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Sumo going strong in Hawaii

It's been a long time since the glory days of the sport in the state, but there are some who keep the flame alive

By Cindy Luis

LAST UPDATED: 2:58 a.m. HST, May 6, 2011

It's a lifestyle, not just a sport.

That's how Kena Heffernan was raised, to honor sumo and its traditions. The 37-year-old math teacher at Pacific Buddhist Academy will pass on his knowledge and technique to anyone who will listen and watch and want to learn.

Even if it's a group of first-graders who happen upon an impromptu exhibition, such as the one put on yesterday by muwashi-wearing Heffernan and his brother Jake at Hongwanji Mission School. The young students followed directions to squat, clap, wash hands, open the book and raise arms ... part of the ritual before sumotori set up for the tachi-ai (the initial charge).

Kena Heffernan remembers being that young, going to the Oahu Sumo Club's dohyo in the back yard of John Jacques' home in Hauula, mimicking the movements by his father Roger. Some 30 years later, Kena again is heading to the U.S. Sumo National Championships and U.S. Sumo Open.

This year's competition is June 24 and 25 in Las Vegas. Heffernan, a member of the U.S. National Team, is the only sumotori from Hawaii.

"So much of the competition is about the cost," said Heffernan, who last won his middleweight division in 2005. "That it's in Las Vegas makes it a little easier to get to from Hawaii. I am fortunate I have a family that still lets me do this.

"I think the interest (in sumo) is still here in Hawaii, but it isn't getting the exposure it used to."

Some 20 years ago, Hawaii-raised Akebono, Musashimaru and Konishiki were household names. The bashos were televised live from Japan.

But when the Japan Sumo Association placed restrictions on the number of foreign-born wrestlers in any one stable in 1992, the opportunities for American sumotori were limited. Hawaii lost a cultural connection that was famously established by Maui's Jesse Kuhaulua — known as Takamiyama — who was the first foreign-born sumotori to win a top division championship in 1972.

Heffernan fights for the sport, in and out of the dohyo. The Punahou and Yale graduate sits on an Olympic athletes advisory commission, which acts as a liaison between athletes and their international sports federations.

The goal is to get sumo recognized as an Olympic sport. More than 100 countries are part of the International Sumo Federation.

"I agree that closing the sport (in Japan) has hurt the Olympic movement," Heffernan said. "We're trying to grow the sport in the U.S., but there's still a lot of ‘No, we can't do this, can't do that' from within.

"The Olympics will be in our future. How soon possibly depends on how much coverage the sport continues to get, which is why these tournaments are important."

Heffernan also wants to change the perception of what a sumotori looks like. At 5-foot-11, he is a solid 260.

"I'm doing my best to eliminate the misconception that one needs to be giant to win," said Heffernan, who has won nine national titles, including an open weight division. "I'm going to keep doing this as long as I can, as long as I can stay in shape.

"I think the sport can make a comeback here. We need money, dedicated coaches and dedicated places to train. Right now, the dohyo is anybody's back yard."

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