KAHULUI The girls of Hawaii All Star Cheer have moved from the sidelines to center stage. Forget about rooting on the football team or shaking their pompoms, these athletes are in an entirely different category - and the competition is fierce.
"The all star world is so different from high school cheerleading," said Hawaii All Star Cheer head coach Kealii Molina. "It's a very athletic sport, especially in the all star world. It's crazy strength and these girls are all rocked out. They've got guns, they've got their six packs, they're acrobats, they're crazy, and they're flying around in here with no fear."
Hawaii All Star Cheer, a squad made up of 40 athletes from schools across the island, competed at the United Spirit Association national championships last month in Anaheim, Calif., where they won the small senior level 4 title, a level 4 choreography championship and placed second in senior level 3. The competition had more than 4,000 performers from 13 states and four countries.
Malia Molina of Hawaii All Star Cheer performs atop a pyramid during a recent practice at the squad’s gym in Kahului.
The Maui News / LEHIA?APANA?photo
Earlier this month, the squad took two titles and was named overall grand champion at the Aloha Spirit International Championships on Oahu.
As compared to high school cheerleading, all star competition involves more stunts, pyramid-building and tumbling moves. It's a sport that remained largely under the radar until 2000, when the movie "Bring It On" was released. Molina, who helped train the actors and appeared in scenes throughout the film, said he never imagined cheerleading could turn into his career.
"I've done a lot of things that I don't think are normal for a kid from Maui to do, and I just feel like it has all come from cheer," he said.
Molina began cheering at St. Anthony High School under Joanne Yap. After graduating in 1996, he coached several high school and college teams in California, then worked as a specialty acrobat at Cirque de la Mer at SeaWorld San Diego and on cruise ships. He returned to Maui and began coaching at Kamehameha Maui in 2010, and opened Hawaii All Star Cheer in January 2011.
Molina said that he has dreamed of opening his own gym on Maui for more than a decade.
"I would always tell myself that I'm going to go home to Maui and I'm going to do it. I'm going to bring everything I've learned back home and bring it back to the kids on the island, and maybe I can get some of them off and they can start their own experiences in the cheer world," he said.
Yap, who now coaches cheerleading at Baldwin, is also an assistant coach at Hawaii All Star Cheer. She began coaching in the early 1980s, and described Molina as "just the best" she's ever coached.
"He's well-rounded, he can tumble, and he's also very consistent," she said. "He's traveled the whole world through cheerleading, and just brings home a wealth of knowledge."
She described his coaching style as "loving with a firm hand."
"He loves all these kids, he cares for their well-being and wants them to do better. He can relate about all his experiences and has so much to share," she said.
In just his second season leading the Warriors, the varsity squad took first place at the Maui Interscholastic League championship, ending Baldwin's 10-year win streak.
"He pushes us, but he motivates us to love cheerleading," said Ashlyn Ross, a Hawaii All Star Cheer and Kamehameha cheerleader. "He doesn't push us to the point where we hate it. He pushes it to the point where we want to do it and to get better."
Molina emphasized that his cheerleaders are dedicated athletes. In addition to practicing the routines, his squads do conditioning and strength training throughout the week.
On any given night, the girls will perform stunts that push their bodies to the limit. Molina knows firsthand the dangers that come with being launched in the air or springing across the floor - his laundry list of injuries include sprained ankles, a fracture heal, a torn Achilles, a dislocated shoulder and three broken noses.
"They work hard, it's not just come in and you're going to shake your pompoms. That's not what we're about here," he said. "I'm about the kids going at a higher level, I'm about pushing the kids, I'm about getting these kids off the island and getting them college scholarships, I'm about getting them to love the sport and go farther with it."
Molina will host a four-day tryout clinic from April 23-26 at the Hawaii All Stars gym, located at 180 Wakea Avenue in Kahului. Tryouts will be on April 28; juniors (ages 9-13) will be from 4 to 6 p.m. and seniors (14-18) from 6 to 8:30 p.m. No experience is required, and boys and girls are welcome. The cost is $50.
* Lehia Apana is at firstname.lastname@example.org