By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kealakehe sophomore Alexis Transfiguracion is slowly working her way into the family sport. But for now, in her first year of judo she’s applying the principles of balance and leverage she learned from karate, her favorite sport, against Big Island Interscholastic Federation opponents.
She went 1-1 in the 122-pound weight division on Saturday at Koai‘a Gym, beating Kamehameha’s Crystal Baysa and falling to Hilo’s Marissa Guerra, who showed fast footwork and nimble counter-moves.
Transfiguracion (4-2) didn’t get a chance to face the best of the bunch. Konawaena sophomore Ruby Suarez, last year’s BIIF runner-up, was on a family trip and missed the match. Suarez is good in wrestling, too, taking the 117-pound league title in February.
The Transfiguracion last name is synonymous with BIIF wrestling success, especially at Konawaena, where Alexis’ cousins have won countless medals. She got an early history lesson that still resonates.
“I remember I was in elementary school walking through Costco and not knowing anyone from the wrestling community,” she said. “When people heard my last name was Transfiguracion, they said, ‘You should do wrestling.’
“But I was in karate from the first grade. I’ve been in it for eight years and I got my black belt in the sixth grade. I wanted to try something new and judo and wrestling go hand in hand. But karate is a martial art more like judo. I’ll try wrestling next year.”
She’s got three other cousins, all boys, on the judo team, which features 13 boys and two girls and returns two BIIF medalists from last year in Justin Raymond (108, bronze) and Aaron Arellano (275, bronze).
Raymond is not to be confused with another Justin Raymond, the Konawaena senior and a three-time BIIF champion, who took gold at the 114 division last season and second at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament.
Kealakehe coach Cole Salera believes Transfiguracion has a shot at a BIIF medal because of her skill-set. It also helps that her family tree is decorated with medals, a good motivation as any to continue the Transfiguracion tradition.
“She’s fast, quick and very athletic,” he said. “She’s very strong and she definitely has a chance to contend. Four or five of her older cousins won BIIF medals in wrestling and judo.”
During one drill for her karate training, Transfiguracion walked on a railing to improve her balance, a key element in judo because the objective is to control and throw an opponent. A hard throw is called an ippon, worth 10 points and an automatic victory.
She also likes Kealakehe’s technical aspect when the team watches video and turns a weakness into a strength at practice. But it’s the team concept that really gets her to glow. It’s not just with her fellow Waveriders, but the opposition, as well.
“I love it all. We have good coaches and I love my team,” she said. “They’re really support and help you. They encourage and drive you to do your best.
“In karate, we’re always told to win with humility and lose with respect. It’s the same thing with judo. After I won, Kamehameha gave me a big team hug because I was the only girl. That was really special and I’ll remember that. It was a good example of team sportsmanship.”
Salera started coaching as an assistant at Kealakehe in 2002 when his daughter, Ginger Lei, was on the team. He became the head coach in 2007, enjoying the experience of turning green rookies into medal contenders.
“None of the kids have club experience,” Salera said. “I try to give them basic throws that they pick and choose to work on. When you go up against kids with club experience, the belt color is all the same. If you can make one good throw, it doesn’t matter. You have a chance to catch someone off-guard.
“You can never stop learning about judo. You can never master it. I’m still learning and that’s why I like it. Every sensei I run into you can learn something, even if it’s someone younger than me. You can continually teach it and it’s something you can pass on as tradition.”
Gary McCollum is an assistant and Kealakehe and jokes that he’s glad he’s not the head coach because he didn’t have the patience.
“But judo taught me patience and it helps in every way,” he said. “Someone helps the next kid and it rolls down the hill and that’s great. It’s a lifestyle sport.”
That’s definitely the case with the Transfiguracion family, especially at get-togethers.
She draws a laugh when she thinks about her older cousins teaching the family youngsters new moves and clearing out the living room to experiment.
Transfiguracion concentrated on academics as a freshman. She competed in over a dozen karate tournaments before she got to Kealakehe. It was a good time to take a break, but now she has a chance to make her own memories.