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Kahuku's Maia Esera displays championship mettle

Feb. 27—Long before the two national titles, a perfect 50-0 record against Hawaii wrestlers and three HHSAA state titles, Maia Esera was a regular kid who clutched and clung to her comfort zone.

Long before the two national titles, a perfect 50-0 record against Hawaii wrestlers and three HHSAA state titles, Maia Esera was a regular kid who clutched and clung to her comfort zone.

In the brain of sixth grade Maia, the long drives to wrestling practice were unbearable.

"We had to drive all the way to town, " the 5-foot-10 Kahuku senior recalled.

Any journey from Hauula in a southward direction can be substantial. A ride to town—as in Honolulu—is roughly 35 miles. A child's not-so-favorite way to spend valuable time. Except for this : "Ttown " was actually Kaneohe, a much shorter distance, but it didn't matter to Esera and younger sister Leila.

After all, in the beginning, Esera trained with a nearby club.

"There was a club down the street in Hauula and we started training with them. Rock Solid. The next year we started training with Scorpions. They're in town. At first, I didn't hate wrestling or love wrestling. I would do it and it would be OK. My dad could see that I actually had potential. I was doing good, wrestling with the boys and beat them up. My dad just saw the vision and kept me in it, " she said.

But the rants and complaints from the back seat of the Esera chariot were relentless. In an era when many parents want their children to be disciplined by teachers and coaches, yet insist that these young student-athletes have to have fun more than anything else, the Esera household was dictated by sound parents.

"I definitely complained a lot. I hated driving so far every other day. Practice is hard. I was probably saying stuff like that. I just want to stay home. They would talk me through it. They knew it was probably just the emotions of a little kid. Me and my sister would complain, " Esera said.

Once the car arrived and the Esera sisters got on the mat, all whining stopped.

"As soon as we started getting into practice, I started visualizing wrestling and being in a match. It just switched in my head, " she said.

Numerous titles later, including her third state title on Saturday, it was all worthwhile. The journey got better, the rides became routine. Leila, a sophomore, reached the final of the 155-pound weight class at states, bringing home a silver medal on Saturday.

"After I went to Reno (Worlds ) in sixth grade, I think, and I won first place. I never, ever thought I could accomplish something like that. My dad was right. Mom was right, " Maia Esera said. "When I got home, I realized they were right. I have this huge eagle trophy. It was my carry-on on the plane. We have a couple eagles."

There was also this : When the adrenaline wore off and the flight home was over, there were mixed feelings.

"When I started to grow up, I started to dislike wrestling. When someone loses, for me, it's so sad to see. People cry. It's a really violent sport. Watching people get beat up, I would get upset. I would feel for them. A lot of the time it was me doing that (to them ). I wouldn't feel bad until later, " she said.

One blessing in her growing devotion to the sport was its seasonality, training in spring and summer, leading up to the mainland tournaments.

"Scorpions was twice a week. Then I was playing volleyball (in the fall ). I feel like they're just such different sports. Volleyball's all hand-eye coordination, vertical. Not a contact sport. Wrestling is grappling, grip fighting and it's the most contact sport out there. It's a huge difference, " Esera said "I see why people wouldn't open themselves up to both."

If her last name rings a bell, it's because her father, Tala, was a lineman at Hawaii. Tala and Nadia Esera raised four daughters and two sons. Two daughters play sports. The two sons are the babies of the bunch.

Her national success was no secret on the North Shore. Kahuku coach Moke Galletes had already seen Esera wrestle as a sixth grader. Before high school, Esera traveled with a Kahuku club, Team Pride, and won a second natty at Reno Worlds.

"She was with Pat Hokoana of the Scorpions. She did a host of athletics. Track and all kinds of stuff. She liked soccer, " Galletes recalled. "We were excited. She was always a bigger kid at that age, and her movement was good, agile. She could do a lot of things kids her age couldn't do. We couldn't wait until this kid comes to Kahuku. She was already on the radar."

Her freshman year was largely indoors because of the pandemic. When winter season of 2020-21 was canceled, Esera found herself holed up without wrestling, without an outlet. One long year later, with no traveling, she finally got back on the mat for high school competition. She was fully prepared physically. Mentally, it became a doorway to something entirely different.

"The year I really needed the most advice was my sophomore year. I felt so much pressure. I was anxious and stressed all the time. People would come up to me and, 'You're going to win states.' My classmates and teachers.

"At the time there weren't any girls at the school who were known for wrestling. I was one of the only kids who they were like, that's a wrestler. 'You're going to take it this year.' I knew they were trying encourage me. I can't let them down."

Esera had no idea how heavy the weight of expectation would become.

"I opened up to my coach, " she said.

Coach Galletes grew up in the program, a Kahuku wrestler who learned under then-coach Reggie Torres, one of the greatest wrestling, judo and football coaches in OIA history. Though the pandemic cost Esera a shot at the rare grand slam (four state titles ), all eyes saw and assumed perfection once sophomore season began.

