‘His record speaks for itself’

LIHUE — It wasn’t the storybook ending Kauai High School senior Madison Leanio hoped to have for his last match.

At the Chevron Wrestling State Championships last weekend, Leanio advanced to the championship rounds. In the last day, he had a chance to finish in the top three of the 152-pound boys weight class.

During that third place match, injury struck.

“The kid in my finals match, he twerked my arm the wrong way — my arm, I guess. My shoulder. They said I hurt my pec muscle. Just been in pain ever since,” Leanio said Thursday.

“They call it a ‘chicken wing,’ but you’re not supposed to come over the top. He was running it illegally. So, it pretty much messed up my shoulder,” he continued. “I was fighting through it for some time, but then it just got to me.”

Leanio lost that last match to Kamakanamakamae Tapia of Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama and settled for fourth place.

He hopes his arm will be well enough for him to start the Kauai Interscholastic Federation track and field season, which begins Thursday.

Despite the end result, however, Leanio didn’t step away from the mat discouraged. Rather, he felt a sense of pride.

“What I felt was like, ‘Wow, that was my last match of my high school career,’” he said. “I was kind of bummed that my last match went out that way, but still proud of how I got there and how I achieved a lot of things that lots of KIF people haven’t been able to do lately.”

A four-year wrestler for Kauai High, Leanio was the lone KIF wrestler to finish in the top six of his weight class at the state tournament in consecutive years. Last year, he placed fifth.

“He likes to practice. He wants to get better. He’s only missed four practices in four seasons. Not a lot of kids can say that,” said Kauai High wrestling head coach Matt Ballard. “It just goes to show that a dedicated athlete can accomplish a lot.

“As far as KIF, I hope that a kid like him becomes a role model to others coming behind him in grade level,” he continued. “We got a really young team — lots of freshmen and sophomores. For them to see that, as well, I know he’s a good example to the other kids in our room.”

When he returned to states this year, Leanio said there was some added pressure to perform just as well as he did the previous tournament.

“Last year, I was an unknown card. No one really knew about me. But then this year, everyone had their eyes out on me already,” he said. “They expected me to place high, especially after they seeded me No. 2. So, most people were trying to get the big upset. Lots of people had their eyes out for me this year.”

What perhaps gave him a leg up was his background in judo and jiu-jitsu.

“He started in judo first, when he was about 4,” said Leanio’s father Derrick. “Then he got into jiu-jitsu when he got in the K-PAL program and then joined us later in the jiu-jitsu club.”

Wrestling, though, didn’t come naturally for him at first. It wasn’t until his junior year when things picked up quickly.

“The first year was kind of tough. Second year, I finally started to grasp wrestling. My third year, everything started coming together,” he said. “The preseason really didn’t go my way, but I worked hard through the whole year. When I went to the state meet, it all clicked and I ended up placing that year.”

Ballard added: “He was a good athlete when he came into high school. We were excited about him coming in as a freshman. I feel like the turning point, where I saw the higher level of potential, was as a junior when he went to states and he made the semifinals. Just thought he was wrestling really well. That’s when I knew he had that level of fight he needed to excel.”

Last summer, Leanio joined some of the best high school wrestlers from Hawaii and went to the Mainland to compete.

“During that summer, he wrestled a lot. He went to national tournaments on the Mainland,” Derrick said. “He was teammates with a lot of guys that were in states. That’s how they all got to see him and actually practice with him. They all got to know him. At the national tournament, he got to see what’s out there as far as the national scene and how hard you got to work to get to where they are.”

In the five years since the KIF adopted wrestling as a sanctioned sport, the league has had top six placers in previous state tournaments.

In 2015, Waimea’s Connor Donaher placed sixth in the 195-pound boys weight class. In the previous year, Waimea’s C.J. Kahepu’u also placed sixth in the 195-pound class.

KIF wrestling tournament director Mac Pigott said in his four years in the KIF, Leanio lost just one match. He added Leanio is without question the most accomplished athlete in KIF wrestling history.

“There’s no doubt about it, and his record speaks for itself. I rank him as the (pound-for-pound) best,” he said. “Not to take anything away from the 195-pounders who were fantastic. If you look at the talent pool, 152 is a much bigger pool of wrestlers for the talent to be drawn from. In other words, in Hawaii high school, you have a lot more 152-pound wrestlers than you do 195-pound wrestlers.”

Leanio’s father was with him at the state tournament on Oahu. Derrick said he was overcome with emotion watching his son walk to the mat for third place match at the Blaisdell Center Arena.

“That feeling hit me when we were in the chute ready to go out,” Derrick said. “I was standing behind him. You look around and you see the crowd and the lights. You realize that the four years flew by, and this is his last match. It’s a bittersweet thing. You’re proud, and yet you’re sad at the same time.”

After graduating from Kauai High, Leanio plans to go to a junior college and continue wrestling, and eventually continue on to a Division I institution.

“College wrestling is something I’ve been really looking forward to,” he said. “I’m hoping to go to Arizona State.”

The Red Raider hopes KIF wrestling continues to expand.

“KIF wrestling as a whole, I really hope it grows,” he said. “This year, Kapaa grew. Our team grew also. That helped a lot because our teams had more competition against each other. The more competition we have, the better off the teams are.

“Last year, one other person made it to the second day (at states) besides me. This year, two of our wrestlers made it because they had the competition on the island. If the sport continues to grow on Kauai, they should start doing better at states.”

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