On a warm February evening in Wailuku, a group of teenagers and a few scattered adults are sitting on the floor of an open garage. They’re preparing for battle.
Many are dressed in martial arts gis and listen attentively as Clyde Holokai reads a Bible verse–James 2:17–which explores the subject of “faith without works.” Following a discussion on the verse and the ethics of working hard, Holokai’s students rise to their feet and begin Jiu-Jjitsu drills.
Holokai is Captain Clyde Holokai, a 25-year veteran of the Maui Police Department. He calls his garage-turned-dojo (with a matted floor, framed photos and lots of open space to tumble around) “Fight For Life.” It’s also a Christian ministry that has offered instruction to students of varying ages and for the last 22 years.
All preconceived notions of this place resembling the angry Cobra Kai den from The Karate Kid are gone after observing for only a few minutes. The adults are focused but quick to laugh, and the young students are respectful.
One of the teenagers doing forward tumbles stands out. She isn’t wearing a gi but looser clothing and gives her much-older partner a warm hug after every movement. She smiles easily and watches her teammates with tender fascination.
Her name is Casey Gamiao. She’s a Maui High student with Down’s Syndrome and is also a Special Olympics athlete. A week from this very night, she’ll spar in an exhibition match against pro-surfer Andrea Moller in the First Responders Submission Grapplers Invitational tournament. The event is a benefit for the Special Olympics that pits local police officers, medics, corrections officers and firefighters against one another in 16 10-minute matches in which “Submission Only is the Rule.”
Gamiao’s sparring partner is her father, James Gamiao. He’s been a paramedic for 35 years and he’s also a ranked purple belt and, at 57, the oldest member of the dojo. James is also competing in the tournament, which was conceived by Holokai and Maui Firefighter Captain Chris Platiro.
The intent of the event is to highlight local heroes, showcase a unique collaboration between various men and women who serve the county and put on a wild show complete with Taiko drum accompaniment. There’s never been anything quite like this event on Maui.
“She just loves it,” says Catherine Hua Gamiao, Casey’s mother. Catherine is an Ohana Task Force Representative for Special Olympics Maui. “In her first year, Casey got a couple of medals and participated in swimming and bowling.”
Casey’s bowling experience was a rich one, as she bonded with Jacarra Lewallen, her Special Olympics Maui bowling unified partner.
“Casey’s mother reached out and shared with us two years ago the opportunity to bowl,” says Lewallen. “We both became our daughter’s unified partners and teamed up. I am not a bowler at all. We did it for our girls. Being a part of Special Olympics Maui and our bowling family is amazing. We’ve loved every minute of it. The girls were able to spend more time together and the trip to Oahu for state games was so very special. My daughter and Casey are best friends and we adore her family.”
Lewallen says her collaboration with the Gamiaos has made a powerful impact on her daughter and her. “As a teacher, mother and someone who is very passionate about individuals with differences and extraordinary gifts, to have every opportunity to be all they were called to be in this world, my heart was touched,” says Lewallen. “Seeing my daughter’s joy to be a part of something, to build friendships and to enjoy bowling was wonderful. She watches her brother be a part of so many activities and I know she just desires to be a part of something special. We love our Special Olympics Maui ‘ohana and we cannot wait until next bowling season.”
Catherine Gamiao’s recollection of those experiences and what they mean to Casey mirrors Lewallen’s. “Her experience of meeting new friends and sharing the pride they feel was exhilarating,” she says.
Casey says she spent time off from Special Olympics practice after damaging her knee in an accident involving climbing a tree, brandishing a bow and arrow and acting out a moment from The Hunger Games. This wild side to Casey is sometimes out in the open.
“She can be shy,” says Catherine Gamiao, “but they had a talent show recently and she got on stage and had a blast!”
As Casey works out with her father on the mat, swinging her body on top of his back, she appears fearless and dedicated to executing her next maneuver. After completing a two-minute drill, she looks to her mother, then gives a wide smile and a thumbs-up.
“We organized this from scratch,” says Adrienne Laurion, Maui’s Special Olympics Regional Director for state of Hawaii. “It was the brainchild of Captain Clyde Holokai. He approached me in June and asked if we wanted to do something similar to Battle of the Badges. My daughter had just started doing Jiu-Jitsu. Our conversation and mission were very similar in what we hoped to accomplish. What’s been great is that so many people from the agency want to jump in and help the Special Olympics. I thought, maybe we’d have six matches? We had to cut it doawn quite a bit. We now have 16 matches.”
