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Sports & Fitness // Currents
Ron Mizutani

A Love Affair Made In A Canoe

The seeds of love can be planted just about anywhere, including the ocean.

This love story started in January 2011, when two canoe paddlers met for the first time while paddling for Hawaiian Kanaktion, a canoe club in Honolulu. Albert Santos, a technician with the U.S. Army National Guard, immediately saw something special in Rosela Balinbin, an instructor at the University of Hawaii.

The two soon became inseparable and their relationship blossomed. Santos recalls the day he finally asked the girl from Maui to be more than just a teammate.

“It was May 1, 2011,” he says proudly, “the day we became boyfriend and girlfriend.”

Santos and Balinbin competed together in several six-man coed races over the next two years and also competed in one-man events with Paddling Athletes Association (PA’A) Hawaii. One of their favorite events was the annual PA’A Halloween race, an event where paddlers dress and race in their favorite costumes.

“The first year, I was a priest and she was a nun,” chuckles the Kauai native. “Then last year, I was a doctor and she was a nurse. It’s always such a fun race.”

In 2013, Santos suggested the couple paddle together on a two-man canoe. He would dress as a pilot and she would come as a flight attendant. They would turn their canoe into an aircraft and call it the Hawaii Kai Express.

“We knew we’d have fun with it,” he laughed.

But there was something else that Santos had planned to make this day memorable, something that would sweep Balinbin off her feet.

It was the day he would ask her to be his wife.

“I knew I wanted to propose at a paddling event,” says Santos. “I was planning on doing it at the Na Wahine, but she ended up not racing. Then it dawned on me about a month ago that the PA’A Halloween race was coming up and it would be the third race we’re doing together.”

It was the perfect venue. Santos reached out to PA’A Hawaii director Manny Kulukulualani and told him about his plan.

Kulukulualani was excited to be a part of the moment.

“I asked Manny if it would be OK, and he told me to arrange it with Keala (Keli’i) on how we wanted to do this,” says Santos, who also serves as a paddling coach at St. Francis School. “I told Keala after the awards ceremony would be the best time to do it. She would never know.”

Santos still had to pick out the perfect ring, but there was something else that needed to be addressed first. In early October he approached Balinbin’s parents and asked for their permission to marry their daughter. They gave him their blessing.

“She knew it was coming, but she didn’t think it would come so soon,” he laughs. “Her parents were happy for us, but except for a few friends, nobody knew I was going to do it after the race.”

Race morning arrived, and everything was in place. Paddlers lined up at Maunalua Bay, headed for Hanauma Bay and then back to The Shack in Hawaii Kai. The Hawaii Kai Express would have equipment malfunctions out in the ocean, but the duo muscled to the finish line.

At the awards ceremony, Santos and Balinbin made it to the finals of the costume contest. The couple would be awarded a bogus raffle prize. It was the perfect opportunity to hand Santos the microphone.

“I’m not a public speaker and I was really nervous,” he says. “A couple of friends knew about it, but she obviously didn’t.”

Santos grabbed the microphone and shocked everyone.

“I’ve been with Rosela for two-and-a-half years, and this is our third race together,” he announced.

And with that, he got down on one knee and asked for her hand in marriage. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she nodded yes. He placed a ring on her hand and the two embraced with a kiss as the crowd roared. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“I love the ocean and paddling is what brought us together,” says Balinbin. “I love the challenge of competition, but I’ve embraced paddling as more than just that – a place where I find strength, peace and true sense of self.”

It’s love story made in a canoe. Hawaii’s team sport has brought together two more lives.

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