The Oldest Female Competitor Prepares for the 50th Annual Waikīkī Roughwater Swim

Just keep swimming.
roughwater swim
Lori Auhll holds a commemorative bowl after finishing first in the 80–84 women’s group and for being the oldest female finisher in 2018.
photos: cyndia michelle


Yanni and waltzes help Lori Auhll through the Waikīkī Roughwater. She swims with a waterproofed iPod and says, “if you’re tired, weary, frustrated, you just concentrate on your music … and oh my gosh, the time goes by and you enjoy your swim even more.” At 83, she is the oldest female competitor in an event she has completed 20 times. She didn’t finish twice because, well, there’s a reason it’s called the Roughwater.


The race is 2.4 miles, from Kaimana Beach to the beach fronting Hilton Hawaiian Village. Now in its 50th year, it is held almost every September. (When the water is too rough, organizers cancel it—having learned their lesson in 2003 when every branch of O‘ahu’s emergency medical services, including the Fire Department’s helicopter, was called in to rescue 361 people.) Anywhere between 670 and 1,100 people sign up, some from as far away as Australia and Japan, with competitors ranging in age from 7 to 86.


The course takes Auhll between one and three hours to complete, depending on the conditions—the tides, the currents, the surf. Whereas other races like the summer North Shore Swim Series are generally calm and predictable, and the Ala Moana Turkey Swim downright boring in her eyes, she says the Waikīkī Roughwater is none of those things: “It’s challenging; sometimes there’s waves coming in as you’re going out—I just love the excitement.”


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roughwater swim


Swimming came naturally to Auhll. “I didn’t even have to learn,” she says. She grew up in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, and when she moved to Honolulu for graduate school, she signed up for the Waikīkī Roughwater the day before, her first-ever swim race. She has entered almost every year since.


It’s just one of the activities she does to keep moving, to keep feeling young. “I’m not a reader—I can’t sit down and read,” she says. So she plays tennis, is planning a ski trip to Hokkaido, swims past the reef at Hanauma Bay before her volunteer shift there, and is a steerswoman for the Waikīkī Yacht Club outrigger team. She wishes she could still ride horses, but the one she had been riding retired.


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roughwater swim


She takes most things in stroke. She has been stung by jellyfish a few times (“very minor,” she says), and once, in Lanikai, a man-of-war wrapped around her leg, but “I rubbed it off with sand and didn’t have much of a reaction.” The ocean doesn’t scare her, not even in the 2003 race, the year of the crazy currents, when she felt herself dragged out to sea. Really, her biggest concerns seem to be with her audio equipment. She says of her iPod and headphones, “They don’t make those anymore … and they don’t last forever.”


This year’s swim takes place Sept. 2, beginning near the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel.


Read more stories by Martha Cheng