Kai Kahele was very candid when sharing how he went from three high schools in three years when growing up in Hilo to a scholar-athlete at the University of Hawaii. How he was told by one high school coach that he’d never be a volleyball player to being voted the most inspirational player as as a senior for the Rainbow Warriors.
On Sunday evening at the Stan Sheriff Center, the state senator accepted the program’s Pae Makaukau Recognition Award during the 10th A’o a Koa Scholarship Fundraiser. Not that he would recommend the high school path he took — “The advantage is every five years I get invited to all three class reunions,” Kahele said — but he knows he wouldn’t be where he is without the journey he has taken … including the road that nearly didn’t have volleyball as part.
“If you knew the Kai Kahele of 27 years ago, I would be absolutely the last person you’d ever imagine that would be standing here tonight,” he told the audience of some 300. “I would almost bet that I will go down in history as the only state senator to represent Hilo that went to all three high schools in Hilo. Went to Waiakea, got kicked out of St. Joseph, graduated from Hilo.
“The coach at St. Joseph told me I’d never be a volleyball player, that I was a danger to myself and everyone within a 5-foot radius of me. He told me I should quit and I told him I wasn’t a quitter. He never cut me but he never played me either. And there were games that everyone played, even the people taking stats were playing.”
Kahele said his grades were so bad that his only college choice was Hawaii Community College. It was during that time that fate intervened, with a volleyball legend sitting down next to Kahele when the two were watching a volleyball match at Waiakea High gym.
Pedro “Pete” Velasco, captain of the first U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team in 1964, told Kahele that he had seen what Velasco considered raw talent and wanted Kahele to train under him and compete for Velasco’s Lokahi Volleyball Club.
Hawaii State Sen. Kai Kahele speaks about receiving UH men’s volleyball recognition award pic.twitter.com/u0kbefcjkl
— Cindy Luis (@CindyLuis_SA) January 28, 2020
“He told me if I was committed to his system, came with an open mind, worked harder than I ever had that in two years, he could put me in any Division I volleyball program in the country,” Kahele said. “For two years, every Tuesday and Thursday night were spent in the Hilo High gym, just him and me, and every Saturday we’d drive three hours to Hapuna Beach for ocean training.
“He was coaching the Hilo High boys and he made me his assistant. He taught me an unbelievable work ethic, dedication, laser focus, relentlessness and, most importantly, humility.
“He reinforces his personal values. Every practice was a life lesson. He said success comes in many forms and not to be afraid to fail. As long as you know you gave it your best, gave it 100 percent, you can walk away with your head held high. That is success.”
In 1994, Kahele enrolled at UH Manoa, and ran into a former Hilo volleyball player who told him that the Warriors were holding an informational meeting that day. Kahele showed up, along with 50-60 others, players who were already household names: Yuval Katz, Jason Olive and Aaron Wilton.
Meeting over, Kahele said he went to introduce himself to the UH coach.
“He had been looking at me the whole time,” Kahele said. “I shook his hand. He asked ‘What are you doing here?’ ”
His former St. Joseph coach was now the Warriors coach: Mike Wilton.
Wilton and Velasco had played together at Church College of Hawaii and “when I told him I had trained for two years with Velasco, that was all he needed to know,” Kahele said.
On the final day of fall practice, the roster had to be trimmed to 18. There were 19 players.
Kahele’s locker had been cleaned out and he looked for his belongings. They were in the 18th locker along with practice gear.
“I went to the pay phone, called my dad, said, ‘You won’t believe this,” Kahele said.
During his three seasons as a Warrior, Hawaii went to two final fours (1995 and ’96), losing to UCLA in the 1996 national final. He left the program as the 1997 most inspirational player and has gone on to a decorated military career as an 18-year combat veteran pilot with the Air National Guard and holds the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Kahele was appointed to the state senate in 2016, filling the vacancy created by the death of his father Gil. Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii District 1) has won both elections since and, last year, announced his candidacy for U.S. Congress.
On Sunday, four years to the day that his father died, Kahele spoke of the life lessons he learned from sports.
“What Coach Velasco taught me was that the greatest opponent I would ever face would be myself,” Kahele said. “Today is a sad day for our world. We lost (Los Angeles Lakers star) Kobe Bryant who spent many days right here (playing in the Stan Sheriff Center), as recently as 2015.
“I leave you with the words of the late Kobe Bryant. You are responsible for how people remember you or don’t. Don’t take that lightly. If you do it right, your game will live on. Leave everything on the court. Leave the game better than when you found it. And, when it’s time for you to leave, leave a legacy.”