Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Sue Hudelson
If the Kentucky Derby is the fastest two minutes in sports, All Star Cheerleading may be the most action-packed two minutes and thirty seconds. That’s the length of a competitive cheer routine, during which twenty or more teens leap simultaneously into aerial splits, form pyramids, toss each other into the air and back-flip across the stage with dizzying speed and precision. Forget pompons and cardigan sweaters. Today’s cheerleaders are fearless, focused athletes. Many are international competitors who devote nearly every free hour to practice with their team. And since 2010 some of the best cheerleading teams on the planet have hailed from a small gym in Kahului, Maui.
At first Ashlyn Ross wasn’t that into cheerleading. Her mom more or less forced her to join the squad when she started ninth grade at Kamehameha Schools on Maui. But in Ross’ junior year a new coach arrived who changed everything. Keali‘i Molina—who quickly became known as Coach K—brought a whole new cache of skills to the mat. “The day we met him, he taught us a new stunt in ten minutes,” says Ross. “It was crazy. He made me fall in love with cheer.”
For the first time in ten years the Kamehameha Warriors stood a chance at toppling their rivals, the Baldwin Bears, at the Maui County cheer competition. But that was just the beginning.
The rumor was that Kamehameha Schools’ new coach was famous, and within the cheerleading world it was true. Back in 2000 Molina appeared in Bring It On, the high school cheerleading comedy starring Kirsten Dunst. The movie became an instant cult classic, its script recited verbatim by every varsity coach and squad hopeful. Molina accrued serious cred with these so-called “gym rats” for his role in the film. Not only did he help teach the Hollywood stars how to pull off simple stunts, he also performed fancier acrobatics in the background as one of the East Compton Clovers.
Even without the celebrity status, Molina would have been enthusiastically accepted by his new team. With shortcropped black hair, bright eyes and catlike grace, he’s youthful-looking enough to be mistaken for one of the teens he trains. He knows exactly how to inspire and push them. Twenty years ago he was one of them—the first and only male cheerleader at his Maui alma mater, Saint Anthony High School.
Molina shrugs off this distinction like it was no big deal, but one of his former coaches, Ray Jasper, views it differently. “In the beginning Keali‘i faced a lot of ridicule and difficulty being the only male cheerleader. But he let his talents in gymnastics lead the way. He’s always been a hard worker, never one to complain.”
Molina’s cheer career tracks the rise of competitive cheerleading, which began in the 1980s and exploded in popularity after the release of Bring It On. As cheerleaders incorporated increasingly difficult stunts into their routines, they abandoned the sidelines for the center stage. All Star Cheerleading emerged as its own sport: a high-octane hybrid of traditional cheering, acrobatics and gymnastics.