For Punahou's Kai Flanagan, the water is her world

Jan. 24—On a quiet morning or afternoon, Kai Flanagan takes a break from the pool.

On a quiet morning or afternoon, Kai Flanagan takes a break from the pool.

She grabs a board and gets in the ocean. The state surfing champion gets recharged with friends catching waves. Nothing spectacular. Just a favorite way to refill her soul.

"We like Aina Haina, Ala Moana Bowls and Chun's, " the Punahou senior said.

In the pool, the accolades have piled up for Flanagan. As a freshman, she was part of a 400 freestyle relay state title team. She also placed second in the 500-meter individual freestyle and fourth in the 200 individual freestyle.

Her sophomore year the DOE shut down the state meet due to the pandemic, but the ILH had its championships. Flanagan won the 200 and 500 individual freestyle races, and again swam for gold in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

Last year, Flanagan won state and ILH gold in the 200 and 500 individual freestyle, and the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

"She has great work ethic and consistency. She has an amazing feel for the water, " Punahou coach Jeff Meister said. "I saw her in seventh grade and the coaches knew immediately she was a Flanagan based on her smoothness and technique in the water. Even at that age, she made it look easy compared to her peers. She has an ability to swim all four strokes at a high level. She started off as a freestyler, but over the years, her other strokes have improved to the point that she could probably win almost any event she focuses on."

Flanagan is in striking distance of state records. The 500 freestyle mark is 4 :55.44, set in 2017 by Jasmine O'Brien of Seabury Hall. Flanagan posted a 5 :08.62 last winter.

"My goal is to break the 500 freestyle record. I've been sick through a lot of training, but I think I can. I've been training really hard this year, trying to finish my last year strong, " she said. "My coaches think I can go under 4 :50, or at least get 4 :55."

The 200 freestyle mark is held by former Punahou standout Jasmine Mau, whose record of 1 :47.14 has stood since 2014. Flanagan posted a 1 :51.57 last year.

"She's also my coach. She's super humble, super nice. Definitely my role model, " Flanagan said.

Combined with year-round club competition, Flanagan and younger sister Kona, a freshman, are always on the move. Flanagan's medals are in boxes scattered here and there. Training in the early mornings, twice a week during school vacation time, then again in the afternoons, again on Saturdays. The constant churn, the 3.5 grade-point average, it's a wonder there's enough time to sleep.

Almost 24 /7, Flanagan would rather be in the water. Open water. Her father, John, swam at Punahou, then at Wisconsin, then at Auburn. He won two Waikiki Roughwater Swim titles, and with a long resume of achievements, entered the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame in 2005.

Eldest daughter Kai did her first Waikiki Roughwater Swim at age 13. Last year, in September, she won the women's division outright for the first time.

"Now, it's like I'm living up to his name, " she said. "Open water is easier for me because I don't have to do flip turns, which I'm bad at. The ocean is really hard. It can be scary, dark. The water's super deep and you see fish. Is that a shark ? Is that a turtle ?"

The bloodline is strong in the water. John Flanagan coaches at Kamehameha Schools and Kamehameha Swim Club, and her aunty and former state swim champion, Maureen Cole, is the water polo coach at Hawaii.

"Kai has bragging rights in our family because she's gone faster in the 50 and 100 (in club competition ) than my sister, " John Flanagan said. "She can do sprint and do very good in distance, which is incredible."

Swimming is the ticket. Kai Flanagan will join the squad at Cal Baptist next season. Yet, it's surfing where she finds her groove.

"I surf every weekend. I try to. During the summer, I'd go surf during the day and we'd have (Kamehameha Swim Club ) practice at night. This year, I'm on the Punahou surf team, " she said. "You can get paid for surfing, but for me, surfing is to have fun."

Swimming has taken Flanagan across the state and country. After the state championships, there will be club meets locally and in California. But surfing, even at a recreational level, stokes her travel ambitions.

"I want to go to Bali. They have amazing surf. It's beautiful, " she said.

Surfing also factored into her choice of Cal Baptist over San Jose State.

"I like the team at Cal Baptist. They're a really close team. They're just a great group of people and the coach is amazing. The campus is really beautiful, " Flanagan said. "They're just 30 minutes from the beach. The coach keeps surfboards at his house. I think I might bring my surfboards up."

