Prep profile: Kamehameha's Kana'i Gibson has eyes on a state-meet pole vault record

May 7—1/2

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Kamehameha coach Pili Kitashima believes the best is yet to come for senior Kana'i Gibson, who gained 10 pounds of muscle before the season.


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Kamehameha pole vaulter Kana'i Gibson has a season-best vault of 15 feet, 1 inch, just two inches off the state-meet record set in 1997.

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At the manhole cover on Koohoo Place in Lanikai, Kana'i Gibson burned rubber.

Thousands of sprints from the bottom to the top, roughly 25 yards of uphill work, day after day. Week after week. Month after month. The road work came with a homemade pole that weighs twice as much as a typical pole vaulting pole.

"Last summer, my dad made me that pole with a tennis ball (attached), so I would run Koohoo hill with the pole," Gibson said. "I got weird looks from people."

In just two years since taking up the pole vault for Kamehameha, Gibson is on the cusp of a state-meet record in the event. He vaulted 15 feet, 1 inch at the Punahou Relays in March, more than a foot higher than his height at last year's state championships.

"He put in a lot of work with his dad over the summer," Kamehameha pole vault coach Pili Kitashima said. "He gained 10 pounds, kept his speed up and they did a lot of stuff on their own."

It is a matter of commitment.

"My dad says it every day: how you do one thing is how you do everything," the senior said.

The HHSAA state-meet record is 15-3, set by Bubba McLean of St. Anthony's in 1997. McLean went on to vault at Cal, where he peaked with a height of 18-8, which was eighth in the nation at the time.

"When I hear that's the state record, it's definitely achievable," Gibson said. "That's a number to strive for, really. A lot of work has been put in. It's just got to pay off now. It's the right time, the right moment. My dad said luck is not real. It's just when opportunity and preparation meet. Just be ready for when the time is right."

McLean and Gibson are not the only islanders to clear 15 feet. In 2015, Kainoa Tom of Baldwin posted a 15-4 at a March meet at War Memorial Stadium. His coaches had him try 16-1, but he came up short on two attempts. He never matched that 15-4 at states, and McLean's record remained intact.

Tony Genco of 'Iolani cleared 15 feet flat at the 2015 state meet at War Memorial Stadium.

The prowess of Kamehameha pole vaulters has been undeniable. Tatum Moku was magnificent in her career as a Warrior. Now a Washington State Cougar, she broke the the state mark in the girls pole vault at 13-01 in 2022 while winning gold and scoring points in a multitude of other events.

Father's influence

Gibson is focusing strictly on the pole vault. All the offseason training with his father, former Kamehameha quarterback and pole vaulter Nainoa Gibson, has been rewarded. Kana'i Gibson's state-meet height last year was 13-8. Four vaulters tied at that height, and Gibson was placed fourth after the tiebreakers were tallied up.

Coincidentally, McLean was at the state meet last year and had a conversation with Nainoa Gibson.

"Bubba was a freshman when I was a senior. I didn't know him when I was jumping. Now he coaches part-time on Maui. It was fun to see him. Pole vaulting is such a small community," Coach Gibson said.

Nainoa's PR in the pole vault was 14-03 in high school, and he cleared 15-0 at UCLA. As a Kamehameha senior, he was 6 feet, 150 pounds. Son Kana'i is 5-9, 150.

"Last year, I hit a growth spurt," he said. "I've been lifting my whole life with my dad. Last summer, I did a lot of bupkas, running hills every day. Push-ups, pull-ups, squats, bench press, shoulder press."

The rewards have been worthwhile. At the Punahou Relays two months ago, Kana'i Gibson cleared 15-1 with room to spare. He sprinted off the cushion, hugged teammates and screamed, "Where's my dad at?"

"He's counting his steps, hits the pole, boom! Hips come out," Nainoa Gibson said of the epic moment. "He jumps off the mat screaming. We're all cheering, taking pictures. It's awesome. When I saw the video of him yelling, 'Where's my dad at,' I still get choked up and cry."

If there is a sense of being in the zone as a vaulter, Gibson was there on that day.

"At that same meet, I cleared 14-4 and Coach Pili said to go for 15-1. Before that, my PR was 13-9," he recalled. "That day I was just feeling different. Everything was going right. I felt fluid. I just knew I was going to clear it. On the runway, I saw myself clearing it."

The four-way tie and official fourth-place finish on the ledger did little to discourage Gibson.

"He kept his fire, that's what it was," Kitashima said. "Last year, I think he felt it was unfinished business."

Head coach Friedemann saw a lot of athleticism in Gibson at the beginning in '22.

"He was full of energy, a raw athlete. In the pole vault, you have to have a lot of discipline. I tried it in high school back in the 1960s and to go upside down at that height is crazy," he said.

Other challenges

Weather in April has been inclement on the regular. Two of the meets at Kamehameha were flat-out blustery. Cross winds are the enemy of a pole vaulter, and getting back to 15-1 has been a sometimes frustrating experience. There is hope, however. Conditions at Mililani were ideal on Saturday, and that is where the state championships will be held.

There will be no shortage of competition. Shelby Cabais-Fernandez of Waiakea and Keegan Gantala of Kamehameha-Maui have cleared 14-7 this spring. Cabais-Fernandez was fifth a year ago at states (13-2)

Another Kamehameha-Maui Warrior, Nohi Casco, has cleared 14-6. Casco placed second last year. Hayden Ramiscal of Mililani and Kai Matsuura of Moanalua have season-bests of 13-10.

