Cali Paddler Spotlight - Gold Medalist Barbara Leites (74 years old)

Cali Paddler welcomes this contribution by Rita, from Team 47-74 who shared with us the story of the awesome and inspiring Barbara Leites. How do you want to age? -CP


On May 11th 2016 at the IVF VA’A WORLD SPRINT CHAMPIONSHIPS, 74 years old Barbara Leites representing POCA California, USA from the NCOCA (Northern California Outrigger Canoe Association) Pupu’O Hawaii Club and Outrigger Team 47-74, did the impossible: Won gold in the Masters 70+, V-1, 500 meters. The only gold for Team POCA USA at the 2016 World Sprints championship.

Why impossible?

Well, Barbara has been Outrigger paddling for only 2 years, a Novice.  And as our sprint coach Linda Dresbach shared on Facebook: This was Barbara’s 3rd race ever on a V-1.

What? How? And who is she? Why did Barbara start Outrigger Paddling?


When I was cleaning out my desk I found a paper attached to a photo of a group of women from Santa Cruz who were in (and might have even won) the Catalina Outrigger event.  On that small paper was written “Do This within two years”  May have taken longer but after I retired teaching, I saw that the Fall Parks and Rec magazine had a course/sign up for 6 sessions with Outrigger Santa Cruz, OSC.  I signed up.  After the first outing, I knew I had found a new athletic interest to make my own in 2014.

I have always been in some sport discipline for as long as I can remember.  My parents were athletic and even had a clay tennis court on an empty lot next door to their home.  I still have photos of it.  From an early age I was hunting and fishing with my father. My Dad was a baseball and volleyball player and I remember attending his games.  He both pitched no hitters and hit the most home runs on his baseball teams.

All the way thru high school I played every team sport and individual sport offered, including gymnastics before they made parallel bars for women like they have today - we did routines on the even parallel bars just like the boys.

In college I tried sports that were new to me: fencing, archery, handball, and field hockey.  I think all the athletic interest helped me in my artistic development because I really connected with drawing what I actually saw, not what my brain thought I saw.  I did portraits and figure studies very well.

PaddlerWhen I lived in Key West, Florida I was introduced to free diving with a ‘Hawaiian sling’ which was really designed like a sling shot.  The spear was not attached with a line; once released, you hit or missed your fish target.  You had to retrieve the spear whether you actually hit a fish or not.  Our average dive in the beginning (1971 through 1973) was on the reef in 20’ of water.  As the water became less clear, we had to go further and further to the west where the reef was in deeper water.  The water also became less clear when it had been as clean and clear as swimming in gin and you could see the sandy bottom in 100’ of water. By the time I left the Keys (1976) we often had to dive in 50’ of water which meant we spent less time looking under rocks for fish and more time retrieving spears.  Gas for the boat became more expensive and it took over an hour to get to a decent site on the reef, if it was even clear enough to risk diving.  We all had our shark stories.  Often, my then husband and I would fly a 150 Cesna over the reef at dawn first to determine if it was worth the pounding of the boat or waste of gas to go diving.

Living in upstate NY in the ’80's, I did Tae Kwon Do after each kid was born to get back into shape.  I really liked the ‘imaginary’ fight that a Kata represented, which was a pattern very much like dance steps. I still take dancing classes when I can.  All this is about timing which is the key in canoeing as well.  Imitating movements of other people in both dance and canoeing is another technique I use to learn steps or to blend with others in the OC6. I try to match the ‘angle of repose’, the amount of reach and twist of the person in front of me in the canoe, even if they paddle on the other side from me if the person on my side is hard to see.  I also watch the top hand and head movement which I hope is not moving at all.  I particularly love sitting in seat two and think I can match seat one in all phases of the stroke.  I need to get better at calling the changes as I get so focused on timing and imitating movements that I forget to count correctly.  I would like to learn how to steer one of these days!  Really, I’m willing to sit in any seat and did a lot of seat five paddling last year.  In this seat, at least the coach can make great corrective comments if he/she is also the steers’ person.

I am no stranger to water sports either. Over the years I’ve also done water-skiing, wind surfing (in Mexico where I lived in the early 90’s); kayaking and paddle boarding in Hawaii where my oldest daughter lives. I learned how to surf and boogie board better here in Santa Cruz but after my initial introduction to outrigger canoes, I knew that this would be the activity and sport where I wanted to put all my energy and commitment. I really don’t know how I had time to work once I entered the world of retirement and outrigger canoeing.

