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Vol. 16, no. 3
June/July 2013


Flight Instructor 
Story by Sonny Ganaden
Photos by Greg Vaughn


Ryan Shimabukuro hunches forward,
completely focused on the body flying toward him. On the ice is Heather Richardson, the fastest female speed skater in the world. She “strokes” down the marble-white slick like a real-life superhero in a Lycra bodysuit, red hair blown parallel to the ice. Ryan’s standing on skates at the outside of the turn, and he barely raises his voice as she flies towards him at thirty mph. “Don’t get edgy,” he says. The silver glove on her left hand hovers an inch above the ice as she accelerates through the turn, cross-stepping in loose, strong strokes. A blink and she’s gone, ripping a Heather Richardson-size gust of wind behind her.


“Good job last run,” says Ryan as Heather glides back toward him after her sprint. “If you do four sprints during practice, just do the last one full out. Then a little time in the weight room.” Ryan next heads over to the track to work with Brittney Bowe, who’s doing squats with her waist tethered to the bleachers by a rubber cable. Ryan presses a Whiffle ball bat to the inside of her knee. “If you feel pressure as you come down, your knee is coming in a bit,” he tells her as she focuses on perfecting her one-legged squat.


“Every skater has different cues,” Ryan says. “It takes a few years to get to know each athlete and how to make her go faster than she thought she could.” But if anyone can encourage an athlete to break her personal barriers, it’s Ryan. He has been the US speed skating sprint team head coach for the last eleven years. His skaters have earned 144 international medals, including four Olympic medals, making Ryan one of the longest-serving and most successful American Olympic coaches of the modern era in any sport. “There are two things that are tough at this level,” he says. “I have to communicate similar things in ways that each athlete will respond to. It’s also tough to get athletes ready for competition and know how to get them ready every time.” It doesn’t hurt his chances, though, that the sport he happens to coach is an adrenaline junkie’s dream. “This sport is addicting,” he smiles. “Who doesn’t like to go fast?”