I never thought I would be training with one of the best paddlers in the world. Not this early in my standup paddle journey anyway.
But there I was, standing uneasily on a small dock of Lanakila Outrigger Canoe Club, a Hippo stick in my right hand, listening intently to the directions “Coach” was giving me. A few athletes scheduled to train that afternoon had just launched their outrigger canoes and standup paddleboards from the dock, the Puakea and 404 brands conspicuously placed on each vessel reflecting as they paddled towards the sun.
If you’ve been following this sport for a while, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about just by brand association alone: the legendary power paddler Danny Ching.
He agreed to let me “train” with a few of the Lanakila Club members and 404 Team Riders as they prepared for the Carolina Cup. I say ‘train’ loosely because a leisurely paddler like me is not mentally or physically equipped to paddle on the same level as these pro-athletes. Their focus, determination and athleticism are apparent in the way they lean into their warm-up lap around the north end of King Harbor Marina at Danny’s directive.
404 Athletes in a League of Their Own
I, on the other hand, struggled to find my balance on the 404 12’6” Go Go, a paddleboard specifically designed for racing and narrower than what I’m used to, as a 30-foot sailboat cruised by. The blue sky was cloudless and it felt extremely windy that day. I fell behind almost immediately the distance of a football stadium. Eventually, I slowed my pace to take quick snaps of the Cali seals sunbathing on the floating dock to embrace my defeat.
This was no surprise. I didn’t expect to keep up, but I wanted to experience it for myself. And yes, to ask to train with such mega-athletes was overly-ambitious, but boy oh boy, do I have a better appreciation for the sport!
I witnessed only a few minutes of the athletes performing powerfully, purposefully, although seemingly effortlessly at each stroke on the paddle. What do you expect when their fearless leader, Danny Ching, has maintained his place on the Top 10 Best Standup Paddle Racers in the World since he entered the scene?
Danny Ching: Quiet & Humble.. and a Dad!
Ever since he crossed the finish line at Battle of the Paddle in 2009, Danny has been a household name in the paddle racing community. Some even crediting him for putting the sport in the spotlight. Most idolize him for his inexhaustible prowess and great sportsmanship which he displays at every race he competes in.
What really surprised me that day, was, despite all of his success and attention, Danny maintains his humility. His demeanor, although quiet and reserved at first, is super friendly and unassuming. The loudest thing about Danny Ching was the bright green and black 404/Virus ensemble he wore for training that day.
Every King Needs A Queen: Leah Ching
Oh, and words of encouragement he hollered at his team as he paddled along in his outrigger canoe. He’s a multi-disciplinary elite athlete. Standup isn’t the only sport he’s good at. Not by a long shot.
You’ve heard of the saying “behind every great man is a great woman”, right? Well, this holds very true for Danny. It also answers the question of what, or in this case, who keeps him grounded. If you’ve been to one of Danny’s races, then you’ve most likely met her: his paddling partner, best friend and the love of his life, his wife and more recently baby girl’s mama, Leah Beebe-Ching.
When They First Met: Leah & Danny
It is evident at the sight of Danny and Leah together that the love between the two runs deep. An avid outrigger paddler herself, Leah met Danny in 2009 when she decided she wanted to take her paddling skills to the next level. She joined the Lanakila Club and, because of how it worked with her hectic work schedule, began training with the all-male team that Danny coached.
They’ll be the first to tell you that their initial meeting wasn’t love at first sight. It grew overtime because of their shared love for paddling.
“I didn’t like him at first. I thought he was cocky,” Leah recalls with a smile. She’s more out-going than Danny and definitely more comfortable about opening up to me. “I found out later that he was just trying to impress me.”
Danny chimes in, “I thought she was cute. Then we just started hanging out a lot.”
A Power Paddling Couple
They got married in 2013, and three years later, baby Kaimana (meaning “ocean power” in Hawaiian) was born. Shortly after, an Australian Shepherd named Velzy joined the Ching trio because, according to Leah, “Our daughter Kaimana loves dogs. [I] couldn’t imagine her growing up without a dog in our home.”
When I finally caught up to the training group, Danny and Leah checked to make sure I was holding up okay. At the sight of my struggle, Danny suggested that I hang back to watch the rest of training, and with Leah in her outrigger, escorted me to a shallow spot near the marina seawall.
A family friend and long-time member of Lanakila Club, Tim, took a break from his leisure paddle to keep me company. We watched the athletes do timed sprints for the next hour or so while sharing stories about life, paddling adventures, and the supportive paddling community the Chings helped establish. He told me, “Ask anyone around here, Danny and Leah are very active in their community. They’re great role models, and they’re the nicest couple you’ll ever meet.”
In between laps, I chatted with a few of the athletes who echo Tim’s sentiments. “I grew up training with him, so I just know him as Coach,” one of the younglings gushed about Danny. “He’s a really awesome teacher!” Another said about Leah, “She’s an O.R. nurse [at UCLA] so it’s in her nature to be giving of herself. For as long as I’ve known her, she’s been really, really sweet.”
Don’t let Leah’s sweet appearance fool you though, She is as tough as Danny on the water. I observed during the training that she paddles as strongly as he does, her outrigger quickly skimming across the water alongside his as she hollers back words of encouragement to him. And she does all this with a missing right bicep which she lost during a boating accident! It is quite symbolic of their relationship, if you ask me. They are unquestionably a power-paddling couple you’d want to double-date with if you want to show your S.O. what a supportive, fun-loving and genuinely real love looks like. #RelationshipGoals
In the End, A Peaceful Clan with Fierce Blood
While the energy on water that day was high on adrenaline, back on land, it was quite the opposite. Each athlete ascended from the dock with a certain peacefulness and equanimity as if they were Tibetan monks just coming out of a meditation.
Perhaps they were doing a mental review of what they learned at training, or how they can improve in time for the race in North Carolina. Maybe it was their way of refueling the energy they exhausted out on the water. Whatever the reason was, I never bothered to find out because I was preoccupied with finding peacefulness at the sight of Danny’s father, Al, playing the ukulele and singing a Hawaiian lullaby to put baby Kaimana to sleep.
This story was originally published on StandupJournal.com
Photos: Jonaliza D. Misa