By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The first time he noticed her in the pool, Jon Hayashida didn’t have to think twice. He was impressed.
He turned to one of his swimmers and asked, “Who is this girl?”
It was Beth Tsuha. She learned how to swim when she was 2 and started competing when she was 6. That she followed a natural progression to become a Big Island Interscholastic Federation record-holder shouldn’t come as all that much of a surprise.
The first time he noticed him in the pool, Hayashida didn’t think much. In fact, he shook his head.
“I’m not sure we have enough time,” he told one of his coaches. “We have a lot of work to do with this guy.”
It was Christian Kubo. He didn’t even learn to swim until he was 13. His rise to become a BIIF champion was a lot more sudden and improbable.
The two Hilo High seniors have vastly different swimming backgrounds, but they share a similar drive and dedication.
“I just really enjoy working with swimmers who have a really strong work ethic to do well,” said Hayashida, who coaches Tsuha and Kubo both with the Vikings and at Hilo Aquatic Club. “Whether they’ve been swimming for 10 years or two years.”
Tsuha had been stalking the league record in the 100-yard freestyle for awhile, missing it by a tenth of a second at BIIFs last year.
If it was just a matter of when not if, then that time came last Saturday.
Swimming at Kona Community Aquatic Center, Hayashida gave her three simple words of instruction: Go for it.
For Tsuha, that meant overcoming mental challenges.
“Physically, most swimmers are ready to perform and do what they need to do,” she said. “We have these mental blocks that hurt. We’re too scared of hurting, or stuff like that.
“But coach told me you might as well go for it to see if you can get it. So I just went for it.”
She put a quick end to any 2013 suspense. In a race that also included two of the island’s other top swimmers, Waiakea’s Madisyn Uekawa and Kealakehe’s Cara Jernigan, Tsuha won by more than a second and touched in a personal-best of 53.20 to break the mark set by Waiakea’s Tamarah Binek in 2004.
“I was surprised,” she said. “I thought I missed it again. Yeah, it was good day.”
Last Monday was another good day for Tsuha. She got accepted to Pacific University in Oregon, which is among her top college choices. Tsuha’s still talking to coaches at other schools about scholarship opportunities, but she’s seeking a good balance between school and swimming, possibly focusing on physical therapy.
“I know I want to go into the health field,” she said. “I like working with people, and that’s a good way to do that.”
And she might not be done breaking records just yet, calling the 200 mark a “realistic goal.”
Hayashida said she lacks the early acceleration to contend in the 50 free, and Tsuha calls the 500 her hardest race. But she’s dominated the 100 and 200 at BIIFs the last two seasons in winning consecutive golds. She also snagged her first Hawaii High School Athletic Association title in 2012, claiming the 200 in 1:54.42.
She’ll need to trim that time by 15 one-hundredths of second to break the record set by Kealakehe’s Krista Meier in 2008.
“That’s a bigger struggle, but it’s in her reach,” Hayashida said. “If she makes the time that we want getting to states, I think it will be close.”
Kubo, on the other hand, wasn’t a swimmer that Hayashida considered as close to accomplishing anything during his freshman year.
“I didn’t even know how to turn,” said Kubo, who initially started swimming only to condition for baseball season. “It was a hard time.”
It’s easier now, and he doesn’t play baseball anymore.
Kubo didn’t like holding his breath, so swimming the breaststroke was an easy fit. But while coach Jean Sakovich worked on Kubo’s technical skills, it became evident that he had a natural kick for the breaststroke.
He eventually started seeing his times get faster, lowering a 1:08 all the down to the 100:01 he swam to win BIIFs last year.
“Nobody has come further,” Hayashida said. “It’s his determination in himself.”
The high point came in early December when the two travelled to Tennessee so that Kubo could compete at junior nationals. The competition was a humbling, eye-opening experience.
“I can’t lie, it was big,” said Kubo, who was quick to praise his family and coaches for all their help. “Now I know I have to work really hard.”
His next personal goal is to place at states — he finished fourth last season — and he headlines a group of four strong swimmers that make Hilo a legitimate contender to win the BIIF title.
The season continues today in Waimea, with the Hawaii Prep Invitational at 10 a.m. followed by a league meet at 1 p.m. The BIIF championships are Feb. 2 at Kamehameha.
Hilo’s Jordan Kamimura is the defending league champ in the 100 butterfly, and Kubo, Ryan Bisel (100 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 200 individual medley) and Cody Hamane (200 freestyle) also won races last Saturday at KCAC.
On the girls side, the Vikings will have to click on the relays. Tsuha often teams up with Sharae Ichinose, Ginger Carlson and Kaycie Kohashi.
“We’re lucky, because they’ve all really matured and developed,” Hayashida said.
Some have just had to come further than others.