THE HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
Wrestling has turned Landon Kurata into a "stronger, more empathetic person"
FRAGILE AS GLASS, mean as a wounded dog. That's Landon Kurata.
Thirty minutes before his final match, the one-time state wrestling champion was upright and pumped for his moment. Never mind the twisted knee, slight head injury and dislocated shoulder from his semifinal match. The Waiakea senior uttered but one thing before taking the mat: "I'm not going down without a fight."
After a lifetime of struggle, constant trips to the hospital and resiliency in an unexpectedly successful wrestling career, Kurata was in a familiar position of control.
Controlling pain and converting it to success is a process he knows quite well.
The Kuratas -- dad Kevin and mom Renee -- were driving home one day with 3-year-old Landon in his toddler seat when Renee noticed something quietly bizarre. Her little boy was zoning out in a big way.
"I put my hand in front of his face. He didn't blink," she recalls.
PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Waiakea senior Landon Kurata got a hug from his mom, Renee, at the state championship.
Landon was in the midst of a petit mal seizure, the least violent of three seizure types that plagued him for years to come. From that point on, the Kuratas were in the hospital nearly every month. Epilepsy doesn't necessary isolate a child. It has a way of cornering a family into a very dark place, offering little in the way of light.
"His whole childhood, we were on pins and needles. Every cold, it was 24-7 for us. You're always on edge," says Renee.
BUT THERE WAS hope. The Kuratas met Dr. Gregory Yim at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children.
"He was our life saver. He was so calm and compassionate and caring for Landon. When you have a child like that, there's no miracle drug. Different drugs and dosages work differently for everyone," Renee says.
After eight months of experimenting with dosages, they found the right one for Landon. He still suffered spikes in his fevers, but quickly developed into a relatively normal boy with busybody tendencies. He played aikido, tennis and basketball. He was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, even did voice lessons.
"We let him try anything that he wanted that wasn't dangerous," Renee says.
One day, Landon watched a TV broadcast of Olympic wrestling. His life was never the same.
"I was in seventh grade. It was amazing how much heart those guys had out there. To me, wrestling is almost the hardest sport. It requires skill and the right mentality, the right mind-set and a lot of drive," he says.
Kevin had tried his hand at wrestling as a youngster, and one of his best friends, Glenn Nagata, was a state champion from Kalani in 1975. Kevin's love for the sport trickled down to Landon. Not long after the Olympics, they went to a neighborhood gym to watch age-group wrestlers.
"When my husband took him to see wrestling at the Waiakea YMCA, I freaked," Renee admits. "I said, 'Are you crazy?' He said, 'Well, we'll just see.' "
What Renee soon witnessed was a transformation.
"He's so passionate about it, I just couldn't stand in his way. He wakes up some mornings, comes out of his room, tells my husband, 'Come, come, dad, I was dreaming this,' and shows him a wrestling move," she says.
Coach Win Onishi and trainer Kalei Namohala had their eyes glued to Landon more closely than ever when he suffered three injuries in his semifinal victory on Saturday. Namohala gave the OK, but Onishi wasn't totally sold just yet. The longtime coach knew how badly his champion wanted another title; Landon won the 119 state crown last year before moving up to 125 this season.
Still, Kurata already had suffered a concussion this year.
"It was more like, 'If you go out and wrestle hard, I'll be there and I see that physically you're in trouble, I'll stop the match,' " Onishi told Kurata. " 'Or the trainer will tap me, and we'll stop. But as long as you wrestle hard, you'll be fine.' "
Kurata went to the center mat at Blaisdell Arena to take on three-time Maui Interscholastic League champion Mike Viloria, the runner-up in the 119 class a year ago. Kurata had beaten Viloria early in the season by a close margin.
"I knew the guy was bigger and way stronger, so I had to play outside. My coaches really helped me with that," Kurata says. "It was all chain wrestling (combinations)."
THIS TIME, IT WAS a 9-5 win, the final one in a 23-0 season. For Onishi, who had tutored Kurata as an intermediate school student, victory was more of a byproduct than necessity.
"Our most important thing is health. It's only a medal, and I understand that there's so much expected, but the important thing is health. I know how good you are, and I could care less what anybody else says," Onishi says.
Kurata's heart is nearly equaled by his intellect.
"The one thing that he did have was such a desire to wrestle and learn. He would learn from anybody he could talk to, basically," Onishi says. "Even now, he'll still learn even though he knows so much. He'll pick the gills out of anybody."
Nagata, the family friend, passed away last year. Kurata dedicated his season to the former champion.
In the trainer's room at Blaisdell, Renee Kurata had her son in a serious bearhug moments after his victory. She and Kevin take pride in the success of their son and daughter (Kortni, 13) in school and sports. Landon has a 3.6 cumulative grade-point average and plans to attend Pacific University (Forest Grove, Ore.), but it is wrestling that brings out Renee's enthusiasm.
"Landon is very sensitive and compassionate about people even though wrestling is so rough. He's made so many friends, but what touched me at the tournament was that when I saw that he was going to wrestle the final, there were four Iolani coaches there talking to him, and a Roosevelt coach there, too," she says of coaches he met through various camps and clinics.
"There's such a bond among all these wrestlers and coaches. It's just wonderful, the feeling."
THAT SENSE OF UNITY speaks volumes to a mother who felt so vulnerable when her 3-year-old seemed to have such a precarious future. It took Landon's persistence to overcome his mother's natural desire to shelter him.
"My mom, I told her that I really wanted to pursue my dreams. After many times, she just gave in," he recalls. She became his biggest and loudest fan.
"Even when I was wrestling JV, she was screaming her head off: 'Come on Landon, keep pushing, push harder.'"
What made Landon weak and fragile as a young child has also turned him into a stronger, more empathetic person. He sees the change in his mom, too.
"She has definitely changed. I guess she realizes that I'm more capable of doing things than she thought I was. She always had faith in me. This experience definitely opened her up to see that I'm not that little kid with all the problems," he says.
In college, he will major in sports medicine or pre-pharmacy. Coaching is already in his blood. He is helping out at his old stomping grounds at the Waiakea Y.
On a broader scale, there are countless youngsters who have one dilemma or another because of health problems.
"I would tell them, you gotta do something you really wanna do. Don't let anything cut you short of your aspirations. If you wanna do something, don't let anything hold you back. There's always gonna be things in your way to stop you," he says.
"You just have push a little harder and think a little deeper."