By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
GARDENA — The Okinawa Association of America was treated to some bona fide star power on Sept. 7 when Olympic athlete Tamari Miyashiro appeared at a meet-and-greet in Gardena.
A member of the U.S. women’s volleyball team, which took silver at the London Games, Miyashiro signed photos, showed off her medal, and answered questions from fans.
In the gold medal match on Aug. 11, the U.S. lost to Brazil 3-1. In the bronze medal match, Japan beat Korea 3-0.
A native of Kaneohe, Miyashiro played volleyball for Kalani High School in Honolulu and was selected as All State in her junior and senior years. At the University of Washington, she was twice named National Defensive Player of the Year.
The 25-year-old medalist, who stands 5-foot-7, comes from an athletic family. Her mother, Joey, and sister, Tehani, played volleyball for University of Hawaii; her father, Gordon, played football at Northern Michigan University; and one of her three brothers, Ainoa, played volleyball at Graceland University in Michigan.
Describing her parents’ ethnic background, she said, “My mom is the mixed one. She’s Hawaiian, Chinese, Irish and English. My dad is full Okinawan.” So when asked if she is Japanese, she responds, “I’m Okinawan.”
Miyashiro was taking advantage of her post-Olympic break to visit her family in Hawaii and her old team and coaches in Seattle. “It’ll be another three years probably before I get another break like this,” she said. “I’m kind of resting my body, resting my mind, just kind of hanging out … Then I’ll rejoin the team, probably in January, and try to make another run at the Olympics.”
With Vicky Oshiro-Nishiuchi serving as moderator, she answered questions from the audience.
Miyashiro passed the medal around, and some in the attendees tried it on.
“It’s pretty heavy …. Some of our teammates that got the silver in Beijing said this medal is huge compared to last time,” she noted.
On the way her team got the silver, Miyashiro commented, “It’s pretty crazy because … you lose but you get a medal. For the gold and the bronze (matches), you win and you get a medal. For us, it’s kind of bittersweet at the beginning, but now you look back and the silver medal is the silver medal, so I’m very proud of that now.”
Answering some frequently asked questions, she said, “My name’s not on it” but “Women’s Volleyball” is inscribed on the medal; she has “no idea” how much the medal is worth; she doesn’t keep it in a safe; and “I didn’t bite it.”
Whenever she takes the medal through airport security, she added, “They always look at me and look back at it. They’re confused why I have that because I’m always so small compared to everyone. But today they asked me if it was real. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s real.’ Then I don’t think they believe me, but they say ‘Congratulations’ anyway.”
The Olympic Experience
When Miyashiro took part in the opening ceremonies in London, it was “hard to believe” she was really there.
As for the competition, she said, “Nothing prepares you for the Olympics. It’s prestigious, it’s intense, it’s exciting. I think you can also fall the farthest from the Olympics. It’s that high but also people call it the letdown … You can just hit this high, high point and then the next thing you know when you’re not playing, it’s like ‘Wow, what do I do now?’ That part you kind of have to juggle.
“Competing in the Olympics … you are so nervous and there’s no way around it. Even the girls that have been to a couple Olympics, same thing. There’s no comparison. We’ve played in so many big tournaments before, we’ve played in longer tournaments … (but) it’s just so different at the Olympics …
“You could feel how special it is to everyone around you, the teams that you’re playing, the people working in the Olympics … You think you’re ready and when you show up at the gym, it’s like ‘Whoa, what’s happening?’ That whole Olympic experience is pretty priceless … I think if you ask us on the team, everyone would describe it differently, but I guess that’s how I would describe it.”
Miyashiro was impressed by the Olympic Village, where most athletes (except the high-profile ones) lived. “There’s a gigantic dining hall, kind of like you’re back in college. That’s a cool experience. It’s very humbling to be around that many good athletes all the time … These are some of the best athletes in the world … Sometimes we’d be watching them sprinting and then like three hours later we’d see them eating dinner …
“We’re all brought together by one goal. Everyone wants to win a gold medal … You look at each other and you can just see, or you can imagine, how much hard work we’ve all put in and how special it is to each of us.”
There was very little down time, she recalled. “An off day was not really off for us. We still had to practice, we still had to train, we still had to get treatment, take care of our bodies and recover. We were there for about three weeks, we only played for about two weeks, so we played every other day.
“I got to sightsee one day. It was the last day before we left. After we were done competing, we had some family time, a lot of our families came out to London, we could see a bunch of them, hang out and kind of share the moment with them, so that was nice.”
During the games, she noticed “how your priorities change when you become an athlete. Every little thing that you do is based around your performance. You get tunnel vision … All you think about is ‘Is this going to affect my performance?’ So what I eat, what I drink … where I sleep, how often I sleep … all these things are so important to our performance, so everything kind of takes a back seat.”
She did not attend the closing ceremonies, but saw them on TV. The show featured many classic rockers, such as The Who, that she was not familiar with. Also, the torch was passed to Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Olympics.
Miyashiro explained her decision to go for the gold again. “Before I went to this Olympics, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. I was in a position where I could easily have been done playing … You spend so much time putting work in with the national team that you’re just drained … Then we went to the Olympics and now I want to go back and I want try to compete for real, see what happens.
“As of now I’m going to … compete and see how far it gets me. We’ll see. If it’s supposed to be, it will happen. If not, I know that I’ve done all that I could.”
