Kelson Kawai’s life has always been filled with sports and followed a familiar pattern for four years, wearing Kohala Cowboy uniforms for football, basketball, volleyball, and track and field.
Then the 2010 Kohala graduate went to Pacific University, a Division III school in Forest Grove, Ore., where he kept busy with football, and track and field, jumping into spring ball and offseason training to plug any gaps of leisure.
“Not playing two sports, I would have too much free time,” Kawai said. “I’m more motivated when I’m busy. You have to learn how to manage your time. That’s the really big thing.”
He’s a college senior, with a 3.1 grade-point average in exercise science, who suddenly finds himself in unfamiliar territory.
Kawai completed his final season with the Boxers’ football team, which finished with a 7-3 record last November.
His gridiron expiration was a goodbye that is still stuck in his heart. The program, which shut down in 1991, was reinstated in 2010, Kawai’s freshman season, and posted an 0-9 record.
The 2013 season went down as one of the greatest in the school’s 100-plus-year history, Pacific’s first winning record since 1987. Kawai grew up with the program; he was one of 38 seniors. Kawai played in nine games, caught 15 balls at wide receiver for 178 yards, and closed his senior season with a flood of memories.
“I miss it already, starting from my freshman year, not winning, and inspiring me and all of us to work hard, and passing that down to the younger guys,” Kawai said. “That first year when they brought football back after not having it for 19 years we were all freshmen, no upperclassmen.
“It was hard playing against men at Linfield and Willamette, but we grew, worked hard and got a lot better. The journey with the guys is what I’ll remember the most. It hasn’t hit me yet that there’s no more football. I’m super concentrated in track. When I don’t have that competition anymore, I’ve got to find something else.”
He’s in his last year in track and field, and that window is quickly closing. The Northwest Conference championships are April 25-26, then the season concludes next month.
Then he will graduate in May, with his parents Keoki and Margaret Kawai in attendance, and look to a career as a physical therapist.
Kawai points to his parents as a source of motivation. His dad works at a plant nursery and his mom works at Hilton Waikoloa.
“My mom told me once that there’s always someone out there who’s working, and you’ve got to think about that as your competition, and have the drive to work harder than them,” he said.
Kawai’s best personal achievement came in the high jump at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state track and field championships in 2010. That year, he cleared 6 feet, 6 inches to capture state gold.
Last year as a junior, Kawai won the NWC triple jump title, and tied for second place in the high jump. He leaped a season-best 6 feet, 8 inches in the high jump, tying a school record.
That left him just short of qualifying for the NCAA Division III track and field championships for the first time in his career.
“Last year, I got pretty close in the high jump. They take the top 20. I was 21st, a centimeter short,” Kawai said. “That whole night I couldn’t sleep. I was waiting for a call from my coach (Tim Boyce). I used it as energy to make it this year. My goal is 6 feet, 8 1/2 inches. That would guarantee me a spot in the national championships.
“That will take a lot of confidence.”
Asked to describe himself, Kawai provided an answer that doubles as the way he’s always carried himself from sport to sport.
“I’m quiet and hard working,” he said. “I’ll definitely be confident, but don’t let anyone know it. I’ll let my jumping and everything else speak for itself.”
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