By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Every time Cal State East Bay freshman Rachel Shimizu enters a long-distance swimming race the results are always the same: first place and the unfulfilled satisfaction that she can get faster.
She’s 3-0 in the 1,000-yard freestyle for East Bay, a Division II school in Hayward, Calif., about 30 minutes away from San Francisco. Shimizu handles the mile or 1,650 free with equal proficiency; she’s 2-0 in that event.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve won,” she said. “Three, maybe? I’m more concerned with my times. To be this close to my best times so early in the season is really nice. I try to focus just on myself. But sometimes when I see other people in front of me I get very competitive and focus on them a little bit and want to beat them.”
So far so good.
As an individual or teammate, she’s gold medal material. She’s been part of winning relay teams in the 200, 400 and 800 free. For good measure, Shimizu also has a first-place gold in the 500 free.
Like Shimizu, the Pioneers are off to a roaring start. They’re 5-0 and on a two-week break, before the competition steps up a level, starting Dec. 1 against Nevada, a Division I school. Then there’s the UNLV Invite from Dec. 15-17.
“Rachel has been indomitable in the 1000 and 1,650 freestyle events so far,” Pioneers coach Ben Loorz said. “We have some much stiffer Division I competition coming up in the next few months, which will be great for Rachel. She needs that level of competition in order to really explore how good she can be. I love that she has a fierce and confident attitude.”
On Friday at the Alaska Fairbanks meet, Shimizu beat Alaska-Anchorage’s Lauren Bailey, but not easily. Bailey pushed the pace, but Shimizu chased her down, clocking in at 10 minutes and 53.86 seconds to the Seawolves sophomore’s 10:56.12.
Then the next day, Loorz gently poked Shimizu in the ribs. Her competitive fire made its scheduled appearance and stoked her to victory. She blitzed Bailey in the mile, winning big, 18:04.58 to 19:02.73.
“I gave her a little nudge about it before Saturday’s race, saying there was a challenge ahead since the other swimmer liked to take it out so quickly,” Loorz said. “She looked up and gave me a small frown, ‘Yeah, that girl was kinda making me angry.’ She went on to win the 1,650 by over a minute. That’s Rachel.”
For the first time, Shimizu is doing weight lifting and core work as a full-time occupation. That’s one reason for her success. Sharing equal billing is the contributions from her team.
“I feel a lot more sore,” she joked about the hard work. “I guess it’s working. I am cutting down on my times. I love the team on top of that. They’re really positive and we’re always pushing each other. That’s another reason I’m doing well.
“When someone has a rough day, we all do our best to pick them up and motivate them. Ben is jumping up and down at practice. He motivates the whole team to do their sets. I’ve never had a coach jump up and down at practice. During meets, they all cheer, but not in practice.
“I’m five seconds off my best time in the 1,000 and seven seconds off my best time in the mile. The schedule has been hectic. I’d rather it be that way, then not do anything. I love all that swimming with the team.”
The team harmony carries outside of the water as well.
Shimizu lives in an on-campus apartment with seven roommates, including two teammates, who all share a full-sized kitchen and living room. There are eight freshman on the squad, and they meet up to take a 10-minute walk to swimming practice.
Campus life also glows for Shimizu, who’s majoring in kinesiology with an ambition to work in healthcare.
“The campus is up on a hill and it’s not mixed in with the city. It’s really safe,” she said. “It’s not a huge school (13,000 students), which is a plus for me. We have a balcony and it’s so big. I love the campus, the teachers and the school. The teachers are always there to help me out. The cafeteria food is really healthy. There’s a full salad bar and a fruit bar. It’s buffet style, so you can go back as much as you want.
“The swimming team is my family. We spend so much time in the pool that we always spend time out of the pool as well. To me the best thing is the team. Nobody cares about winning. Even Ben says that he doesn’t mind if we lose, if we improve together as individuals and as a team.”
The Pioneers have a positive atmosphere with each swimmer pushing one another. And Shimizu appreciates Loorz and assistant coach Sara Bonino for making sure her competitive fire remains hot and keeping swimming enjoyable.
“I love Ben and Sara. They’re the greatest,” Shimizu said. “I definitely wouldn’t get the results if it weren’t for them. From them, I’ve learned to be a better swimmer in and out of the pool. I’m just so happy. I’m always happy during swimming, but it’s a different kind and level of happiness.
“In their eyes, there’s not a thing like reaching your full potential. As long as you’re willing to put the work in, Ben and Sara feel, there’s no limit. That is what’s great and they make the team and everyone feel like we don’t have a limit, and we can do anything we want to do.”
To submit a collegiate athlete with Big Island ties for publication, email firstname.lastname@example.org.