"There was immense pressure for her. I believe truly she would've won her freshman year. She was that explosive. It was in the wrestling room before she won it, that week prior to state. She started crying in the wrestling room. 'Hey, what's going on ?' 'Everybody's expecting me to win.' "

Esera's strain caught Galletes completely off guard.

"It shocked me to see her break down. Winning nationals as a youth, being on big stages, I didn't realize for her winning a state championship was huge for her. I said, 'Go out there, don't change anything. Just do what you do from when you were young to now.' She didn't know how to handle the pressure. High school is about becoming a champion. She was worried she wouldn't meet the expectations. I don't want to fail. That's a memory I hold. That was the onset of everything. She just had to work her butt off and she did that, " he said.

It would be so much easier to be a robot on the mat, driven only by voltage and programming. For Esera, the flip side of being fully human was her natural ability to lead humanely. Galletes and staff appreciated the maturity and compassion of Esera and other seniors.

"I'm definitely going to miss her presence in the room, how she affects other kids, builds them up and perseveres through challenges. We have a few kids who can match her leadership ... she is funny, cracks them up. Very light-hearted. Not shame about anything, makes you feel welcome, " he said. "Plus, she works really hard."

It was in Fargo, N.D., last summer when Esera was traveling with Team Pride, trying out freestyle wrestling in a tournament for the first time. In her first match, something went wrong. She returned to the islands with a partially torn labrum behind her right shoulder.

"It wasn't as bad then. Then I went into volleyball and school training. It was sore for a while, and one time at volleyball practice, I dove and I could feel something, " Esera said.

The labrum was completely torn. Surgery would keep her sidelined until the week before the OIA wrestling championships.

"It's a risk not being your best wrestling self, or you can just wrestle through the pain. My shoulder was less than half as powerful, maybe 45 %. My doctor told me it's torn. For volleyball, it's fine, but wrestling, there's a possibility of it popping or becoming dislocated, " Esera said.

She opted to stay on the mat as much as possible. She competed in just four tournaments. The pain level, she noted, was a 6 or 7 out of 10.

"In my semis match yesterday, it kind of popped out. It happened a couple of times this season, like at practice. I'd sit on the side, come back when I'm ready, but during my match (at states ), there's no time, " she said.

Esera was able to pop her shoulder back into the joint.

"That's a 9. It stings real bad, but I popped it back in. I had to finish the match. There's so much adrenaline, but after I laid down on a futon, I had ice on it for an hour trying to numb it, " she said.

She got through her final state tourney still focused on goals. As a sophomore, she competed up in the 225-pound division. That allowed a teammate to battle in the 190 weight class freely without a Kahuku-vs.-Kahuku matchup. Last year, she remained at 225 and won again.

This year, Esera won in her natural 190 weight class. After two byes, she pinned Ana Davis of Moanalua in 1 minute, 13 seconds, then pinned Janelle Mattos of Waipahu by fall in 36 seconds for the title.

A 9-0 senior year and a big 5-0—50 wins without defeat for Kahuku. She went 9-2 in national tournaments. Traveling last summer, for the first time in three years, added more fuel to her fire.

"It was definitely a good experience. When you're younger, it's easier to win. I was bigger than most kids. When you're older, you have to learn how to wrestle. You learn technique and skills, " she said. "I like freestyle better, but I'm much better at folkstyle. If I had an opportunity to practice freestyle, it would be more natural to me."

All the while, dad has been there, tracking every match. Learning to let go bit by bit on the wrestling side.

"When we're in the car, things are behind us. He knows that I know what I could've done better. He had a lot more to say when I was younger. He knows I understand wrestling a lot more now, " she said.

The joy of staying home was immeasurable. Being part of a team filled with wrestling sisters and brothers was and will always be golden.

"For me to get through this entire wrestling process, I was excited to get to senior year and my final match, but at OIAs at Aiea, my match was at the same time as my teammate, (Pai 'ea ) Kamakaala. He's a sophomore boy. Mine was finished and he was in overtime. He won his match and did a cool flip over the guy, " she recalled.

A video of the match shows Esera on the other side of the mat, screaming and celebrating.

"I just started jumping around like crazy, " she said.

The connection was tighter than most because, like Esera, Kamakaala gutted through the season with a similar shoulder injury. He and Esera have the same shoulder braces. Kamakaala went on to win the 113 weight class at the state championships.

"I'll never experience this again, winning my OIA championship and seeing my teammate win his, and celebrate and go crazy, " she said. "At practice, he's a leader. Watching your teammate's hard work pay off, honestly, it's more better than watching your own sometimes."

