Lanakila. Meaning: To have victory. Victory in life is furtive. It's hard to define, it takes different paths, but at times it's reached unexpectedly, you know it, and the taste is sweet. I had many victories in my recent travel to Hawaii, not on the mats in my customary way, but in the wild; on the sands, cliffs and in the ocean.
I always look for a challenge, I'm very competitive and love the drive towards life experience. I was a hopeful and confident this year of a World Title, however victory escaped me out in Long Beach, CA on June 1st, again. I had lost, coming up disappointingly short, again. I have been grinding for a long time, going at it, tunnel vision, nose down, never looking up, go, go, go... I needed something new, something totally different. Hawaii delivered, showed me things and taught me things about myself I would have otherwise never known. I was pushed to and beyond my limits both physically and mentally in ways I would have never been otherwise.
It has only been until recently that I've been fortunate enough to take to the skies and roads, traveling to places I have only dreamed of visiting. It all begins with a dream. Don't say "lucky," don't mistake it. This is all a result of years and years of hard work, the generosity of friends, and the chasing of the human spirit. I cannot even begin to tell of all the tales that happened, too many, too crazy, some off limits, not allowed. I've said for years now, I need a film crew to follow me, you couldn't make up the stuff that I encounter! People say I always have stories, anywhere I go. Good or "bad," I can take it, I handle it with a smile, and actually, I love it. I was in Hawaii for eleven days, two different islands. Yes I still got great traditional jiu-jitsu training in on the mats there, but this was new, letting go, stepping outside of that comfort zone. Everyday was a different story, different experience, different lesson.
I began on "The Big Island." It is unlike any other Hawaiian island, complete country, bigger than all the other islands combined, yet vastly undeveloped, unpopulated without even a single four-lane road existing on the entire island. I was visiting and staying with an old friend and bjj training partner, Jonathan. Him and his beautiful wife Erin were expecting their fifth child. They had been living and working on a farm there for about a year now. Jonathan had lived on Oahu before, and stayed out on the islands several times, so he had a Hawaiian background. He extended an invite to me, to come out, experience, train island warrior-style! He was my native tour guide and coach. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, only brining an open mind and heart. The whole family picked me up at the tiny airport in Hilo. Meeting the four little ones, Eliana, Kiana, Isiah, and Melina, immediately I was dubbed "Uncle" as the kids took a liking to me! I fell in love with them instantly too, as they were sweet, well-behaved, joys to be around. With these special little kiekis and observing my new surroundings of vegetation, flowers, trees, ocean, it was completely refreshing. I had made it. I couldn't believe I was in this place. Let the journey begin.
My first lesson: Fear & Faith. It happened at the Southernmost Point of the United States. Jonathan said our workout for the morning was to jump off the edge of the island at South Point, sheer rock cliffs ranging from 32-40ft high, depending on the tide...and ascend back up, 4-5 times. Awesome! I was excited. I live for stuff like this, right up my alley. We get there, it's one of the only touristy spots on the entire island so theres quite a few people around. It's beautiful, sunny, and so expansive...walking over the rock towards the edge all around you is jagged rock cliffs as far as the eye can see in each direction behind you, and between that, infinite blue ocean. It's very, very windy, almost strong enough to knock your footing. Reaching the very edge, looking straight down into the Pacific, it all hits me, "This is it? We're jumping off this?" "Yeah, right here," Jonathan says nonchalantly. I couldn't believe it. I'm not afraid of heights, or jumps. I'm actually probably what you'd call an adrenaline junky, I've done crazy stuff, anything for thrills, even high jumps, but nothing like this. Why was this getting to me? I had an uneasy feeling, my mind was racing, I felt timid...this was fear! I'm looking all around me...why am I feeling fear? Why does it look soooo far down? What is wrong with me? I couldn't shake the feeling. I was so anxious before, but now standing here, surveying it all, I was scared? I was shocked at my own feelings, and even more so of the fact that I couldn't quell them. Jonathan was talking to me as he was taking his shirt off, I don't know what he was saying, it was just a muffled voice...he was setting down his keys and wallet on the rocks, still talking...I was looking around dumbfounded at the tourists snapping photos and carrying on...my foggy gaze drifts back to him and his words come into focus, "You can't think about it bro, you just have to jump." ...and he was gone, jumped. Over the edge. Seconds later I hear a splash, and I, with everyone else, cautiously dash to the edge to look down. "Oh my God, did he just jump?!" I hear someone say. Jonathan's laughter and an excited, "Yeah! Wooo!" reverberates up the 40ft rock wall, and then to me he yells, "Come on! It's all part of the training bro!" I stepped to edge of the tiny rock platform, all eyes upon me. Nothing was easing the feeling, not even witnessing Jonathan jump. I could barely control myself, thinking, "This is probably what an anxiety attack is like?" All these new emotions were surging through my mind and body, mixing like an unknown cocktail. I had never felt like this before. Did I like this or hate it? I couldn't decide, and then, somewhere between rage and serenity...I just jumped.
