Issue 17.1: February / March 2014

Rocket Ride

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.

All Star teams deviate from typical cheer squads in a few key ways. Rather than rallying support for a school or sports team, they exist purely for competition. While most high school squads now incorporate acrobatics into their routines, the trickiest maneuvers require the right equipment: spring-loaded floors for higher jumps and softer landings and giant, cushioned tumble tracks for crash landings. Since few schools can afford these necessities, serious cheerleaders migrate to private gymnasiums and their associated All Star teams.

When Molina discovered All Star, he says, “It started to get really fun, really fast.” After graduating from high school in 1996, he’d moved to San Diego where his mentor, Jasper, had opened a gymnasium and created the area’s first All Star program. Molina joined Jasper’s college-level team, the Champion Cheer Outlaws, and began coaching teams himself.

Each stunt-filled second of an All Star routine is designed to get maximum points from judges. Beginners, or juniors, start with the easier moves: turning cartwheels in unison and lifting teammates up to shoulder height. Seniors advance to more astonishing stunts, such as the “needle”: Balancing on one foot, the designated flier —usually the lightest girl on the team— grasps her other foot with both hands, arches her back and draws her leg straight up behind her to point toward the ceiling. The needle is hard enough to accomplish standing on sturdy ground, but gutsy All Star cheerleaders execute it ten feet in the air, balanced on the upraised hands of their teammates.

That is the unique magic of All Star cheering. It’s 100 percent collaborative. Unlike gymnasts, who perform similar stunts solo, cheerleaders work as a team— and at high speed. The overall effect is dazzling; athletes become living pieces of a kinetic sculpture, forming constantly shifting patterns. Their moves are synchronized to frenetic, fast-paced music. The flashiest tricks are accentuated by thumping beats and zings reminiscent of pinball or video games. Actual cheers haven’t completely disappeared, but they now come from the stands.

After a few years of coaching in Southern California, Molina leveraged his acrobatic skills into a job at SeaWorld’s Cirque de la Mer. He wowed audiences on the flying trapeze, Russian swing and Chinese poles. He then set sail, working as an acrobat for five years aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines. He learned to hold headstands in a rocking swell and time bungee jumps to the ship’s sway. He visited places as far afield as Russia and the Caribbean. But in the back of his mind, Maui beckoned. He dreamed of returning home to open an All Star gym. After one too many shipboard injuries — including a torn Achilles tendon that immobilized him for six months —he decided it was time.

Was Maui ready for this caliber of competition? Molina tested the waters with the Kamehameha Warriors. He started coaching the squad mid-school-year, in December 2010. By the next fall the team was crowned the Maui Interscholastic League’s varsity cheerleading champion. The Warriors ended the Baldwin Bears’ ten-year winning streak and began one of their own.

Meanwhile, Molina’s true coaching talents were starting to shine at Hawaii All Star Cheer, his brand-new gymnasium in Kahului. In January 2011 he held islandwide tryouts and put together his first team, made up of girls from various schools. Ashlyn Ross was one of several from Kamehameha to make the cut. “Coach K is a miracle worker,” says Ross. “Our original team had no skills. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.”

The novices had only three months to prepare for their first competition: the Aloha Spirit International Championships on O‘ahu. They would be facing opponents from across the Pacific who had been practicing since summer. To make up for their late start, the Maui girls rehearsed their routine every day after school and on the weekends.

Molina’s practices run for two to three hours with brief water breaks between the high-intensity drills. He’s a fun but firm coach, with an uncanny ability to spot variances in two dozen bodies moving at once. “Nice and strong,” he shouts as four girls link together and lift their teammate into the air. To the flier, he adds: “Pop that toe. Sharp!”

The Kahului warehouse seems cavernous until the girls start practicing their aerial stunts. Then the ceiling seems unnervingly low. It’s the largest space Molina could find, but it still isn’t big enough for a regulation nine-lane mat. His cheerleaders make do with seven lanes, which forces them to be even more precise as they run and launch into back handsprings within inches of one another. Had Ross’ mom seen her daughter in action here, she might have reconsidered her demand. But parents aren’t allowed. Right away Molina noticed that the kids were calmer and more productive when mom and dad had left the building. “We’re a no-parent gym,” he says. “Parents know this isn’t their job. It’s mine.”

All Star parents do have a job: fundraising. Gym memberships, competition fees, airfare and uniforms add up. But during those first few months, the team didn’t have time to raise funds. They were too busy perfecting their basic skills to sell Portuguese sausage or plate lunches. As a result, when competition day arrived, they didn’t even have uniforms; they wore cutoff tees and shorts.

