One by one on the second night of the Polynesian Cultural Center’s 26th annual World Fireknife Championship on May 11, 2018, each of the tamaiti (children 6-11) and teenage (12-17) “warriors” stepped onto a specially constructed stage in the Hale Aloha Theater to share an impressive range of skill and talent with Samoan fire knives and vie for the titles in their respective divisions.
After the flames died out, the drumming quieted, and championship awards were presented, six open division semifinalists who a panel of judges selected the previous night, competed again for three finalist spots.
Back-to-back wins for the 2018 intermediate division champ
■ Jeralee Galea’i won the 2018 title and repeated her spectacular 2017 intermediate (ages 12-17) division championship.
Jeralee, 17 and a senior at nearby Kahuku High School, is the daughter of David and Grace Galea’i of Hauula, Oahu. David — the 1999, 2000 and 2003 World Fireknife Champion who still performs in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s evening show, Ha: Breath of Life — started training Jeralee when she was about 10 years old.
“I’m really proud of her, and happy for her,” he said. “This will be her last year of competition, because there is no open division competition for women, yet.”
He added that Jeralee, a 2018 Kahuku High graduate, plans to attend Utah Valley University in Orem and major in business.
Other 2018 intermediate division winners
Also placing in the 2018 intermediate division were Isa’ako Milford of Laie, Oahu, 2nd place; and Walter Leota of Apia, Samoa, 3rd place. The other 2018 intermediate division competitors included (in alphabetical order): Areiti Dahlin from Waialua, Oahu; Vincent Galea’i from Laie, Oahu; Dayton I’aulualo-Daoang of Waipahu, Oahu; Laamea Kinimaka and Lohiau Kinimaka from Kapolei, Oahu; Matagi Lilo, Ewa Beach, Oahu; Nery Hunter from Waialua, Oahu; Kekai Nielsen-Cabagason from Kaneohe, Oahu; and Moemoana Schwenke, a young woman from Australia.
The 2018 junior division winners
■ The panel of judges selected Mose Lilo, 10, of Ewa Beach, Oahu, as the top junior division winner for 2018. He previously won runner-up titles in the 2014-2017 World Fireknife Championship events. (His brother, Matagi Lilo was the 2015 and 2017 champion, and a runner-up in 2016).
The other 2018 junior division winners were: Carmine Taetuna-Fautanu, 11, of Kealakekua, island of Hawaii, 2nd place; and Toa Tevaga, 11, from Kaneohe, Oahu, 3rd place.
Other 2018 junior division competitors (in alphabetical order) included: David Galea’i Jr. of Hauula, Oahu (whose sister, Jeralee, won the intermediate division title); Mamalu Lilo from Ewa Beach, Oahu (whose brother won the division title); Toa Milford from Laie, Oahu (whose brother placed 2nd in the intermediate division); Makoa Nielsen-Cabagason, Kaneohe, Oahu; and Lai Tevaga from Kaneohe, Oahu (whose twin brother won 3rd place in the division).
Former champion comments on the competition
Former five-time open division champion Mikaele Oloa of Waialua, Oahu, who also trains about 20 youth in his Mauga Mu fire knife school, said this about the 2018 World Fireknife Championship . . . after 12 of his students competed:
“They did awesome. I am so proud of them. It was hard to keep the tears out of my eyes watching them. They worked so hard every day. I see them every week. I could really see the growth in them spin and just enjoy the brotherhood backstage. Now they have new friends from around the world that they can come back once a year and say hi to.”
Commenting on the open division finalists, Oloa added: “This was a tough year, and it was good to see new faces. Everyone stepped up. They were awesome, solid. Next year, we never know who’s going to come.”
Oloa, who last won the open division championship title in 2016, did not compete this year due to a back injury, but he plans to return to competition in the future.
A bit of World Fireknife Championship history
While this 2018 event is the Polynesian Cultural Center’s 26th annual World Fireknife Championship, we added the intermediate competition two years later, in 1995. The 12-17 age range was the same then, although it was initially called the “junior division.” It was relabeled the intermediate division when the PCC added the current 6-11 age range junior division in 2002. Females started competing in 1995. There have also a duets and groups division from 2008-2013,
For several years now, intermediate-age competitors can choose to “move up” to the open division (ages 18 and above) — and several have done so spectacularly in the past, we add, but once a junior does move up he can’t go back down again.
And finally, Jeralee Galea’i is not the first young woman to win back-to-back World Fireknife Championships: Melanie Lesoa of Siumu, Samoa, won in 2002 and 2003.
Want to read more about our 2018 “We are Samoa” and “World Fireknife Competition” events? Click here!
Story and photos by Mike Foley, who has been a full-time freelance writer and digital media specialist since 2002. Prior to that, he had a long career in marketing communications, PR, journalism and university education. Foley learned to speak fluent Samoan as a Mormon missionary before moving to Laie in 1967 — and still does. He has traveled extensively over the years throughout Polynesia, other Pacific islands, and Asia. He is mostly retired now but continues to contribute to PCC and various other media.
Foley is an original member of the World Fireknife Championship Committee and has covered more than 20 of these competitions.