My whole body tightened up, every single muscle was contracting at once, I couldn't breath, my heart stopped, everything went quiet...I was flying...no, falling, fast! Just like in your dreams when you are falling and falling, out of control, seemingly forever, it's really only a few short seconds, then you hit and wake up...I hit the water and came up. Holy shit! "Yeaaaahhh! Woooo!" I shouted. Damn that was a crazy feeling! I took the leap. It all happened so fast. A leap of faith. Faith and fear. Jonathan and I swam the bright blue waters towards the rock. "Wait for the water to raise you up, lunge up and grab this point here and pull yourself up!" He said to me. I looked at what he was saying and saw the overhanging rock he was referring to. It would take a complete upper body pull-up with the entire body dangling, nothing to step or post on, all the while holding onto a tiny, slimey, wet rock hold! Before I could think anymore, Jonathan had done it, and was ascending up the vertical rock face. I followed, beginning my very first rock climbing experience! What better place to start, right? A sheering, 40ft jagged rock wall, in the middle of the vast ocean that was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago by violent volcanic activity pushing up from the crust of the earth.
"Just get a good grip, test your holds, follow me," Jonathan said. This was more intense than the actual jump! "Don't look down, and don't worry, if you fall, you're landing in water." Really? That was supposed to be comforting? I just ignore the fact that I would get chewed up or knocked out by the jagged rocks on the way down to that water? Adrenaline surging, mimicking the waters below, my skin was cold, shivering from the combination of the cool Pacific and piercing winds. "This is nuts," I remember thinking, but there was no other way, no elevator, no railing, no stairway. This wasn't an amusement park ride, no safety nets, no rigs, nothing, no one to catch me if I fell. This was the real deal. Hand over hand, foot over foot, I inched my way up, listening to Jonathan's instructions, "Grab here," or "Grab there. You got it" I put my faith in him and focused. Closer and closer to the top, I could sense the forces of gravity, heavier and heavier, and the depth below, a bittersweet feeling as my ascension was nearing completion. A slip at this point would surely be disastrous, crippling me, definitely or indefinitely. I suppressed the thought, I had to, concentrated on the task at hand. I made it, crawled over the edge, ever so happy to feel solid ground underneath my feet. Still shakey, I would go on to do the jump and climb three more times...
I had more encounters with the rocks, on the cliffs. Encounters, aka near death experiences. These were serious lessons in humility. I remember Jonathan saying, "I'd like you to get comfortable with this, you can't leave here with regrets. No one else I know taps into their Warrior Side like you do" So embracing that Warrior Side, on Oahu standing on China Wall I misunderstood him at the moment, saying "No, don't go," I instead heard "Go" and leaped head first into a massive swell sweeping by the cliffs edge. Instantly I knew I had made a grave judgmental error, as I had sorely mistimed the jump. My plan was to dive in but there was no time once airborne, I attempted to tuck in those few milliseconds before impact to protect... "No! No! No!" Jonathan shouted. The water completely crushed me, swallowed me whole, knocking the wind out of me and nearly rendering me unconscious. It felt like jumping into a brick wall moving at high speed! I was hurting, barely able to keep afloat, but I held it together wadding around until I regained my bearings. Humbled. That same day we went to Sandy Beach, otherwise known as "Broke Neck Beach" ...obviously for a reason. People break their bones and necks the waves are so fierce there. I didn't garner full respect of it's namesake and the power of mother nature's ocean until I took one of these huge waves wrong. Not experienced enough, I was slammed violently down into the beach, buried with limitless sand and water, for seemingly minutes...I held my breath, tucked away, protecting and riding helpless until the wave was done punishing me. Immediately one of the life guards got on the mic and lectured to the beach about how dangerous this beach was and that people go to the hospital, not to test the waves, etc...that was directly aimed at me, I knew it. Jonathan and his brother laughed. Humbled.
Perhaps my biggest lesson in humility was also my greatest lesson in resolution. Before flying to Oahu we planned out a hike to Wakini Beach to spear fish and camp. The hike was about 1.5hrs, taking roughly 50lbs of gear on our backs each. We made the hike, a beautiful, hot, yet windy day. It was tiring, but nothing too crazy. The crazy began at the edge of the cliff, as we had to descend down to the beach. Jonathan, without hesitation, starts mapping out how to lower down. I, on the other hand, survey the area, looking over the edge I couldn't believe my eyes. It was so far down, 10x further down than the water at South Point! Only this time it's death rock at the bottom! Jonathan throws his weight belt onto a ledge, points out some sketchy instructions, "We'll hit here, and just keep zig-zagging down. Just test your footing and holds real good." I was frozen, on my butt slowly scooting down, loose soil and rock crumbling beneath me. I reached out to my side and wiggled a hold...the rock broke loose. "Hey, don't do that" is the response I get from Jonathan. "We're not doing this, there has to be another way," I said. "No, we'll be fine, come on bro." I'm pretty much freaking out. I don't freak out. This isn't safe. This isn't smart. All my instincts were firing red flags....Jonathan continues to descend. I try again, but I can't talk him out of it. He may be going, but I know that I'm not at all comfortable doing the climb, with only an hour, maybe of total rock climbing experience under my belt? No chance.