What they did have was a secret weapon: Ray Jasper. In the years since Molina had worked with him, Jasper had become one of the most sought-after choreographers in the All Star world—named Choreographer of the Year by Cheerleader Magazine in 2012. While en route to one of his many international clients, Jasper was happy to stop in Hawai‘i and lend his expertise to an old friend.

Armed with a dynamite routine and a lot of pluck, the upstarts from Maui headed to O‘ahu. They shocked everyone—their coach included—when they won second place, missing first by a very small margin. The following year, Hawaii All Star Cheer expanded to three teams. They returned to O‘ahu and this time, they won. The two senior teams continued on to a bigger contest on the Mainland, the United Spirit Association All Star Championships in Anaheim, California. Ross remembers feeling awe-struck as she entered the massive arena. “It was nerve-wracking,” she says. “There were hundreds of teams. Everyone practices in one huge room. Ten teams warm up at once. You see everyone’s tricks and skills. It’s intimidating.”

Once on stage, all the girls could see were lights and the shadows of judges’ faces. No one knew who they were, so the usually boisterous audience was quiet. The music started, and the Hawaii All Star Cheer team unleashed its routine: twenty girls leapt into aerial splits and launched without pause into one back handspring after the next. “At the end all we heard was a roar,” says Ross. “That felt so good.”

It was a feeling she’d soon get used to. Since Molina launched Hawaii All Star Cheer three years ago his teams have entered seventeen major competitions and brought home trophies from every one.

In addition to Kamehameha High School, Molina now coaches four All Star teams, including one that’s coed. He never wanted to coach juniors—“too young,” he says, “too much cattiness and mean girl syndrome”—but his first junior team proved its mettle. Not only did it win its division at the United Spirit Championships the following year, it brought home the grand champion banner.

The young women and men of Hawaii All Star Cheer demonstrate intense loyalty to their teammates. They know if they don’t show up for practice, their team can’t run the routine. Many of them come to the gym straight from practice with their high school squad—meaning they endure five to six hours of intense physical exercise a day. “You depend on repetition so your body already knows what to do,” says Ross. “It trains you how to control your mind, breathe and keep calm.”

Ross, who graduated from Kamehameha last year, says despite the demanding schedule, cheerleading improved her academic performance. “If you don’t pass your grade checks, you don’t get to cheer.” She maintained her highest GPA during her senior year while practicing with three separate teams: Kamehameha Schools and both senior All Star teams.

When Jasper flies over to teach the Hawaii All Star Cheer teams their new routines, they devote an entire week, twelve hours a day, to learning them inside out. Last year the seniors asked Molina for an extra practice. Even he was surprised by the time they chose: 5 a.m. Through the warehouse’s open door, they watched the sun come up behind Haleakala as they polished their back handsprings and sharpened their needles.

Being an All Star cheerleader isn’t just sweat and grueling rehearsal. When the teams travel for competitions, they hit amusement parks and shopping malls. They develop friendships with fellow athletes from all over the world. But for the Hawaii All Star Cheer gang, movie night at home probably ranks as their favorite recreation. That’s when their coach finally busts out his worn copy of Bring It On. “I let them watch it only once a year,” laughs Molina.

He hosts a sleepover at the gym and screens the film on the wall. He also instigates creative games, including a varsity version of “How many people can fit into a Volkswagen?” The coach lays a giant sheet down and challenges two dozen cheerleaders to stay on as he folds the fabric into increasingly small squares. The girls become a tower of giggles, using all of their stunting skills to squeeze onto the shrinking space.

“I work with gyms that have seven hundred kids in a program and a staff of thirty to organize trips, parents and uniforms,” says Jasper. “At Keali‘i’s gym it’s only him. He’s not just a coach but also a role model. He counsels kids, squashes issues between them, deals with stage parents, constantly answers emails. He doesn’t look at his kids as a business. He looks at them as family.” Molina does employ some help; his sister and niece manage the office and accounting, and two former students lend a hand with coaching.

Last May the Hawaii All Star Cheer family experienced its biggest triumph yet. For the first time ever, a definitive all-levels national cheerleading championship was held in Orlando, Florida. Teams had to be invited to attend. Hawaii All Star Cheer received two invitations — all expenses paid. The teams traveled across the country to compete on live television, with 450 of the nation’s best cheerleading teams. When the winners were announced, the girls from Hawai‘i had captured second and third place.

“We had an undefeated season last year,” says Molina with a trace of amazement. “Then we won second and third best in the country.” And this year, he says, his teams look even sharper.