MAIA ESERA Kahuku wrestling, volleyball—2022 and '23 state champion at 225 pounds—2024 state champion at 190—Toughest match this year "Probably an opponent every time was a battle, Ana Davis from Moanalua." (Esera pinned her in 1 :13 in the semifinals ; it was Esera's longest match of the tournament.)—Toughest match all-time "Probably junior year against Francis Hufanga from Leilehua at the Officials Tournament. She had at least 30 pounds on me. She was just very strong. She would just get me in a grip and pound my head around a little bit. But the thing about the heavier girls is they're not as fast, not as good at defending. As soon as I get my shot on them it's over, but that's after three minutes of scrapping."—Favorite memories of traveling for wrestling "This past summer I went to Fargo with Hawaii Wrestling Academy. I got to get close with all the best wrestlers. It was really interesting to see how they are as people. I've seen them wrestle, but spending time with them was really fun. It was a week. Fargo, there's literally nothing. One day there was some roller coaster thing, but I didn't go. For fun, we would go to Walmart. I bought a bunch of mini bites, which are like muffins. Skittles. We would put them in the drawer in the dorm, so when we finished weigh-ins, would just eat."—Favorite memories of Kahuku wrestling and school "Last year, directly after winning my second state title, I walked up to the stands to go see my family, I got prom-posed to. I said yes. I was surprised he (Teancum Moea'i ) asked me after my match. He planned it with his parents. His sign said 'I know you're a state champ, but don't wrestle the decision.' It was just funny because he had so much confidence I was going to win."—History : Kahuku's first three-time state champion "I actually didn't know that until (Saturday ) night. My (assistant ) coach Okala (Makaiau ) told me. I was thinking about it. I broke the record, but I only get it for two years. I need (teammate Pai 'ea ) Kamakaala to reach it."—Top 3 movies /shows 1. All "Harry Potter " movies 2. "Hunger Games " movies 3. "The Mighty Ducks "

"Not really the books. But there's fighting going on, a challenge and a goal, which I think I enjoy. I watch it with my sisters (Talia, Teuila, Leila ). My two little brothers are 10 and 11."—Top 3 foods /drinks 1. Seven Brothers grilled cheeseburger 2. S'mores cookies (Chunky Cookies at Polynesian Cultural Center )

3. Taco Bell chicken quesadilla (with sour cream )

"The Seven Brothers burger is my go-to when I'm not trying to make weight. I'm addicted to the s'mores cookies. I only eat those once a week during season."—Top 3 homemade food 1. Mom's chicken broccoli casserole 2. Mom's cheese rolls 3. Lemon ice "My mom (Nadia ) makes it once a week because I request it. I can make it. Her cheese rolls are like cinnamon rolls, but instead of cinnamon it's cheese and it's melted, and it's so good. My auntie (Sina Kaluhiokalani ) has a lemon tree. They use lemons to make a lemon slushie. It's so good and refreshing."—Top 3 music artists /favorite song 1. Taylor Swift — "Lover "

2. Fiji — "Tonight "

3. Morgan Wallen — "More than my Hometown "—Favorite athlete : Cristiano Ronaldo "Growing up I loved watching Cristiano Ronaldo with his pro team, when he was with Real Madrid. He was just so good. It was so easy to watch a player who was so good, satisfying to watch."—Favorite team : San Francisco 49ers "My papa grew up in Bay Area, my mom's dad. He came from Tonga to San Francisco. When I was growing up that was his team, so that was my team."—Funniest teammate : Kevin Kamakaala "He's pretty funny. He's one of those people, when you look at him you can't stop from laughing. He makes funny faces. He makes random noises. He's more on the quiet side in front of people."—Smartest teammate : Myself "I think I have the most common sense out of everybody."—GPA : 3.4 "I wait until it's due and I do it, but I always get it done. I put my homework off and do it at home."—Favorite teacher : Mrs. (Lori ) Vimahi "She's my AVID teacher. She works with athletics, so she understands us really well, especially me. She makes an effort to be involved with us. She asks us how we're handling our sport and school. That's the kind of teacher who makes that difference for kids."—Favorite class : Yearbook "I had it last year. All we did was take photos, download them on the computer, so there wasn't any work. It didn't feel like school work. Most of the time, we were playing cards."—Favorite motto /scripture : John 3 :16 "It's a common scripture you hear a lot. It talks about God gave up everything for us and will do for us until we come back to Him. It shows how loving God is. I like that reminder."—Hidden talent : Worming "I can do the worm. I have done it at practice. No one can do it like me."—New life skill : Driving "I got my license last year. I have more freedom now and I enjoy it more than I don't."—Bucket list : Super Bowl and travel the world "Probably Paris for a week. Greece. Scotland."—Time machine :

"I would look like 30 years in the future, see where I'm at, and come back. I wouldn't want to stick around too long. I wouldn't want to interfere with anything going on."—Youth sports : Soccer, basketball, wrestling, volleyball "My first sport was soccer. I was probably 6. I like soccer. I stopped in middle school, eighth grade, because I kind of picked up wrestling and volleyball, so I had to pick which ones I liked most. Wrestling and soccer are in the same season. I played PAL basketball for one season and I was really bad and quit. I was 9."—If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self ?

"My advice would be don't keep it all to yourself. Open yourself up to your coaches more. No matter what we love you, nobody's going to be disappointed."—Shoutouts : "My biggest is just to God for everything. It's just, I can't even put into words, how much strength I've felt from God this past season that I really needed. Shoutout my parents. Everything I do really is just to make them proud. That's my No. 1 motivation in everything I do. My entire family who supports like crazy. My family and the Kahuku community, they all support us."