"I'm going to recon and see if there is a better way," I tell Jonathan. I make my way alongside the edge of the cliff, glancing down and over periodically for a better grade. There has to be. Several hundred yards down I finally find a path. I see previous rope used so I start my way down, checking out the route. It's much better than the sheer vertical face where Jonathan's at, and I'm making good time. Halfway down I start thinking, "Should I go back up and run and tell Jonathan?" We had been separated for some time now, I was starting to wonder if he was ok. As I keep descending, my mind starts racing..."I shouldn't have left my partner. What if he's in trouble? What if he has fallen?" Horrible, yet logical thoughts. I hurry my pace, faster and faster. I make it to the bottom, sprinting now, hurdling rocks and the kiawe torns and ducking through the trees, I had to get to the beach. I make the clearing and start looking up as I run. I can't see anything. My gosh, it is so far up there! So much farther than we perceived! This isn't good. I plug my way through the sand to the top of the dune, my gaze is frantic. My mind is churning. I can't see him...then, up in front of me on the top of the huge fallen rocks in front of the cliff I make out some contrasting material. My heart sinks...what is it? ...as I sprint towards it. I think it's one of our packs, but is Jonathan's body down here too? Coming closer I see it is a pack, battered, with it's contents scattered everywhere. "He lost a pack, did he lose his own footing too???" I'm frantically looking around for the second pack...hoping, praying not to see a body with red shorts. Jonathan was wearing red shorts...I don't see any. "Ok, he's not down, thank God, but where is he?" Back on the top of the dune I peal my head back again, looking up, trying to locate him. He has to be up there somewhere. "Jonathan! Jonathan!" I yell. Finally my eyes lock on to a tiny arm the size of an ant leg, waving back and forth. "I see him!" I thought. "You have to go back up! There is a better way! You can't make it down there! I'm coming up to get you!" I didn't know if he heard me, it was so far away and so windy, his arm just kept waving the same. I could see where he was at on the face, not even a quarter of the way down...it was not good, he was stuck, with a large flat expanse directly beneath him. He only had 100ft of rope if he did tie off...this cliff had to be easily +400ft!
All of this was happening so fast, no time to think, only react. I had to get to him quick, had to save him. "I hope he doesn't try to continue down. Did he hear me?" My mind was racing. As fast as my legs could carry me I ran back to the path and with a furious pace I started ascending back up, instantaneously becoming an expert rock climber. I was out of breath, the lactic acid burn in my muscles was forcing shut-down, but I kept the pace...I went faster. I had to get to him. I had to go! I was just reacting, loads of adrenaline pouring into my system, I became superhuman in that moment. A real life Spiderman. Along the way I snatch a rope, and running back along the cliff side towards Jonathan I again yell for him. "Get the fuck up here man," I say in relieved tone as I hear him, finally able to communicate after being disconnected. I toss him the rope, pull the gear up carefully, as to not dislodge any rocks, and then up he came. I felt such a combination of joy and anger. I was so glad to be walking and talking to my friend again after the terrifying moments before, but I was also enraged. "What were you thinking?! You know all I could think about was how would I be able to tell your pregnant wife and four kids that she's a widow now!?!? That I let her husband die?!" "I'm sorry man, I'm sorry," he replied. "I shouldn't have put you through that...that was stupid. I misjudged it. I was humbled. I have a problem with this stuff, please still be my friend." I continued to lay into him. "Please just punch me bro," he said. My point was made, we both agreed that was a close one, we laughed and were just glad to be alive.
On the beach we set up camp, gathered the scattered remains of our fallen pack, discovering that virtually all of our water was in it...and all the different bottles had busted. 3 liters for the night and next day, gone. This was to prove challenging, I knew we could be hurting. The cooler we carried had a small amount of food in it and luckily one 16oz bottle of water and about 6oz of juice. This excursion had just about turned into a serious survival scenario, and with all my countless hours logged watching Bear Grylls, Survivorman, and Dual Survivor shows, I didn't want to have to test my water purifying knowledge techniques. We settled on the fact that we would have to cut our return short, head back first thing in the morning, leaving all of our gear on the beach, to avoid total dehydration. Until then however, we needed more food, and daylight was running out. We geared up and hit the water, spears in hand. Snorkling in rough waters, staying afloat, diving, and not getting slammed into treacherous volcanic rock all at the same time for over two hours proved difficult, but I met the challenge. This was my very first time at any of it. Swimming out there, several times getting nearly overwhelmed, I could see how one could drown easily. It was tough. You had to keep your composure and not freak out, as much as your natural inclination was to do just that. It can be a very scary feeling. Mentally I honed in, I had to... I was exhausted, staying afloat, hunting, not touching down for so long, while already dehydrated from the day's hike? Brutal. I was cramping, and although struggling, I embraced it, loved being out there with all those species, a whole other world to me with fresh eyes. Jonathan was impressed, said I was a fish in water.