Asked which team was the toughest opponent, Miyashiro said that Korea, China, Brazil, Turkey and Serbia all “gave us a hard time at some point. They all played us well. Kind of comes with the territory — everyone decided to play well against USA. We’ve seen a lot of good teams, but every match was hard in its own way …
“Korea, China, Japan, they have a pretty specific offense. It’s pretty different from what we play against, so for us it’s always hard because you have to adjust. (Korea is) a good team … I would consider some of them the best in the world. I think collectively maybe not as strong, but they have some really good players. So that was tough …
“Brazil is always a good team. They won the gold two Olympics in a row, so no matter when we play them they always play well … They’re a little bit like us in the sense that they’re not the biggest team, but they can just play volleyball really well. And in the Olympics that’s all that matters.
“Unfortunately, we played them really well in the beginning, and then in the end we didn’t play as well and that’s the match that mattered, so we ended up losing to them for the gold … We’ve kind of been beating up on them for three years now and then they beat us the one time that it really mattered.”
She added that even talented teams, like Cuba and Germany, didn’t make it to the Olympics because the field was so competitive.
“Keep Working Hard”
Miyashiro credited her family with instilling a work ethic in her from an early age. “Everywhere I went I was always surrounded by good people and they always told me to work hard … It’s helped me for sure get to where I am today because as you can see, I’m not the tallest, definitely not the fastest or the strongest on any teams I’ve ever played on, but I try to work hard all the time, be a good teammate, and that actually takes you a long way …
“When I talk to younger players, that’s one of the things that I like to talk about because I think a lot of people want to be good but they’re not willing to work that hard. For me that’s a starting point, and I’ve been a part of some really good teams … I’m just constantly surrounded by great players, and it’s helped me …
“You just keep working hard, you keep showing up at the gym, you keep showing up to class and do the best that you can, and I think that goes for anybody in any situation … That’s what I want to be about. That’s the message I want to leave behind for other people.”
Miyashiro finished at University of Washington in 2009 and has been with the national team since January 2010. Participation is by invitation only, she noted. “Most of us come straight from college, and then for the older girls, if you were part of the team and you want to come back, you always have a chance to try out. So the national team is one really long tryout.”
In 2011, she had to travel in June, August, October and November for about a month each time. “Last November we spent a month in Japan and they hosted the World Cup, which is the first Olympic qualifier. That was my first time spending that much time there …
“After we’re done with the national team, we play overseas (with) professional teams, usually in Europe, sometimes in Asia. It just depends on the availability of positions. So last year I played in Poland from November all the way to April, and I lived there … It was a team of Polish girls that had three foreigners … A girl from Long Beach was with me and another girl from San Diego. It just so happened that we were on the same team.”
When they are not on the road, the national team is based in Anaheim. Miyashiro said she is so focused on practicing that she spends most of her time either at the gym or at home, rarely leaving the city.
She stressed that being on the national team did not guarantee a trip to London. “You can be on the national team from 2009 all the way to 2011 and you could still not make the Olympic team. So early this year, around May, they have to turn in a 30-man roster of who they think the potential athletes are going to be. After May comes, we decide to keep just those athletes in our gym, and then from the 30, early July is when we actually make the 12-man roster, so that’s how many players we took.”
Miyashiro had to learn to play different positions in volleyball. “Growing up, I played in the front row. I was the attacker and in the back row I would set … In high school you can kind of get away with playing a lot of positions, but in college I played just in the back row … The position I play is libero. It’s a pretty new position. If you haven’t seen a game in a while you probably don’t know, but now we wear a different color jersey. I’m kind of like a defensive specialist. I can’t attack above the net … So from now on when you guys watch, when you see girls running in and out, usually really small, that’s the position I play.”
When she first got to UW, she was asked to be a center. “But what happened was my coach, he saw that I was a good passer and a good defender. So after the first season, he switched positions. He took me on the side when no one was in the gym and he served me a couple balls. I think he wanted to make sure that his assumption wasn’t way off, so in secret I was practicing passing. And up until that time when I was at Washington, I wasn’t passing at all …
“I was also in a position where if I wanted to play, to put myself in the best position to actually play, I needed to change positions … So not really my choice, but I’m thankful because I’m libero now and I think if I would have been a setter, I’m not sure if how far I would have gone …
“I like the position I’m playing now. What’s kind of cool is that sometimes in my position I have to set. So even though I changed positions, sometimes I still need to rely on my other skills …. It worked out.”
Being invited to speak at OAA is “huge for me,” Miyashiro said. “To me this is very special.”
She grew up with other kids of Okinawan, Japanese and other Asian Pacific Islander backgrounds, and also had many Asian friends at UW. “But then I got to the national team and there’s only like three Asians on the team … Everywhere we play, not too many Okinawans.”
Visiting Okinawa has “been a dream of mine since I was young,” she said. “Hopefully one of these days. We have some friends there, and me and my brother want to go there really badly. Our grandparents wanted to take us but they’re kind of getting a little old, so we might have to go by ourselves … So we’ll see. Maybe soon, but for sure when I’m done playing.”
She has fond memories of Okinawan food and culture. “My grandma makes really good nishime and it’s one of my favorites … At New Year’s, at least our Okinawan side would make dishes and our family would just go around to all the houses and eat …
“When I was 7 or 8, me and my two brothers … for a couple of years we were doing Okinawan dance. So I have seen that before. I don’t remember anything … That was really good for us to get in touch with that culture growing up … It was good to show up for practice and make a commitment to something that is part of you …
“Of course, there’s always all the Okinawan festivals … It’s good to see all the performances and up until a couple years ago my brother was still dancing … We have a little bit of culture still left and a lot to learn, obviously. But it’s part of me forever and it’s good to be in the presence of you guys.”
Attendees had an opportunity to chat with Miyashiro, get her autograph and have their picture taken with her.