The Pioneering Kaia Hedlund

Bob Hogue
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Wednesday - June 18, 2008
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When Kaia Hedlund steps down as director of athletics at Chaminade University next month, she will leave behind a legacy that few have equaled in the state of Hawaii.

But then equality in athletics has always been Hedlund’s goal.

“When I was growing up (in Arcadia, Calif.), my brothers played soccer, but I couldn’t play soccer. Girls’ sports were an afterthought. And there was no good coaching anyway. When I (swam competitively) in high school, the thought of a scholarship or competing in college was unheard of.”

How times have changed - and Hedlund had a great deal with helping change the culture of what is now known as gender equity. In high school, she and her friends actually “stormed into the principal’s office to demand that we be able to play water polo,” she remembers. Because of her actions, a women’s club team was formed. Later, as a member of the University of Southern California swim team, she became a big advocate for women’s sports.

“I started swimming before Title IX, and I didn’t even know USC had swimming when I went there,” she says. “Within a year, everything changed. The first year, we qualified for the national championships, but USC wasn’t going to send us. We went into (athletic director) John McKay’s office and we had to fight for our rights. We eventually got to go, but we had to take the women’s basketball coach to coach us and she had never even seen a swim meet before!”

Back in the 1970s when Hedlund swam for the Trojans, the men’s team was filled with numerous Olympic-level swimmers, including John Naber, Bruce and Steve Furness and many others. “About half the team was Olympians,” she says, “and we practiced with them.”

Hedlund’s advocacy for both women’s and men’s sports eventually led to a coaching career in swimming and a chance for others to enjoy national and international competition. Eventually she became chairwoman of the NCAA men’s and women’s water polo committees and helped women’s water polo emerge as a national championship sport at the collegiate level.

After a coaching career at USC and UC Irvine, she was hired by the late Stan Sheriff as the assistant athletics director at the University of Hawaii.

“I greatly admired Stan,” she says. “I was with him on the day he died as he returned from the NCAA Convention. He had been under such tremendous stress because of the NCAA Convention and the Holiday Bowl. He had a heart attack at baggage claim.”

After Sheriff’s untimely death, Hedlund ended up working at UH for nearly a decade before eventually moving back to California. But two years ago she was hired by Chaminade to help guide their athletic department.

“I tried to set in motion the things that will help Chaminade reach success,” she says. “I’m very proud of the fact that we won (this year’s PacWest) men’s basketball championship. I’ve fought very hard for all the teams to get equal funding and support. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re working on it. We started a booster club and that’s important. We’ve hired some good coaches and we’ve got great kids. It’s about building the program over time.”

Besides her work at Chaminade, Hedlund also worked for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and for the charity Swim With Mike. In her spare time, she has also enjoyed all of what Hawaii has to offer. She continues to be an accomplished open-ocean swimmer and tries to swim as often as possible at Waikiki and Ala Moana.

“I have always loved Hawaii,” she says. “I met my husband (Gary) in Hawaii. I will definitely be back in Hawaii as much as I can. Hopefully, I will continue working with Chaminade in some capacity. It’s such a beautiful place.”

Ever the advocate for equality in sports, it’s perhaps fitting that so much of her career was in the state where gender equity got its start from the likes of Patsy Mink and Donnis Thompson. Now, the name of Kaia Hedlund should stand among those names as a true pioneer in the world of women’s sports.

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