went to the World Masters Games in New Zealand. As of yet California does not have any over 70’s teams so Leites was mixed with people from all over for various races. She and Melamed were also recruited to fill in as drummers for dragon boat teams of 20 paddlers.

Having never been in a dragon boat, they did what anyone needing to learn something quick would do; they turned to YouTube. Late into the night in their hotel room they studied the Chinese dragon boat style race rhythms. The next day Leites joined a team composed of Russian, Portuguese, and New Zealand paddlers and beat in time towards a gold medal in the 500-meter sprint.  By the end of the competition Leites had racked up three gold medals and two silver and she attributes them to the availability of racing in over-70 teams instead of being lumped into younger age categories. “Aging does have its benefits in this sport!” Leites said.

In the fall of 2017 Leites and Melamed paddled in a six-person co-ed team to conquer the MBX a 22-mile Monterey Bay crossing from Santa Cruz Harbor to Monterey. They competed as an iron team, meaning they were the same people from start to finish (as opposed to teams who change out paddlers) with no one taking more than a 30 second break from paddling over the four and one-half hours it took to make the crossing.

This year Leites won the 10-mile Monterey Long Distance race in the 60-over group. “Just give me a rabbit to chase,” Leites said. As long as she sees someone in front of her she will throw down everything she’s got to overtake them. She and Melamed are always searching for the next great challenge. And when they can’t find someone to teach them, they return to YouTube to work on their stroke technique.

Along with their next challenge of the 2018 IVF World Championships in Tahiti is the Te Aito, the most prestigious individual va’a race in Polynesia. Age categories only go up to 60-over and at 76, Leites will be the oldest woman to compete. She will be representing the USA in the 14-kilometer one-person rudderless va’a race.

Melamed, however, is thrilled to represent the island she grew up on, Mauritius, where outrigger paddling has not been part of the culture and no one from the island has ever competed in the Te Aito. Both view this race as an ultimate individual challenge since it is a world-renowned event and will be the longest race either have done in a rudderless outrigger canoe. Even with as climactic as the Te Aito will be, the pair doesn’t get myopic. Their sights reach into the future towards the Catalina Crossing US Outrigger Championships in September and continue to more individual races after that. The goal, as Leites says, is to “never, ever give up!”

“I started a brand-new sport after retirement at 71. Look where you can go when you take a chance, risk trying something new,” Leites said. The trick, she says, is to use fear of the unknown as motivation. That, she said, is when you have the opportunity to be brave.”

Barbara and Rita at the blessing ceremony of the canoe (Barbara’s private collection).

Paddling regatta at Sea Planes Basin Alameda hosted by Hui Wa’a outrigger club.

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