One Step Ahead

Roma Jiu Jitsu Academy co-owner Kawika Yoneda (top) trains his students to be high-level competitors on national and international platforms.

Roma Jiu Jitsu Academy founder Kawika Yoneda ensures his students are ready for anything — including clinching world titles at the IBJJF Pan Kids Jiu-Jitsu Championship next month.

Opening Roma Jiu Jitsu Academy in the heart of downtown Hilo required an extreme leap of faith for owners Kawika Yoneda and his wife, Jamie. It was much larger than what they had budgeted for, but it was a dream location: safe, customizable, great parking, ocean view.

“We did all the numbers and figured out what it would cost to just break even,” recalls Kawika, the academy’s professor (instructor). “We needed 30 students, and that felt like a lot for a new academy just starting out.”

Yoneda, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, remembers signing the lease with nervous anticipation. Three months later in April 2016, Roma opened its doors. On its first day of business, exactly 30 students signed up.

Now, nearing the third anniversary of the academy, Yoneda, 32, is professor to more than 100 keiki ages 3-15.

Professor Kawika Yoneda (front, center) poses for a picture with his students (back, from left) Kingston Richards, Peter Tangaro, Caden Pasa, Daylan Torres, Nainoa Tanaka, (front) Isaiah Lee, Carl Richards, Jesiah Conol and Cruz Simonson.

He has adult students, too, and his mission is to give his pupils the opportunities he worked hard to create for himself — opportunities like the competition next month that nine Roma athletes have been busy preparing for: the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Pan Kids Jiu-Jitsu Championship Feb. 17 in Long Beach, California.

“When I opened Roma Jiu Jitsu Academy, part of my dream was to build world champions from Hawai‘i,” Yoneda says. “Exposure to world-class jiu-jitsu early on in training is important. We encourage our students to compete locally so they get comfortable in the competition scene. The mainland events are the next step. We chose Pan Kids because it’s one of the largest and most prestigious kids tournaments in the world. Hundreds of kids come to compete from all over, and I truly believe our students have reached a place in their training where they can compete at this level.”

Last year, Yoneda took seven Roma students to Pan Kids, the youngest of whom was 7. They returned home with one Pan Kids champion and two bronze medals.

“Watching one of our students, Aden Leyson, become a Pan Kids champion was amazing,” Yoneda says. “He now holds a title I always wanted but haven’t yet achieved. And to this day, watching him win Pan Kids trumps any personal accomplishment, any win, I’ve had yet in my competitive jiu-jitsu career.”

Jesiah Conol, 11, Nainoa Tanaka, 9, Cruz Simonson, 8, and Kingston Richards, 10, will all return for their second try at Pan Kids championship titles this year. Competing for the first time at this event are Caden Pasa, 14, Peter Tangaro, 10, Daylan Torres, 13, Isaiah Lee, 7, and Carl Richards, 8.

Conol is working even harder this year with intensive training six days a week.

“Even if I’m tired, I try to push myself and keep going,” he says.

It was Conol’s older sister who convinced him to give jiu-jitsu a try.

“I never did sports before this, and I was curious to see how it would fit me,” says Conol, who took home the bronze medal in his division last year. “At first it was difficult. I was really shy. But this academy is full of positivity, and jiu-jitsu is really fun. Professor Kawika always supports and helps us. Last year’s Pan Kids was nerve-wracking, but I just told myself it was going to be fine, and I tried to stay away from the negative thoughts and focus on the positive. After it was done, I felt really proud of myself for doing it.”

Richards’ parents signed him and his younger brother, Carl, up for Roma Jiu Jitsu classes when the academy first opened.

“Professor Kawika trains us hard to be the best, and he really believes in us,” Richards says. “At my first Pan Kids I was nervous, but it was also exciting. There were a lot of people, but I was excited to be able to go against the best.”

Richards says he tries to tune out the noise from the crowd at competitions and focus on the task at hand.

“We’ve been training hard this year, doing extra conditioning and perfecting our moves,” he says, adding, “Competing in this sport has shaped me because it has taught me how to be more respectful.”

Yoneda says these Hawai‘i athletes have a unique opportunity at Pan Kids to go against students from across the world.

“It might be another young athlete from France, Japan or Brazil, and they are there representing Roma Jiu Jistu and Hawai‘i,” he says. “It’s cool to see what other countries bring and where Hawai‘i athletes fall into that mix. We are already known for being tough and having a lot of heart. But I want people to say, ‘I want to go train in Hawai‘i because there are world champions coming out of Hawai‘i.”

For Yoneda to get the jiu-jitsu training he desired for himself, he had to leave Hawai‘i for a time. And though over the years he has studied various martial arts disciplines, starting with karate in the first grade, he didn’t find his passion for jiu-jitsu until he was in his mid-20s.

“At first I didn’t like jiu-jitsu at all,” Yoneda recalls. “I was doing Muay Thai at that time, and I thought fighters should stay standing. It made no sense to go to the ground to me.” But a friend convinced him to try out a class, and Yoneda quickly found that jiu-jitsu was much more than he originally thought.

“Jiu-jitsu is like chess,” he says. “It’s still aggressive, but you aren’t going in there to knock someone out. A lot of people think it’s just a bunch of rolling around, but in jiu-jitsu you are always trying to keep one step ahead. You can’t just use strength to power through things in this sport. It allows a smaller person to beat a larger person through understanding angles, leverage and timing. Jiu-jitsu involves a lot of focus and calculated movements.”

Yoneda started his journey at Charles Gracie Jiu Jitsu, a small school that was operating in Hilo at the time. This is also where he first began coaching adult jiu-jitsu classes, and discovered a love of teaching.

But for what Yoneda wanted to accomplish, he needed to go to the mainland first. So he sought out the champions he had spent hours studying online — specifically Rafael and Guilherme Mendes, brothers who owned Art of Jiu Jitsu Academy (AOJ), an affiliate of the Atos Association founded by Andre Galvao in California.

Kawika and Jamie moved to California in 2014. After two years of studying with world-class athletes, he came home to open the first Atos affiliate in Hawai‘i.

“I always had personal goals of where I wanted my jiu-jitsu career to go, but more so, I wanted to be that bridge between what is the mecca of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in California and our small town of Hilo,” says Yoneda. “It would open doors for students to dream big and accomplish great things.”

More than the medals and the wins, too, Yoneda believes that jiu-jitsu can teach students important life lessons and build strong character. He even credits the sport with helping him deal with his own personal challenges, including bouts of depression and anger.

“Jiu-jitsu teaches people how to focus, how to deal with something when it’s hard and how to make quick, smart decisions,” he says. “You can’t just get by with showing up and going hard. You only have yourself to rely on. It’s just you and them out there on that mat, and it’s a lot of pressure. You learn a lot about yourself being in those situations. I feel like if these kids can get out there and legitimately believe in themselves, they can do anything.”

Roma Jiu Jitsu Academy is located at 224 Kamehameha Ave. in Suite #202. Visit romajiujitsuacademy.com for more information.