Walking by Ryan Shimabukuro during the long-track speed skating World Cup event last week in Calgary, Canada, veteran skater Joey Mantia offered the longtime U.S. Speedskating coach some advice.
“Hey man, relax,” Mantia said.
The three-time Olympian wasn’t being chippy. His concern about Shimabukuro, the man he credits for boosting Team USA’s on-ice performance as well as Mantia’s own confidence, was genuine.
Almost exactly five months earlier, while driving home from an all-too-short camping getaway before submerging himself in an intensive training block, Shimabukuro suffered a heart attack. So though the Americans were five stops into a six-stop World Cup tour, Shimabukuro was making his first rink-side appearance of the season.
His second will be this weekend at the Utah Olympic Oval, where his athletes will compete against the world’s best in the International Skating Union’s World Single Distance Championships. Shimabukuro’s mere presence there, several of his athletes say, improves their chances at a medal.
“It’s been great having him back. It’s a different vibe having him around,” Mantia, 34, said. “I’m much more confident when he’s around. I think knowing also that he’s healthy on a personal level is much more relaxing than having to worry about him. You never know what you’re going to get with a heart attack. You think the worst.”
Shimabukuro, 46, said he was probably the most relaxed he had been in a year when he started to feel chest pains while driving back from a camping trip with his wife and several friends. The pains got so bad that he had to pull over and lie on the ground, his eyes closed in agony. A friend who had experienced a heart attack a number of years earlier recognized his symptoms and urged him to go to the hospital in Vernal. Shimabukuro and his wife were life-flighted to Salt Lake City that afternoon and the next day he underwent an angioplasty and had a stent inserted into his heart.
Shimabukuro said his doctor warned him he had to lower his anxiety levels.
“I asked him, ‘How do I do a high stress job with low stress?’” Shimabukuro said. “He said, ‘You have to figure that out.’”
That’s what Shimabukuro has spent most of the last five months working on. He is in his second stint of a 17-year career working various jobs within U.S. Speedskating, which includes coaching the team in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics. He conceded that carrying the aspirations of elite athletes on his shoulders caused him a great deal of anxiety. He also said because of changing in policy within the national organization, he has had few opportunities to unwind since returning to coach the USA team in 2018.
Matt Kooreman, the program director for the long-track team and a former coach, absorbed a majority of Shimabukuro’s responsibilities during his absence. Yet even from his sickbed, Shimabukuro would analyze videos of his athletes and exchange texts with them.
He admits he’s “a victim of my own creation” but insists his lifestyle has changed.
“Just because I’m making changes doesn't mean I’m not all in anymore. I’m still as committed as I was before, it just has to be in a different way,” he said. “It doesn’t make it any less stressful. The expectations are still there. I just have to manage it in a productive way.”
Kimi Goetz said her skating hasn’t suffered from lack of attention from the coach. The 25-year-old who jumped from short track to long track skating last year joined the USA’s Mia Kilburg-Manganello, Paige Schwartzburg and Brianna Bocox in racing to a group-best time and sixth place overall in the women’s team pursuit Friday. She also skated a personal-best in taking fifth in the individual 500.
“I think the changes he made are more like he’s not working until 11 p.m. at home and things his wife would notice more than us,” she said. “He’s still very hands on with us.”
Just seeing Shimabukuro’s smiling face around the track has made a difference, both Goetz and Mantia said.
It’s a small sample, but with Shimabukuro looking on, Goetz skated a personal-best time in the women’s 500 meters to place ninth in Calgary. Furthermore, Mantia secured his first medal in an event other than the mass start in more than a year when he took bronze there in the 1,500.
“We’ve had others fill in,” Mantia said, “but it’s just not quite the same as when you have your coach around.”
Shimabukura said he might need a few more reminders to relax this week as he and his team faces the pressure of the biggest meet of the year, but that’s just temporary. After surviving that scare last September, the coach said he’s trying to follow Matia’s advice and remember to relax.
“I don’t take for granted that I have a second chance at life,” he said. “I’m not going back to the way I was before.”
ISU WORLD SINGLE DISTANCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Graeme Fish, CAN, 12:33.868^
Ted-Jan Bloemen, CAN, 12:45.010
Patrick Beckert, GER, 12:47.934
Women’s team pursuit
Also: 6. USA, 2:59.796
Pavel Kulizhnikov, RUS, 33.727
Ruslan Murashov, RUS, 33.995
Tatsuya Shinhama, JPN, 34.035
Nao Kodaira, JPN, 36.692
Angelina Golikova, RUS, 36.741
Olga Fatkulina, RUS, 36.789
Also: 5. Kimi Goetz, USA, 37.183; 7. Erin Jackson, USA, 37.283; 13. Brittany Bowe, USA, 37.654
• Saturday, 12:30 p.m. (Women’s 5K, Men’s 1,000, Women’s 1,000, Men’s team pursuit)
• Sunday, 12:30 p.m. (Women’s 1,500, Men’s 1,500, Women’s mass start, Men’s mass start)