“The Flyin’ Hawaiian” continues to help others soar

Colin Sewake
Special to The Hawai’i Herald

A few months ago, the world was focused on 2,871 athletes from 91 teams who competed in a record 109 events at the XXIV Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. I eagerly checked the official website daily to keep abreast of the event schedule and medal count. I searched for the speed skating event schedule, in particular, and names of the Team U.S.A. athletes that were competing each day.

If you read my Aug. 7, 2020, article for The Hawai‘i Herald, you learned about my friendship with U.S. National Sprint Team coach for U.S. Speedskating, Ryan Shimabukuro, from our “hanabata days” (small kid time). Every weekend, Shimabukuro would visit his grandparents who lived down the street from where I grew up in lower Wahiawä. I would see him riding his bike all by himself as he would speed around the loop throughout the day. An invitation to play with me and my friends would later turn into a lifetime friendship.

Shimabukuro and I spent almost every weekend playing together in our elementary school years – riding our bikes, watching MTV (Music Television), acting out Army movies in his grandparent’s backyard and spinning around on large pieces of cardboard to work on our breakdancing moves.

Childhood friends, Colin Sewake (left) and Ryan Shimabukuro. (Photos courtesy of Colin Sewake)

Several years later, life’s events would take us on different paths. I started attending Wahiawä Intermediate School and a couple years later, Leilehua High School. Shimabukuro started to spend time on the ice at Ice Palace next to Aloha Stadium from 1985 after initially getting the spark from watching U.S. speed skater, Eric Heiden. His inspiration grew from Heiden’s competition in the 1980 Winter Olympics, where he wore a gold skate suit and went on to win five individual gold medals, set four Olympic records and one world record.

Looking back, Shimabukuro’s quest to earn a place as a tropical island boy on the U.S. National Sprint Team for U.S. Speedskating and desire to compete in the Olympics was something like the 1993 movie, “Cool Runnings,” which was loosely based on a true story about the Jamaica National Bobsled Team who debuted in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Shimabukuro trained for four to five hours on Saturdays and delivered the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper to pay for his skating equipment, lessons and training camps.

Shimaburkuro’s first long track race when he was 16 years old in 1989 at the Wisconsin Olympic Rink in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I didn’t see much of Shimabukuro once I started intermediate school so it was a pleasant surprise to catch him twice on “Hawaii’s Super Kids” hosted by Andy Bumatai in 1987 and later on “The Hawaiian Moving Company” hosted by Michael W. Perry in 1993 as I was finishing up classes at the University of Hawai‘i.

Just before I graduated from high school in 1989, Shimabukuro moved to Marquette, Michigan, to train for six months while continuing his high school studies. After a brief return to Hawai‘i, he and his parents moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, where Shimabukuro graduated from high school in 1991 and earned a position on the National Junior Long Track Team. He first started trying out for the Olympics in 1992 and 1994. And then in 1998, he skated in the first week of the U.S. Olympic Trials, but was soon derailed after falling ill to pneumonia. He was unable to continue into the second week and made the heartbreaking decision to hang up his skates.

What seemingly felt like crushed dreams turned into the start of a new adventure. His coaching career began when 11 skaters requested him as their personal coach within a month of his plans to return to Hawai‘i.

I caught up with my childhood friend again when I co-hosted the Hawaii United Okinawa Association’s “Yuntaku Live” program on April 12 and learned more about his coaching career.

Shimabukuro became the Midwest Regional Development coach for U.S. Speedskating until 2002. He had a lot of fun but admits he was really inexperienced so he went ahead and got his Level I certification in coaching within a couple months. He also had to learn the art of separation because he was now coaching some friends who were previously teammates, so a chain of command had to be established. There was a lot of growth in the first four years as Shimabukuro had to find and develop his coaching style and philosophy. He acknowledges he had a lot of great mentors to emulate and always received their support and advice.

Also as the Junior National Team coach, Shimabukuro traveled with skaters to junior world championships and country matches in Europe and Asia where he was able to develop as a coach on the international stage. Wanting to do well on that level as a stepping stone to the senior level was always his mindset, but the consequences weren’t as dire if things didn’t go well.

Shimabukuro’s experience led to an opportunity to become the National Sprint Team coach for the next 12 years in Utah. He didn’t feel ready to coach the national team, therefore held back on applying for the position, which upset a high performance director who saw great potential in him. The director contacted Shimabukuro to encourage him to apply, saying that if he didn’t take the position now, he would never be ready. Shimabukuro decided to submit his resume and was hired two months later. He felt he had more growing to do, but the skaters also wanted to grow with him.

