WEST ALLIS, Wis. » Many people are amazed when they learn U. S. Long Track Speedskating coach Ryan Shimabukuro was born in Hawaii.
“I still get people who can’t believe it,” Shimabukuro said Sunday on the final day of the Singles Distance Long Track Speedskating Competition. “They ask me, ‘Where’s your shorts? Where’s your sunglasses.’ But really, it’s been nothing but a great reception from people who can’t get over that I’m from Hawaii and coaching speedskating.”
And the skaters Shimabukuro coaches couldn’t be happier with the “Flyin’ Hawaiian,” his nickname as a skater.
Shani Davis won two gold and two silver medals in the last two Winter Olympics to become one of the sport’s biggest stars. The Chicago skater is effusive in his praise for Shimabukuro, whom Davis consults after every race even though he has his own coach.
“There’s no one on the ice who dedicates their lives more to the sport than Ryan,” Davis said during this weekend’s competition at the Pettit National Ice Center. “I like Ryan as a coach and as a real positive role model and figure. He’s been there for all the athletes. We try to reciprocate that love and mutual respect for him when we skate hard and get our results.”
Davis is just one of many skaters whose relationship with Shimabukuro is based on respect, admiration, and affection. When three-time Winter Olympian Elle Ochowicz returned to skating this year after a two-year retirement, the Waukesha, Wis., native knew she needed Shimabukuro to succeed.
In just three months, Shimabukuro helped the retired skater regain her form and win a spot on the World Cup team. She finished third in the 1,000 this weekend to make the team.
“Ryan is a great coach,” said Ochowicz, who skated under Ryan in the last two Olympics. “He is super dedicated to each and every one of his athletes. He is super organized. He is so prepared and makes things so easy. He is one of the best sprint coaches in the world and I pushed very hard when I came back to skating to make sure I trained under him.”
His close relationship with skaters stands in sharp contrast to the current upheaval in short track speedskating, which in October led to the resignations of coach Jae Su Chun and his assistant, Jun Hyung Cho. They stepped down over allegations by skaters of physical, emotional and verbal abuse and of ordering skater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of a Canadian rival during a World Cup meet.
There are no such problems with Shimabukuro, who credits his success as a coach to being able to win their trust.
“I think it says a lot that the skaters have so much belief in me,” he said. “I think I’ve earned their trust and respect over the years and that has helped us continue the tradition of excellence within U. S. speedskating. It’s something I’m very proud of.”
His own dedication to skating began in 1980 when he watched Eric Heiden win five gold medals at the Lake Placid Olympics. Shimabukuro began skating at Honolulu’s only ice rink. He became so passionate about the sport that his family moved to Waukesha, Wis., in 1989 when he was in high school so he could begin serious training.
Shimabukuro traded tropical warmth for bitter winter cold — until the Pettit opened in 1993, the skating oval was outside.
“The first time, I couldn’t believe how cold it was,” Shimabukuro said, laughing.
Shimabukuro never made an Olympic team as a skater but he impressed everyone with his desire to master the sport. He quit competition in 1998, but before he could return home was named the Midwest’s development coach. Seven years later he became the junior team national coach and in 2002 the head of the senior team.
In 2006, Shimabukuro became the first athlete or coach from Hawaii to participate in a Winter Olympics. And in a sport in which coaching longevity is rare, Shimabukuro is headed for his third Olympics in 2014.
Shimabukuro has a simple explanation for his success.
“I never forget that my job is to get the skaters where they need to go. It’s not about me. It’s about the athletes,” he said. “I get great buy-in from the athletes and, lo and behold, year after year, I’ve been producing results.”