August 14, 2013
Duluth News Tribune
A blood clot and a Big 12 title for former Denfeld athlete
By Louie St. George III
Oklahoma University gymnast Maile’ana Kanewa’s freshman season did not get off to a storybook start.
The 2012 Duluth Denfeld graduate said her right hand started turning blue midway through last fall. Initially told it was nothing to be concerned about, Kanewa eventually was informed she had a blood clot and would need reconstructive artery surgery. She went under the knife Nov. 7 and missed the first half of Oklahoma’s season while recovering from a procedure that required more than 70 stitches.
During the surgery, a vein was transplanted from one side of Kanewa’s hand to the other. The resulting scar stretches from her palm to the middle of her forearm.
“It’s kind of amazing that they caught that because they said if it had been one more day they would have had to amputate my pinky and maybe even my whole hand,” Kanewa, 19, said by phone, adding that, before surgery, doctors told her she might have to give up gymnastics.
That doomsday scenario, though, never materialized, and Kanewa hardly missed a beat upon her return. In fact, she scored a 9.925 to win the individual vault title in her first collegiate meet, Feb. 22 against UCLA. That set the stage for Kanewa’s brilliant, albeit abbreviated, freshman campaign, which included her winning the Big 12 conference’s individual vault title.
The Sooners were runners-up at the national championships, finishing two-tenths of a point behind Florida. Kanewa said she used her down time to watch video and review her technique. She focused solely on the vault because of the modest amount of stress it places on the hand.
“I mentally did those vaults for three and a half months,” said Kanewa, who was born in Hawaii and moved to Duluth at age 5.
After her surgery, Kanewa decided she wasn’t going to wallow in self-pity. So when her coach, K.J. Kindler, had the Sooners send encouraging text messages, Kanewa balked.
“I told her ‘I don’t want those texts,’ ” Kanewa said. “I didn’t want to feel bad for myself. It was hard, though, let me tell you.”
Not that there’s ever an ideal time for a career-threatening injury, but Kanewa
is glad the ordeal occurred during her freshman year and not, say, when she was a senior. And in the ultimate display of turning a negative into a positive, Kanewa said it gave her a chance to hone her mental strength — a scary proposition for Kanewa’s future foes considering her already bustling physical prowess and steely resolve.
Kanewa’s rapid-fire recovery didn’t surprise her former club coach.
“She had a couple injuries also at the Junior Olympic level and she would bounce back really quickly,” said Kara Waterhouse, who mentored Kanewa at the Gymnastics Academy in Hermantown for eight years. “I guess it didn’t surprise me she came back so quickly because she loves gymnastics. I think her motivated attitude and just her perseverance pulled her through.”
Ironically, Waterhouse, a 2000 Duluth Marshall graduate, competed in gymnastics collegiately at Florida for four years. She said she has no problem pulling for the rival Sooners now that Kanewa is at Oklahoma.
Under Waterhouse’s tutelage, Kanewa was the Regional vault champ in 2011 and 2012 — the region consisted of seven Midwest states. She was on the 2011 Junior Olympic national team and finished 10th in the all-around at the JO nationals in 2012 and third in 2011.
Because of that success, a bevy of scholarship-wielding college coaches came calling, but when Kanewa visited the Oklahoma campus, she knew immediately where she’d be headed after high school.
“I could just picture myself there,” she said. “I looked at my mom and said, ‘mom, I’m coming here. We can visit those other schools, but I’m coming here.’ ”
So far, so good.
Kanewa’s next goal is figuring out how to put together a sophomore encore that will top her freshman season. Fully healthy, she’s chomping at the bit for the year to start.
“Last year after nationals I was saying ‘I can’t wait for the season, I can’t wait for the season.’ My coaches were like ‘slow down,’ but I’m really excited,” Kanewa said. “We have five new freshmen coming in and they’re really good, so we’re definitely thinking national championship.”