Attending the Olympics in 2006 was Shimabukuro’s first time as head coach. Although it was in a different role, he was able to live out his childhood dream of attending the Olympics. Coaching gave him a second chance that he thought he would never have. After inheriting a strong team consisting of some Olympic medalists and World Champions from 2002, he told himself he couldn’t botch things up so he buckled down and exerted 110% effort. Shimabukuro commented that at this level, one-one hundredth of a second is the difference between getting a gold medal, silver medal, bronze medal, or no medal at all. “Any misstep, and you’re out of the game.”

The team did well that year. Joey Cheek won gold in the 500m and silver in the 1000m race. Along with another coach and the other athletes, the team came away with seven medals. Although Shimabukuro wasn’t his coach at the 2006 Olympics, Shani Davis was the first African American to win a gold medal in an individual event (1000m) at the Winter Olympic Games and also took silver in the 1500m event. Shimabukuro later became his coach and helped him defend the 1000m gold medal and win another silver medal in the 1500m event at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

That kind of success doesn’t always happen, and Shimabukuro credits it to being surrounded by a great staff and great people. He remarked that every Olympics is different and that he always tries to surround himself with good people because success never stands alone. “Whether you’re the coach or the athlete, you need a lot of good people around you to succeed.”   

I was always curious about the training for that level of competition so I asked Shimabukuro about their typical regimen. The skaters are not on ice all-year round because of the cost involved. They normally start the season the first week of May and spend lots of time biking and running and doing weight training and dry land exercises to simulate the straight away and corners of the track. Inline skating on wheels is used as supplemental skating training, and the tree dance, which involves pulling on a nylon strap tied to a pole, develops leg muscle strength by simulating the corner position on ice. Skating specific muscles, according to Shimabukuro, take a long time to develop and can’t all be maintained by only skating on ice. He’s much more meticulous now about how athletes execute the exercises and is rewarded in seeing athletes develop and watching their hard work pay off.

Coaching at the Olympic level requires much discipline and a strong philosophy and set of values. Shimabukuro shared the following:

Listen and don’t just react. Skaters also have good ideas so the conversation with them strengthens and deepens the bonds between coach, skaters, colleagues and staff.

Be passionate about what you pursue in life. Things aren’t always going to be fun and there will be setbacks. But if it’s something you’re passionate about, it makes hard days more manageable and you’ll always find a way to stand back on your two feet when you get knocked down. The rise to success is not always linear.

Finish what you start; be committed to what you do. Shimabukuro’s definition of excellence is hard work over a long period of time.

Be on time; if you can’t be on time, be early! Punctuality was a lesson learned from delivering the Honolulu Star-Bulletin where he sometimes overslept and customers would call his house, which would wake up his parents and siblings. People paid for that service and depended on him.

That mindset has continued to result in more recent payoffs. At the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Brittany Bowe won her first individual Olympic medal by taking bronze in the 1000m event and remains the World Record holder and defending World Champion. Erin Jackson became the first African American woman to win a Winter Olympic individual gold medal (500m event). Joey Mantia secured a bronze medal as a member of the Men’s Team Pursuit. On the way home, Bowe (1000m), Jackson (500m), and Mantia (1500m) all captured season titles at the World Cup Finals in Heerenveen, Netherlands. 

Shimabukuro at the Masters Speed Skating Camp in 2015.

Getting a medal means a lot. According to Shimabukuro, if you don’t win in a championship event like the Super Bowl, you can still try the following year. In the Olympics, one may not get another shot at it in four years. In 24 years of coaching, he’s produced skaters who have won seven Olympic medals (three gold, two silver, two bronze), three World Sprint Championship titles, six World Single Distance Championship titles, seven World Records, and 16 overall World Cup titles. Shimabukuro himself received a medal in 2010 when Shani Davis presented him the Order of Ikkos Medal, named after the first Olympic coach in Greek mythology and awarded by Olympic medal athletes to someone who inspired them or played a significant coaching role in their success.

Shimabukuro has been decompressing from the busy season and recharging his batteries while reflecting on the team’s recent accomplishments and renegotiating contracts. The Flyin’ Hawaiian will continue to help others soar on ice at the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy and in their individual lives.

Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. There, he met his future wife, Keiko, and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin is now retired from the Air Force and the Air Force Reserves. He and Keiko have two children and live in Yomitan.


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