OC2 Paddlers

This past year I had some great coaches and mentors.  One person became a close friend. She even gave up her seat in a race provided I, as a novice, would get to sit it.  When we decided, in late summer of 2015 to compete in the World Sprints, we knew we had to train to be ready. To be able to compete at a world level, we also knew we needed to improve, besides paddling techniques, our power, strength and endurance. She decided we needed a personal trainers’ professional expertise and was referred to John Destacamento of Sweat Studio.  A customized cross-training program with intentions to improve on overall performance specific to the Master’s age group, was developed. To do this, she asked to have the training formats from the article “Strength Training for Outrigger Canoe Paddlers”  followed while emphasizing injury prevention.  John also used his self-developed software called EfitX to track the exercises.  This software allowed us to calculate the volume of each workout and assure we were making progressions.  We practiced on our own in the early mornings on OC-1 during the winter season to improve our stroke techniques. I took a V-1 lesson in Hawaii in November 2015, my first time ever on a V-1. In early 2016, we went to two 101 Surf Sports paddle races in San-Rafael to maintain our racing momentum. We did the second race on an OC2. We had to have a Team name and that’s when Outrigger Team 47-74 surfaced. She turned 47 and me 74 this year. From early spring on, we trained with Pupu’o Hawaii at Vasona Lake in Los Gatos on V-1 and OC1, as well as in Santa Cruz on OC6 under Linda Dresbach’s coaching to be ready for the World Sprints. I and 47 traveled to the Sprints together. She is up to date on phone apps. I get frustrated with it all and still use an older model iPhone. We may be different in age but have similar backgrounds, personal histories and the urge to learn and keep moving on. The let’s go, let’s go type.  She pushes me better than anyone to get better and stronger physically.  She even has a personal trainer for strength/endurance training and shares her info with me. I then use my neighbor’s home gym for strength/endurance building along with some tools I have at home.  We also learned that supplemental fueling of our bodies the right way pre and post paddling is a must to replace enzymes lost to sweat and fluid depletions during exertions and to help the muscles build endurance.

Gold Medal 2016 Championships

A little bit about myself outside the world of sports:

I have been President/Treasurer of ISAP (International Society of Acrylic Painters, a 501c3 entity) since 2002.  I also participate in the world of International Painting competitions which started after I completed my MFA.  There were a number of years I did not paint as children became my focus but once the last one was in primary school, I started to participate in juried shows again. I will continue to love this aspect of life for here is where I can become one with the universe and get lost in the process.  I’m usually surprised when I snap out of this meditational type space and start to inspect what I’ve created.  Then the hard decisions begin because content is the primary concern which is controlled by pre-selected elements and principles of design.  It is like making a map where limitation rather than inclusivity is necessary; using all of these tools would result in loss of content and be somewhat boring.

Lifelong learning is a modus operandi for me.  Never Give Up is the family motto.  Every day contains a choice to have it be one of the best days ever. Every aspect of your being has a mental, emotional, and physical aspect.  I have never felt bored and if I could have several clones of self, I might fulfill all that I expect to do in life.  One day at a time, being in the present, yet having longer term goals has been a great path to happiness.  I am content because I have con-tent in my life.

2016 Va'a Sprint Championships

Outrigger canoe racing requires dedication, commitment, and disciplined training to blend on all levels with team members in the OC6. Building muscular strength, doing cross and endurance training is just as important as learning the stroke techniques and the job of every seat in the canoe.  Super challenging.  Every training session is a golden opportunity to become the best you can be at that moment.  Intention is a major key to success I think:

What would I like to be? What would I like to bring? What would I like to contribute?

This is beyond WHAT you want to DO and more what you want to BECOME.  It is Choice, not chance, that determines your destiny.

“How do you want to age?” is Outrigger Team 47-74’s motto.

Post-Race Celebration


Barbara expressed to me, Rita, 47 after her award ceremony that she never thought she would one day do something so great for her Country: Standing on the highest level on the podium proudly holding the American flag with the National Anthem playing. We need more of this at IVF VA’A WORLD SPRINTS CHAMPIONSHIP.  It is getting more and more international attention as well as participation. The question is: HOW DO WE GET OUR BEST PADDLERS FROM THE USA TO THESE COMPETITIVE RACES?


Thank you Rita for shedding light on our champion from California!

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  • John Destacamento - June 08, 2016

    Defying the odds at age 74! I hope this inspires all the Baby Boomers to get out there and seize the opportunity regardless of their age. Congrats to team 47-74, Rita and Barbara, looking forward on hearing more successes for the upcoming years!

  • Alyson Jackson - June 07, 2016

    If I had time I’d write a word for every letter of the alphabet on this. But I’ll go with two I words: impressive, inspirational!! You’re amazing Barbara! Go Team 47-74! Love this!!

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