The First Responders tournament kicks off a typically busy season for Special Olympics Maui, which offers a variety of sports and ways of participating.
“There are different ways to join,” says Laurion. “You can become an athlete, coach or one-day volunteer. The website gives a tidbit of each option. We have volunteers who say, ‘I can’t coach but I can come out to your events.’ You can volunteer on a weekly basis or be a one-time event volunteer. There are currently 3,464 athletes, 1,273 unified partners and 10,000 volunteers around the state of Hawaii.
“Monday, Feb. 12th kicks off our new season as we start training in softball, swimming, track & field and powerlifting,” Laurion adds. “Our softball is really big, as we offer T-ball, Coach Pitch and Unified Softball. We have three divisions divided by ability level. We will be training to compete at the Special Olympics Hawaii May 25-27th. We send 100 athletes from Maui, 30-40 from Molokai and five from Lanai. When you add in all the neighbor island teams around the state, we have approximately 800 Hawaii athletes competing and 2,500 volunteers.”
Laurion says there’s no cost to participate in the Special Olympics. “We raise the money and send our teams to the competition without them worrying about airfare or costs,” she says. “Proceeds for the First Responders event goes to getting our athletes on Oahu in May.”
What’s more, Laurion says that this season started for Special Olympics Maui with new events and recently created programs. “There’s the Holo Holo Club, which we just started two weeks ago,” Laurion says. “We meet once a week to walk. Every Special Olympics athlete or volunteer that wants to walk gets a MovBand, which tracks their movement. We encourage them to take more steps each day and set mileage program goals hit goals. We try to get them to meet their goals and push the health initiative. If we can help them to get healthier, it helps their whole quality of life. “
Following the First Responders event, Laurion, volunteer coach Aaron Swan and Matt Wanderscheid, a Special Olympics athlete from Kihei, are attending an event far outside of the 808 area code.
“Next for us is Capitol Hill Day and a meeting with members of Congress, where we’re introducing healthy initiatives,” says Laurion. “They’ve received training regarding the health issues facing individuals with intellectual disabilities and how they can be effective messengers of health in our community. [Matt] Wanderscheid has prepared a speech to highlight the data about the disparities they face related to health care.”
But that’s all in the future. Everyone still has to compete in the First Responders tournament, which grew out of the “Battle of the Badges” event.
“Battle of the Badges was part of the inspiration that morphed and grew into something much larger than that–[it’s] not just Police versus Fire Department,” says Captain Holokai. “We also have medics and corrections officers. Then there’s Sgt. Grant Nakamura versus Dennis Swaine in the Fire Department: Dennis is ranked purple belt and tough as nails. Grant is a wrestler straight out of Iowa and an Olympic hopeful. The guy he lost to went on to win the Olympic Gold. Dennis is tough as nails. We chose them because we think this is a match where the action is going to be crazy.”
Holokai explained how he was careful to establish this unprecedented event by getting other departments to share his vision. “What we’re doing is the first in the state,” he says. “We made sure we’re all on the same page, set ground rules for the competition, making sure we’re not forgetting that this is for the kids and giving back to them.”
Then Holokai started talking about the tournament’s big main event.
“In any competition, the main event is looked at as the most important match,” he says. “I speak for everyone who set this up, the most important match is Andrea Moller versus Casey Gamiao. Their exhibition match is at the time of intermission and the most important one. It’s the real spirit of what we’re trying to do here–give to the kids and the community. Even in Hawaii, we can lose focus of what’s important and this event gives us focus.”
Back at the Fight For Life dojo, Casey and James Gamiao are hitting the mat and battling for submission. There’s an obvious joy in their efforts, as James guides his daughter through the movements. As they grapple, Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” plays over the loudspeakers.
Before departing the dojo, I ask Casey if she thinks she’ll be able to take Moller at the tournament. Casey smiles. “Yes!” she says, then pumps her fists in the air.
The First Responders Submission Grapplers Invitational takes place at the Iao Theater on Feb. 9 at 6pm. Tickets are available at Mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.
Photo–(L to R, back row: Ryan Behn, Adrienne Laurion, Nathan Ley. L to R, front row: Kiele Pahia, Stephanie Lomeli, Casey Gamiao)
Photo courtesy Special Olympics Maui