Those boards are precious. She got her first when she was 13.

"I have two surfboards. One is a Bra Bra and the other is a Two Crows board. My first real board was the Two Crows and my dad got that for me for Christmas. He had them (custom ) made so it would be easier to nose drive and turn. It was getting water-logged so I got a new one last year."

That newer board has a battle scar of sorts.

"I went to Costa Rica over the summer and I accidentally dropped it on the rocks. I went with my dad and his side of the family. My aunties and uncles surf, " she said. "We went to a lot of hidden spots. The waves were super clean. It was great conditions except when we went to Pavones, a major world-known spot. It wasn't ridable. It has the second-longest left in the world."

Flanagan's limit is 6 feet.

"Anything above that, I'm not riding it. Surfing is for fun, to go relax with my friends. I could compete in it if I dropped swimming. I could be a lot better at surfing if I did that, " she said. "But I like swimming."

She hits the waves with friends, including Waialua swimmer and fellow junior lifeguard Maika Young.

"I remember meeting Kai at junior lifeguards at Ke Iki Beach Park in the summer of 2019. I remember being in awe of her. Kai was a force to be reckoned with, " Young recalled. "She could beat everyone in the daily swim run and was honestly my inspiration. I remember thinking, I want to be able to do that."

After winning one of the junior lifeguard competitions, Flanagan got to meet actor Jason Momoa.

"He called her 'Aqua Woman, ' " John Flanagan said.

Coach Meister says Kai Flanagan is a leader by example. She may not say a lot, but she enjoys water life.

"I got my junior lifeguard certification. I like to be out there in the water helping people, " she said. "The lifeguards inspire me."

KAI FLANAGAN Punahou swimming —Senior—Did you know ? Flanagan learned to surf from her mother (Rae Sojot ) and father (John Flanagan ).—Top 3 movies /shows : 1. "The Endless Summer 2, " 2. "Momentum Generation, " 3. "Criminal Minds "—Top 3 food /snacks /drinks : 1. Acai bowl (Bogart's Cafe ), 2. Ahi wrap (Aloha Salads ), 3. Avocado sandwich (Andy's Sandwiches & Smoothies ).—Top 3 homemade foods : 1. Fruit, yogurt with papaya, 2. Fruit smoothie, 3. Mom's Japanese chicken curry—Top 3 music artists : 1. Lou Val ("Eternal Sunshine "), 2. Willis ("I Think I Like It When It Rains "), 3. Ke $ha ("Tik Tok "). "I like jazz, any kind."—Favorite class : Performance psychology. "It's kind of focused on sports performance, but you can also focus on school and other stuff."—Favorite teacher : Mr. (Paul ) Hamamoto. "It might have been freshman and junior year. He taught English and American studies. He would definite challenge me in a good way. I liked hearing what he had to say. He's a really great teacher."—Funniest teammate : Gigi Hioki. "She just makes practice bearable. She has a lot of funny things to say. She just makes everybody laugh."—Smartest teammate : Joey Misailidis. "She takes a lot of hard classes. She's definitely the smartest person I know. She's going to Cornell."—GPA : 3.55—Time machine : "I would go back to the 1970s. Or the 1920s, the jazz and stuff, that would be cool. A book we read last year was 'The Great Gatsby' and it seemed pretty cool."—Youth sports : "Swimming since I was 5 or 6. I did a little bit of soccer when I was fourth or fifth grade. I didn't like running that much. In high school, I did cross country, seventh, eighth and ninth grade for the credits, but I still didn't like running. I did kayaking when I was 10 or 11. I tried again when 13. I was behind everybody at Ala Wai Boat Harbor and a shark bumped my kayak. I think it was fighting with another shark. They were 6 or 7 feet. It was scary and I was alone. The instructor came around and said, 'Don't move !"—Shout outs : "There's this one kid, my friend, Maika Young—he's my inspiration. My mom—she's been super supportive of me these past couple of years. My dad, too, and also my grandma (Janet Sojot ) and grandpa (Arthur Sojot ). They've come to all my meets. There were there at senior night. I just really appreciate them. I don't think they really know how much I appreciate them. Whenever my name's in the paper, they take a picture and send it to my whole family."