The idea made sense: Cayla Cabanban would follow older brother Corey into the world of wrestling.
She was 5 at the time. Corey, four years older, went on to a grand-slam career at Saint Louis, a rare four-time state champion. Cayla’s athlete career took different turns, though a mat was still a part of it. She was inducted into the Hawaii Hall of Honor last Sunday as a cheerleader.
“I don’t know how to react. I’m just so blessed because there are a lot of good cheerleaders out there. A lot of hard-working athletes and it just shows all your hard work really does pay off in the end,” she said. “I feel very honored to have this award being the first cheerleader, joining my brother. He got it a couple years back. It is great representing the cheerleaders of Hawaii.”
She will receive a $2,000 scholarship award from Enterprise Holdings and the Hawaii High School Athletic Association.
Cabanban was part of state championship squads in the fall of 2017, ‘18 and ‘19 at Sacred Hearts. Then came the cancellation of the ’20 state tournament. The Lancers won the ILH title in ’21, their fourth in a row. Along the way, Cabanban was a key part of the program’s two JAMz national titles and one national crown in NCA.
Coach Cadey Vakauta was in her first season as head coach when Cabanban was a freshman.
“Coach was going to step down last year, but then I had a had a dream to become a four-time (state champion) like my brother. So she promised to help me achieve that, but obviously, we couldn’t this year,” Cabanban said.
Vakauta eventually stepped down after the season after guiding the program to three state titles and a 2021 ILH crown. She also earned two bachelor’s degrees along the way at the University of Hawaii and HPU.
“It was her dream to be a four-time state champion like her older brother,” Vakauta said. “It’s definitely one of my proudest moments as a coach! Cayla is something special and very deserving of this award. In 2021, she performed the most difficult stunt I’ve seen in Hawaii high school cheerleading history. She’s also the best flyer in the state, but she’s also Hawaii’s sweetheart.”
Sacred Hearts’ dynasty on the cheer mat continued with an influx of new talent. Cabanban’s drive was a crucial element, a spark, that kept the fire alive.
“Aside from her phenomenal skills, Cayla’s heart sets her apart from other elite athletes both past and present. She is extremely respectful and considerate to everyone. She is a leader that doesn’t create followers, but one that creates more leaders,” Vakauta said.
Wrestling was part of family tradition, from her father to her brother.
“My parents (Chris and Kaui Cabanban) wanted to provide a strong foundation for me and my siblings, and they did a very good job of that,” Cabanban said. “I tried wrestling when I was 5 years old. I would cry all the time, wrestling against boys. I went into gymnastics after that. I was 7 years old.”
Gymnastics was a part of her life for seven years.
“It really helped. I know my dad really wanted me to do wrestling. If I did wrestling, I don’t think I would’ve joined cheerleading,” Cabanban said.
In eighth grade, she tried out for cheerleading at Sacred Hearts.
“My parents weren’t really happy about it. They wanted me to stay in gymnastics, but I wanted to try something different. I didn’t have the passion any more (for gymnastics). I would just get hurt a lot. I didn’t want to go to practice anymore,” Cabanban said. “My mom let me try cheer and here I am.”
Cabanban soars as a top flyer, but has a preference for another part of the competitive cheer routine.
“Floor is my favorite event. You do all kinds of flips,” she said.
The moment Cabanban learned about her induction was unforgettable.
“I told my mom, and then I told my coach and I texted my family group chat. My mom said, ‘Oh my gosh! When they tell you?’ She was asking so many questions. My dad was like, ‘Yessah!’ He was excited,” Cabanban said. “I was actually in practice at the time, so I missed the call, so they texted me and I called them back.”
Witnessing her brother’s training regimen, sometimes with workouts twice a day in the offseason, left an imprint on Cabanban.
“For cheerleading, as a flyer, I do more cardio, running and abs. I have to run a lot,” she said. “I don’t really like running. Running is like my worst enemy. I’m forced to run.”
The conversion from gymnast to competitive cheerleader wasn’t instantaneous.
“It was really surprising for me. I didn’t really think I would be a cheerleader or be here right now. I always thought I had do gym. I was at the gym 24/7. It was my second home. I would do private (workouts). One day, it just switched.”
During her freshman year, Sacred Hearts won its first ILH competition at ‘Iolani.
“That’s when I guess history started for Sacred Hearts,” Cabanban recalled. “Melina Oreilly. She worked really hard. She was one of the girls that I looked up to. It was Melina, Tiana (Manabat) and Giana Costa. They were the three seniors. Mina would just lead the team and help us. They graduated in my sophomore year.”
When they went to nationals (JAMz) and won a second time, the squad expanded to include three boys for offseason competition. The school squad graduated six seniors in 2019-20.
“This year we had a lot of underclassmen and the team was very young. It was a struggling, but we made it through the season. We just had a lot of teachings and a lot of talks we had to go through,” Cabanban said.
The nature of preparation during a pandemic made it extremely challenging.
“We did a lot of workouts on Zoom, which is very hard. Once the ILH mandate said we could start practicing together, it was tough. I was not conditioned at all. I was out of shape, but we were running hills, we were doing abs, doing whatever we could. We got to work hard together and learn the routine as fast as we could,” Cabanban said.
She will enroll at the University of Hawaii and join the cheer squad. Already, she has taken on the challenge of competing with cheerleaders who are repeating a year at the NCAA level.
“There is a lot more competition, a lot more people fighting for spots. I’m going to have to work hard this year for my spot on the UH team and keep my spot if I do make it,” Cabanban said.
She had a 3.2 grade-point average entering senior year.
“I had a 3.6 this semester,” Cabanban said. “I want to major in Forensic Science or Criminology. Somewhere in that mix. I have two uncles that are policemen. My family is surprised that I want to go into that, but I like it. I’m ready for it.”
The teamwork, including the bond between a coach and players, made an eternal difference.
“I will miss coach buying me food all the time. We would go anywhere. Jamba Juice. She liked me eating healthy, and I don’t eat healthy,” Cabanban said. “We’d go eat at Jen’s (BBQ) sometimes with the team. My family loves Jen’s. They love meat.”
Cayla Cabanban’s updated Lockdown Staples
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “50 First Dates”
In the prior list (September, 2020), she had no movies listed.
Top 3 food/snack/drink
1. Steak and shrimp, made by dad.
“He puts garlic on top of it. He made it last weekend, on Saturday.”
3. Hot Cheetos.
“I still love Hot Cheetos.”
4. Icee with Li Hing Mui juice, Kaimuki Crack Seed Store
“Crack Seed store up Waialae. It’s close to here and it has li hing mui. It’s so weird because I don’t like vinegar chicken, but I like li hing mui juice.”
5. McDonald’s Cold Brew Frozen.
Top 3 music artists
1. Chris Brown.
2. Rebel Souljahz
New life skill: painting.
“I know how to paint now, on a canvas, but it’s not good. I had a thing for painting in quarantine. I have five paintings at home. My mom used to work by Ben Franklin in Mapunapuna, so I said, ‘Mom, can you get me this?’ She was like, ‘Since when were you into painting?’ I just looked online and the first thing I drew was Winnie the Pooh. I was bored, so I started painting. I like Winnie. Then I drew a sun. Then I drew ‘I like real good vibes’ with a sunflower. Then I asked my friends if they wanted a thing with their name on it. I put her name and then I put tribal (art) on it. I gave it to her (Kelly Aizawl-Smith). Then I drew the guy from ’The Simpsons’, he has spiky hair. Bart. It’s a nice black background. I was bored.”
“My family. My mom and my dad, my brothers, my coaches.”