Kaiulani Garcia admits that at times she can be her own worst enemy during the heat of competition in a wrestling match.
However, the Gilroy High junior—who has just two losses in 20-plus matches this season—took a huge step mentally in winning the 152-pound division in the Napa Valley Girls Classic at Vintage High on Jan. 6-7.
“That was the highlight of my season so far because that was the first time I saw improvement in my tournament wrestling where I was able to check myself in matches,” said Garcia, who competes in the Central Coast Section Southern Regional on Feb. 11 at Watsonville High. “I was able to adapt during matches whereas in previous tournaments I would psyche myself out a lot. If I got pushback, I would get timid and not wrestle to my capability.
“But in Napa when I got pushback, I actually got excited when I was out of my comfort zone. I actually wrestled the way I knew how I could and was able to calm myself down and wasn’t hesitant in doing any of the stuff I usually do. It was a leap in my wrestling and I improved mentally. I was understanding why I was losing and coming to terms with that, and I also had confidence in the way I was training because I knew why I was losing but also understood I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to get better.”
It’s expected that Garcia will run roughshod over the competition in the Regionals and then run into tougher competition but ultimately prevail in the Masters Finals on Feb. 18. The top four finishers in each weight class in the latter event automatically qualify for the CIF State Championships, where Garcia has unfinished business.
A year ago, Garcia lost a close 3-1 decision to Kalila Shrive of Merrill West in the 160-pound final, and while painful, the defeat has provided plenty of fuel to keep her motivated all season.
“Oh my gosh, motivation to the point where it’s like hurtful to think about it,” Garcia said. “It really pushes me to train the way I need to during practice. It helps me to think about, ‘Well, I lost because of this and I need to change that in practice.’ My coaches will tell me ‘remember how you felt’ and I remember how I felt and I don’t want to feel that way again.”
Garcia’s only two losses this season have come at 160 pounds, not at 150 where she plans on competing for the rest of the season. Those two defeats came in back-to-back tournaments on consecutive weekends, at the Rodeo Girls Invitational on Dec. 10 and then the West Coast Tournament of Champions the next weekend.
In those tournaments, Garcia went a combined 8-2, pinning six of her opponents in the time it takes a world-class sprinter to run 400 meters. However, the dominance Garcia displayed in those matches was offset by her losses, something she was determined to resolve.
“I was tired of losing, tired of feeling sad in the way I wrestled some of those matches,” she said.
Garcia’s turnaround was multi-faceted. First, she was honest with herself about her vulnerabilities, both mentally and physically. Then she got to work on improving her weaknesses to turn them into strengths.
“Now I’m able to keep calm during my matches, and also changed the way I practiced,” she said. “I’m giving a little more thought to how I practice instead of going through the motions.”
Garcia credited the entire GHS coaching staff and in particular Taea Regua, as being key in her improvement. Garcia has become better at setting up shots, is active in hand fighting, positioning and in moving her opponent.
“I make sure to shoot often, but I also throw in a lot of fakes, a lot of snaps, just staying active in hand fighting instead of stale mating, which I would do when I got scared,” she said. “So just breaking that habit in practice, going from inside fake to moving them, snap them and then the shot.”
Garcia is part of a GHS girls wrestling team that has shined, with other standouts including freshman sensations Jaelle Cortez and Tamara Grace, along with stalwarts Valerie Glenn, Mary Jane Porter and Jordyn Perez. The girls train at the same time and in the same room with the boys, and as one can imagine, competition is fierce.
In fact, Garcia is one of a handful of sibling standouts in the program, as her younger brother Kaleo is a freshman on the boys team in the middle weights. Kaiulani said her form is where it needs to be as her state title quest resumes in the CCS South Regional Feb. 11.
“I’m feeling confident,” she said. “I still have areas where I can improve, but by the time State comes, I’ll be where I need to be to reach my goals.”