Gibson has a 3.4 grade-point average and plans to attend BYU. He attended a camp there in October.

"If I'm accepted, I want to pole vault," he said. "It depends if I jump 15-6."

Older brother Kahai will attend BYU after returning from a church mission in New Zealand to join their older sister Tai, a senior majoring in psychology.

Before starting college, Kana'i Gibson will go on a mission to the Philippines.

He played soccer at a young age, when he met future best friend Dawson Perreira, now a teammate and fellow pole vaulter.

"I first met Titus (Kana'i) in fourth grade. My favorite memories with him are those car rides together. We could have the deepest conversations about life and future plans, or we'd be singing our hearts out to any genre of music you can think of with no care in the world," Perreira said. "

Focus on fitness

When Kana'i Gibson took an interest in vaulting as a sophomore two years ago, he already was an avid fitness buff. His father, a realtor and fitness/wellness coach, has studied fitness for decades.

"Exercise as a whole is imperative for your mind and the discipline of spirit," Nainoa Gibson said.

If it seems contradictory that a parent concerned about head injuries in football would tolerate the risks of perhaps the most dangerous event in track and field, maybe it is. Then again, the amount of training and preparation by Gibson's father and the Warriors' staff, which includes long-timers like Kitashima and Friedemann, is matched by very few statewide.

Once fundamentals are learned, it still takes more to willingly launch oneself 15 feet above ground level.

"That's the biggest part in pole vaulting, your mindset and how you think. If you think you're the best, you're going to be the best," Kana'i Gibson said. "If you think you're going to mess up, you mess up. That's where I have an edge on other people, I think, just believing in myself, which also comes from my dad."

Nainoa Gibson used to coach on staff, guiding his son and other pole vaulters in 2022 and '23. This spring, he's back in dad mode by choice.

"I stepped back from the day to day and returned to the stands as a parent. Just cheering him on," he said.

Kitashima believes the best is yet to come as Gibson enters the final high school meet of his career.

"He's been jumping a lot by himself so we're making a lot of jumps from 15-2 to 16-1 (at practice). We're trying to get him to big heights," Kitashima said. "If he stays healthy and we put a good week in before states, and the conditions are correct, I feel he can jump the highest ever in Hawaii."

"It's his go-get-it attitude. At first, I didn't realize how much work he was doing behind the scenes," Kitashima said, marveling at Gibson's presistence. "In the middle of last season, we had that conversation and that's when I realized he has that fire in him, and he was going to do whatever he could to get in the right place. The better vaulters have that mindset of eat, sleep, everything for this one event. That's what I'm going to miss about him. He loves it, and that makes him fun to coach."

Kana'i Gibson

Kamehameha track and field —Senior

>> Top 3 movies/shows

1. "The Flash"

2. "Fast and The Furious"

3. All MCU movies.

"The old Marvel movies, they're good."

>> Top 3 foods/drinks

1. Steak (Roy's Restaurant)

2. Chicken katsu (Zippy's)

3. Mini fried chicken (Zippy's)

"My grandpa (Gordon Hopkins) used to work at Roy's. He was the head chef. He lives with us. He still cooks for us once every couple of months."

>> Top 3 homemade food

1. Dad's shoyu chicken

2. Mom's pesto pasta

3. Mom's corn flake fried chicken

"My dad (Nainoa Gibson) cooks for us once a week. My dad's steak is the best I ever tasted. My mom (Janny Gibson) will make pasta and fried chicken every couple of weeks. I can make most food."

>> Top 3 music artists/favorite song

1. Morgan Wallen — "Last Night"

2. Zack Bryan — "Something in the Orange"

3. Bob Marley — "One Love"

>> Favorite athlete: Mondo Duplantis

"He's the No. 1 pole vaulter in the world. He's like 6-foot something. He's pretty regular sized, has a long build. I don't pole vault like him at all. I studied his plant a lot. I've watched his progression video 1,000 times and tried to implement how he jumps."

>> Funniest teammate: Dawson Perreira.

"He's a pole vaulter. He's my best friend. We grew up together. He's always joking. He makes stuff that's serious not serious."

>> Smartest teammate: Makana Sato.

"He just always has the answers to anything. He's also funny, too."

>> GPA: 3.4.

>> Favorite teacher: Kumu Cady (Uyeoka) and Kumu (Bethany) Kimokeo.

"Kumu Cady was my fifth-grade math teacher at Kamehameha. She just made learning fun. Every other team, it would be long, boring lessons. Kumu Kimokeo is my marine science teacher this year. We just went on a field trip to Coconut Island. We got snorkels and checked out the island."

>> Favorite class: English.

"I just like writing in general. Making up my own stories."

>> Favorite motto: "How you do one thing is how you do everything. My dad says it every day."

>> Hidden talent: Juggling.

>> New life skill: Learning to play ukulele.

>> Bucket list: "Skydiving, bungee jumping. I want to go to the Bahamas. The Caribbean. I want to on a cool cruise, a Disney cruise with my family and friends."

>> Time machine: "I'd go back to the dinosaur ages and ride a T-Rex. Go meet (Albert) Einstein. Or go meet Jesus, too."

>> Youth sports: "My first sport was AYSO soccer. I was maybe 5. My second sport was jiu-jitsu. Maybe 12, 13. I played basketball when I was around 12, 13. I wasn't even thinking of the pole vault."

>> If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?

"I'd tell my younger self to start pole vault earlier."

Shout-outs: "Shout out my grandma and my dad and my mom. My little sister (Tiani) for always supporting me. Tiani is a junior. She does long jump, triple jump and high jump."