I shot my first fish on my second attempt. It was later in the hunt, we hadn't been able to see anything exceptionally worthy, so I speared the next biggest thing I could. We had decided to head back to shore, night was gaining on us. On the way, my fish wiggled free of my grasp, still alive, so I chased it. In the process I lost my sights, got in front of the treacherous rock, and before I could do anything else a series of waves slammed into me, pounding me against the jagged edges..."Swim away from the rocks!" I could hear Jonathan shouting, I was damn sure doing my best, but the ocean was relentless, unforgiving. I weathered the storm, survived, luckily. Another close one. My fish and mask, however, did not. A bruised ego and body, crawling onto shore I collapsed, exhausted, and again, so happy to be on solid ground.
Jonathan scored a menpachi fish, so with that, and gathering opihi, (a native Hawaiian clam) we ate actually quite well that night. We crashed out early to the noise of wild goats and thoughts of the arduous hike back in the morning. I woke underneath the warming sun, the same sun that threatened to finish depleting us in just a few hours. Jonathan, upon reconing the area one last time, prayed up on the high rocks for some water. By God's hand he was answered, as we saw a group of fisherman kayaking out towards us. What a stroke of fate. They parted with 1.5 liters for us. With that, I convinced Jonathan we didn't need to leave our gear, we could make it back. "Come on man, we need to do this. We came with this stuff, we leave with this stuff. Let's complete the journey. Full circle." It still proved very difficult, ascending back up the cliff side with all that extra weight, tired, hands and feet raw, and even with the generous water gift, still dehydrated. I could do great things on the mats, push the limits in the gym or with reps, but this was completely different. It was difficult to walk, just to continue. I had never been pushed this way. My next rep was just an actual step. There was no giving up. I couldn't just stop, put the barbell down, or tap out, stop the workout. There was no coach, no ref, no bell or timer, no escape. None of that. We had to go, had to finish, no other option. A pure test of resolution.
A strong resolution leads to victory. Lanakila. I needed it for my final test on the islands. A lesson of intention. For years now, I have been wanting the chance to climb a coconut tree and pull one down. A simple task, yes. To some it may sound funny, meaningless or futile, but what it represents is powerful. The tree is a symbol of life. So versatile, throughout history it has proven to administer and save life, and thought sacred by many religions. The Hindu goddess of well-being and wealth, Lakshmi is always shown holding coconuts. For me, to grow up throwing hay in fields in Kansas, just dreaming to have opportunities to one day, be in some place to stand at the foot of a coconut tree...this was a coming of age. This represented my life, my hard work, my resolve. I knew climbing the tree and taking the trophy, there would always be something different about me. I failed in my first attempt. I tried to bear-hug climb it, only burning out my arms near the top, then holding on trying to regain strength, but only zapping more and more of it. I slithered down, tearing skin off, pissed. Had I just blown my shot? My flight for the Mainland was leaving in a couple hours and this was it. I couldn't afford to fail again, physically I'd be done. I had one more shot.
I paced, shaking my arms, trying to pull the blood back out of them. I looked the tree up and down, gazing at the prizes awaiting at the top. So close. No shoes, no gloves, no pegs, no knife, nothing to help me complete the task. Man vs tree. One on one. My body was beat up from all the work and warrior training on this "vacation," my resolve was shaken. I was not going to let this defeat me. I paced some more, mentally firing back, my senses and awareness heightened... then, with a decisiveness I strutted to the tree, put my hands around it, hiked my bloody feet up, one by one, hand to foot, and ran up that tree. I locked my legs at the top and managed to monkey-paw three coconuts down! I had done it, the final test. Full circle. Over the past eleven days I had been subjected to all new things, elements, sensations, tests, and lessons...lessons in fear & faith, humility, resolution, and now intention. I called upon my Warrior Side to meet them all head on, with a smile. A softer side was met too, as the kids taught me about lenity and compassion. I learned so much, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Unforeseen, I had grown exponentially, not on the mats, where I was used to, but out in the wild on the sands, cliffs and in the ocean... I may not have completed my World Championship quest yet, but I had victory. Lanakila. The Hawaiian way.