By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Contributor
Ryan Shimabukuro might have missed the chance to become one of the world’s best elite-level coaches had it not been for a timely invitation to a birthday party.
The Honolulu-born athlete-turned-coach shared the unlikely turns in his life that came to define him — his parents’ sacrifice, his rise to U.S. Nationals Sprint Team coach, his marriage, and the heart attack that taught him how to appreciate all of it.
“My dad was watching the 1980 Winter Olympics on TV. That’s when Eric Heiden won all five individual speed skating gold medals in Lake Placid, New York, and made Olympic history,” recalls Shimabukuro, who was only six years old at the time.
Five years later, following a party at the Pearl City Chuck E. Cheese, Shimabukuro and his friends headed to Hawaii’s newly opened, first-ever ice-skating rink. “We went to the Ice Palace and skated for a couple hours. I fell in love with it right away. My friends and I started going every week, but I liked to go fast.
“I saved my money from my paper route and finally had enough to buy a pair of hockey skates and enroll in a speed skating class.”
In 1987, he went to his first training camp in Marquette, Michigan. The head coach was Diane Holum, who had trained his idol, Olympian Eric Heiden. “I learned in that one week what it truly means to be a speed skater, the kind of training it requires,” said Shimabukuro, who was about 13 years old at the time.
“On the flight home, I said to my parents, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do.’ They were very supportive.” It soon became apparent that Ryan, the youngest of four children, would have to move from Hawaii if he was serious about training for long-track speed skating. A coach from Los Angeles told his parents, “If Ryan has any shot at making it to the Olympics, he has to move to Wisconsin.” They took out a $10,000 loan, quit their jobs in Hawaii, and moved to Waukesha.
“The first year was rough on Mom,” he remembers. “She got frostbite on her ears and slipped on the ice and broke her wrist. She tried to bribe me to quit skating and go back home. “I’ll buy you the best custom-made surfboard. Let’s just go home.” Eventually, however, she learned how to live on the Mainland and grew to love it.”
Ryan, meanwhile, made the Junior National Team and graduated from high school in Waukesha in 1991. His parents moved back to Honolulu at a time when his aging Nisei grandparents could use some help. Shimabukuro is a fourth-generation Japanese American. His great-grandfather’s family was from Okinawa and Okazaki, Aichi-ken, and great-grandmother was from Iwakuni, Yamaguchi-ken.
Shimabukuro competed as an athlete until after the 1998 trials, when he began coaching. He was promoted to head coach for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and moved to Salt Lake City, where the U.S. speed skating team is based.
He met his wife, Hideko, originally from Hachinohe in Aomori, in 2002. She was a volunteer, helping to translate and coordinate for a visiting Japanese skater. They have two children, Taylor, 24, and Faith, 22.
The Rafu Shimpo caught up with Shimabukuro as he relaxed after another day of prepping American athletes for international competition in Norway. At that point, he hadn’t had a day off in five weeks. However, the memory of long track speed skater Erin Jackson’s victory in Beijing was still fresh in his mind. Jackson made history, becoming the first black female to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.
Shimabukuro met Jackson in 2017. She was 25. That should have been the twilight of her career, yet she was preparing to embark on a new discipline, skating on ice for the first time.
“She was able to put her ego aside. She’s a very humble person and was willing to do whatever it took to make the transition to the ice. She became a student of the sport. What motivates Erin is the desire to keep improving and reaching higher levels, both physically and mentally.”
Shimabukuro is optimistic about others on the USA team as well. “We have a big talent pool and a high-performance team with competitors like Kimi Goetz, Joe Mantia, and Brittany Bowe.”
Coaching such stellar athletes can be all-consuming. The stress finally took its toll in 2019 when, at the age of 46, Shimabukuro suffered a heart attack. “I had to put things in perspective. Tomorrow is not promised. My cardiologist said I had to figure out how to reduce the stress.”
As with everything else he does, Shimabukuro took control. He put his family first, relied more on his staff, and began working reasonable hours. “I’m lucky that I get a second chance.”
In his 24th year of coaching professionally, he’s able to say, “I feel blessed. I still love coaching. I’m still able to take the journey with the athlete, (but) we all have an expiration date.”
Still, he can’t help thinking ahead to 2030. Salt Lake City has put in a bid for the Winter Olympics. “As long as I keep my health, I’m hoping there’s another role for me.”