By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Hilo senior wrestler Lahi Kanakanui has set quite a benchmark for herself, not only in achievement but also work ethic.
When the Big Island Interscholastic Federation championships kick off today at Keaau High, she will be shooting for her third gold medal. Kanakanui is a two-time defending champion at 140 pounds. To challenge herself, she moved up a weight class to 155.
As a freshman, she took third at 140 pounds, the only non-gold medal in her dual-sport BIIF career, which includes three titles at 139 pounds in judo. She has a chance to go 7 for 8 in gold medals, nudging close to 2012 Kamehameha graduate Megan Aina, the first to win eight crowns in both sports.
Kanakanui has been to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships for both sports every year. Her best finish is a bronze last year for wrestling. But what tops her highlight list is not any medal or memorable moment, but the work that precedes everything.
“Those are good accomplishments,” she said. “But there is more behind the gold medals. I’m most proud of pushing myself to always be better. It takes dedication, determination, heart, commitment and offseason training.
“I lift weights to gain more strength. That helps with my explosiveness. During the offseason, I wrestle with other high school wrestlers and coaches from out of state.”
Kanakanui (12-0) finds inspiration from her brother Isaiah Kanakanui, a 2011 Hilo graduate and a BIIF wrestling and judo champion. He’s now a body builder, training out of BJ Penn’s Training and Fitness Center. Following family tradition, the first competition he entered he won gold.
“Isaiah helps push me and I push myself,” she said. “I want to make him proud. I want to be competitive and strive to do my best. I look up to him.
“I have to stay confident and be humble, don’t underestimate anybody. I have to keep my eyes on the prize.”
Last season, the Vikings filled only seven of the 14 weight classes but still won the BIIF championship by a comfortable margin over three-time BIIF champion Kamehameha, 108 points to 72.5. It helped that Hilo had four gold medalists: Kanakanui, Shaylyn Arakaki (97 pounds), Nina Bean (101) and Katie Funai (109).
However, a repeat won’t be easy. Hilo again will likely have only half the divisions covered, and Bean transferred to Kaimuki High on Oahu. But Kanakanui isn’t worried, believing that only good things will happen because of her team’s hard work.
“I’m confident in our team. We all work hard,” she said. “We’re all like brothers and sisters, a family. We push each other and try to keep each other motivated.”
Last year as a sophomore, Funai took up wrestling and judo for the first time and won titles. It wasn’t beginner’s luck, especially at the BIIF wrestling championships, where she pinned Kamehameha bulldog Crystal Baysa in the first round.
Now a junior, Funai (12-2) jumped a weight class to 113 pounds, where her old nemesis has been residing. During the season, they’ve split a pair of bouts. A potential rubber match could be for a BIIF title.
“Hopefully, I can get back on the podium,” Funai said.
Arakaki pulled off an undefeated season during her run to her first BIIF wrestling title last year. Like Kanakanui, she’s unbeaten as a senior and a favorite in her weight class.
“To keep my title, there’s a lot of pressure on me,” said Arakaki, who won BIIF judo crowns as a sophomore and junior. “I have to work hard and try my best. Judo gave me mat sense, where I’m comfortable on the mat.
“I think we can do it again and win BIIFs. We’ve got enough girls. We have the strength and skills to take it again.”