College: Shimabukuro a blast from the past

Rachel Shimabukuro, a 2010 San Benito High graduate, has become a standout for Hartnell College.

With 1,000 meters to go in the Northern California Community College Cross-Country Championships at Toro Park in Salinas on Oct. 6, Hartnell College sophomore Rachel Shimabukuro knew this was her defining moment.
“That’s where I had to dig pretty deep and tell myself, ‘Let’s go,’” the former San Benito High running standout said. “(Near the end) I thought I was going to die, but I had to stay positive. I had to remember that we had done 1,000 meter repeats a million times here, so what difference is doing it in a race?”
Apparently, none at all. The 23-year-old Shimabukuro crossed the finish line in fifth place in a personal-record time of 18 minutes, 56 seconds, the first time she had gone sub-19 in her career. It was also the third fastest time in school history. When it comes to her race strategy, Shimabukuro usually likes to hang back in the beginning before making her way to the front of the pack.
However, Shimabukuro changed things up for this race, going with the lead pack from the start. Her sterling performance helped Hartnell repeat as NorCal champions, and the Panthers will enter the State Championships on Nov. 21 ranked No. 3 in California.
“It took two years to get back to what I was doing in high school,” she said. “I’m pretty stoked to get a PR here. That was probably the hardest race I’ve ever had.”
Standing just a shade over 5 feet tall, Shimabukuro is one of the feel-good stories on the Hartnell team. Having graduated in 2010, Shimabukuro rebuffed Hartnell cross country and track coach Chris Zepeda’s initial recruiting efforts.
“After high school I was done with running,” she said. “Coach Z tried to recruit me, but I was going my own way. I thought I had it all planned out.”
Shimabukuro focused on working full time and did so at a variety of jobs, including the last four years at Elli’s Great American Restaurant in Salinas. When Shimabukuro decided to go back to school full time, she wasn’t even thinking about running until she ran into former Balers’ track standout Frankie Martinez on campus.
Martinez, who also graduated from San Benito High in 2010 and attended Hartnell, told Shimabukuro she should try out for the track team. That was in January of 2014, or nearly four years since Shimabukuro had last run competitively. The question was, after being away from the sport so long, could Shimabukuro regain her old form?
You better believe it. After some initial struggles, Shimabukuro finished the 2014 track season well before following that up with a solid cross-country season in the fall. Shimabukuro ran the 1,500 and 5,000 meters during the 2015 track season, setting her up for a breakout year for cross country.
“Rachel’s story is what community college sports is all about,” Zepeda said. “It’s about second chances and perseverance. I recruited her out of high school, and then she disappeared on me (laughs). Luckily, Frankie Martinez spotted her on campus and asked her to come out for the team. But it was to throw—not run—because she was really out of shape.”
As expected, Shimabukuro struggled to regain her fitness after being out of the game for so long.
“It was rough for 10 weeks there because of some injuries,” Zepeda said. “She was still trying to get in shape and was definitely behind everybody. But right at the end (of the track season) I started to see flashes of what I saw her do in high school. She didn’t quite have the endurance yet, but she had the power and speed to run 1,500 meters. Then she got over that and did a really nice job of taking it to the next level this season.”
Shimabukuro attended Gilroy High as a freshman, Byer High in Modesto as a sophomore and San Benito High for her junior and senior years. It was in Hollister where Shimabukuro started to make people take notice, as she excelled in cross country under former coach Jesse Morales.
Shimabukuro credited Morales and Zepeda for having such a tremendous influence in her life, both as a runner and person.
“Coach Z is one of the greatest mentors I’ve had in my life, hands down,” she said. “He’s been nothing but supportive of me, even when I have a bad race. Instead of putting me down, he builds me up even more and tells me how capable I am. I’ve never had anybody that supportive of me before. And coach Morales is also one of the great mentors and coaches I’ve had in my life. He was very demanding and tough, and we all need that type of coaching to move us forward.”
Yvette Felix, a freshman out of Anzar High, took 24th in 20:32. In the men’s race, former Anzar standout Diego Avila finished 13th in a lifetime-best 21:13. The sophomore was 22nd in last year’s NorCal Regional, and he couldn’t have been more excited with his time.
“I feel it could’ve been a better race, but considering how I felt at the beginning, I did pretty well,” he said. “I mean I got a PR—how bad can you feel with a PR?”
Avila said his legs felt heavy at the start of the race, but after the one-mile mark, he started to get in rhythm. Avila had a rough start to his community college career, but he took to training well, ran up to 70 miles a week and had the benefit of training with runners who were faster and more talented.
“This is a great team, and we all make each other better,” he said.
Avila said he’s receiving interest from a couple of colleges, and he’ll have the upcoming state championships along with another full season of track in the spring to showcase his talents in the hopes of receiving multiple scholarship offers. Speaking of offers, Shimabukuro is in a sweet spot, having been offered scholarships to run for Division I program New Mexico State and Metropolitan State University of Denver, a strong Division II school.
Shimabukuro said the tough experience of attending three different high schools and moving a lot in her teenage years helped steel her resolve for her collegiate running career.
“It was pretty tough getting situated with everything, but it’s made me the person I am today and helped me adapt to where I am now,” Shimabukuro said.

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