By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Paul “Kai” LeBlanc has fought through tough situations in his life — like being homeless and living in his car — on the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.
He doesn’t consider himself unfortunate. He carries himself with optimism, bringing that into the boxing ring. That’s where he hopes to inspire others less fortunate than himself.
LeBlanc will compete in the USA Boxing National Championships, which will be held March 30-April 6 in Spokane, Wash. Division winners earn the opportunity to participate in the Olympic trials. The next Summer Games will be in Rio, Brazil in 2016.
On Jan. 17, LeBlanc traveled to Oahu and won two fights at his first state regional championships to earn the national berth for the 108-pound light flyweight class. Two other Big Island fighters also qualified, Mountain View’s Danson Rellez, 141-pound light welterweight, and Keaau’s Patrick Torres, 152-pound welterweight.
LeBlanc, 19, is usually an underdog in the ring. He’s 5 feet 2, giving up a distinct reach advantage. He also has a tough time finding fights for his weight class. (Five fights are needed to qualify for states.)
“I’ve had to fight higher weight classes to get experience,” he said. “My losses are to guys 130 pounds.” LeBlanc (5-2) took up boxing three years ago. He graduated from Kealakehe High in 2012. Those are two high points in a life filled with adversity.
He was born in the Philippines. His father left the family and was never heard from again. His mom, Mylin, married an American and the family moved to the United States when he was 3 years old, living in Florida and Michigan before settling in Hawaii.
His mom died when he was 6 years old. LeBlanc became estranged with his stepfather, and bounced around in different living arrangements. He went to seven high schools, including Pahoa, Keaau, one in Florida, Waiakea, Hilo, Honokaa, back to Hilo, and finally Kealakehe.
“I was immature with my grades and it was hard for me to go to school when things seemed to consistently go bad for me,” he said. “I took a fifth year of high school. The hardest part for me was last year when I was living in my car, no job, and homeless. But I was still in school and had a place to go. Every morning I’d shower at the Old Kona Airport.
“That’s why boxing is so important to me. I hope to be someone who can make a difference. Some people could use me as inspiration. I really want to help people, teenagers and orphans like me.”
LeBlanc fights out of the Hilo Boys and Girls Club, training with his coach Albert Rosas, who has nine boxers from ages 10 years old to 21 years old.
“Kai is training really hard and has a lot of heart. He’s sparring every day,” Rosas said. “He has to fight inside. Right now, the nationals like the Olympics is all about points. He has to go inside and out and try not to get hit. His sparring partners are all big guys, but he’s a tough kid.
“He’s struggled in his life, no parents, but he’s pretty positive and humble. He carries himself well and is friendly and helps the other boxers. He’s always asking for advice.”
LeBlanc remembers when he lived out in Kapoho, feeling alone with no other youngsters to play with. It makes him appreciate the opportunity to train at the Boys and Girls Club. It’s become the closest thing to a home for him.
“I represent everyone at the Boys and Girls Club. It’s a good place for kids to go to, stay out of trouble and socialize with people their own age,” he said. “When I was living in Kapoho, there was no place to go. It was hard for me because I was isolated from everyone.”
Last year, when he was living in Kona he got a job at Target. It was an opportunity to make a little money and go to school. But life threw him a curveball again.
“My stepdad lost my social security card and he didn’t have my green card,” he said. “I was sitting in my car, just turned 18 years old and the government money because of my mom’s death stopped coming,” he said. “Imagine what you would do? I’ve had a tough life, no doubt about it. But every single time I would get down I know there are other people out there who have it worse.
“My motivation is I want to be a success and make it to help people. I know there are people who are homeless, starving and feel like their life is at rock bottom. I fight for them. That’s the biggest thing for me. I want to repay everybody who helped me out, like the Boys and Girls Club. A lot of people, friends, gave me clothes when I needed clothes.”
His stepfather and other relatives paid for LeBlanc’s trip to Oahu. The Hilo Boys and Girls Club is hosting fundraisers on his behalf, and the club will also attend the Ringside World Championships in July in Kansas City.
Life is still not a bed of roses for LeBlanc, who isn’t working, lives with friends, with no permanent place to call home. But at least he has a routine that keeps him going and carries him to another good day.
“I wake up and try to eat and take a 25 to 30 minute run,” he said. “I’ll go to the Sparky Kawamoto pool, swim and do my boxing underwater. Then I’ll go to the Boys and Girls Club to work out. My mom is buried behind the Boys and Girls Club and I’ll pay my respects and tell her how I did.
“I really want to win and I’ll give everything that I’ve got. I fight hard because I have to. I’m not the biggest and I have to give everything that I’ve got.”
For information on Hilo Boys and Girls Club fundraisers to help LeBlanc, call Rosas at 345-3450.