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Jean (Okada) Mueller inducted into UCSB Hall of Fame

By Staff | May 6, 2010

Jean Mueller enjoyed seeing tennis mentor Shigesh Wakida at the 1997 Kapalua Open.

LAHAINA — The golden legacy of the late Shigeto “Shigesh” Wakida has come full circle.

Manifested by the recent induction of protégé Jean (Okada) Mueller into the University of California at Santa Barbara athletic Hall of Fame, the reputation and value of the ethics of life cultivated by the legendary mentor of Lahaina will live on into the new millennium.

Recognized by the UCSB coaching staff as the greatest women’s tennis player in the school’s history — and the only All-American — Mueller was honored at the induction ceremony on April 24 with family, friends, coaches and teammates on hand to share in the glorious occasion for the former Lahaina girl.

Mueller grew up in the sunny West Maui days of the 1970s and ’80s as one of six children in the working class family of Nguyen and Kenneth Okada.

“I was fortunate to have grown up in Lahaina — it was a very safe place, and young kids could walk anywhere at a young age. Everyone kept an eye on one another,” said Mueller, who splits time residing in Germany with husband Marc Mueller’s family and in Oregon.

Jean and Marc Mueller have three young sons.

“And my parents were always there for all of the meaningful events of our lives. Their extra time was seeing their kids grow and being there for us. We were my parents’ life.”

As a youngster, Jean gravitated to the Front Street tennis courts with her sister, Diane.

“She really didn’t want me there. We were highly competitive growing up, and we could never finish a match without us fighting. But she was a very intense player, even in practice, and I envied her ambition,” she said.

Jean, Diane and brother Steven kept on going down to the courts, and a “gang” of sorts was formed that included future Lahaina tennis talents Allison Valenta, Mia Minami, Kula Oda, Kip Ouchi, Mark Merrill, Chris Ng, Hiram Oyama, Cathy and Karen Felicilda, Bruce Sylva, Lisa Whitehead and Edwin and Macario Pascual.

Those courts, now known as the Shigeto “Shigesh” Wakida Tennis Courts in his honor, would become a second home to all of these Lahaina kids. They would spend most of their time outside of school there under the stern guidance of the future legend.

“Mr. Wakida would become one of the great influences of my life and lead me to a path of success in life,” said Jean. “He became my mentor, my coach, grandfather, baby-sitter and friend. He played out so many roles for not just me but for all of the gang. We were always there for each other — Mr. Wakida made sure of that.”

“He taught us to respect everyone, taught us loyalty and responsibility. He had no trouble disciplining us. You could hear him from great distances — just follow the voice, and it would lead you to this little Japanese man. Any child that came to the courts, Mr. Wakida would try to get them to play. He would even offer his own racquet. That’s how I got lured. He reminded us time and again that the most important thing was not our success in tennis, but our success as a person. Character and integrity were vital in a person, and he demonstrated that to us many times, in many ways. Certain kids would be selected to the travel team, but it wasn’t because of how good you were, but of how hard you tried and the dedication you would exemplify to the game and to the Lahaina Tennis Club. The kids that came to practice every day were the ones he praised and rewarded. He treated every child like his own,” she continued.

“I owe so much to Mr. Wakida, and I can’t praise him enough. All of the adults there loved the kids — Mrs. Wakida, Mr. Yabui, Mr. Yoshino, and I will never forget them. Despite my parents working all day, they knew we were taken care of by good people. They helped and got involved…  did it on their own time and wanted nothing in return.

“Mr. Wakida was a person of strength of character and love of others, especially children. He came down every single day teaching and received nothing monetarily for it. That didn’t mean a thing to him. He knew I came from a big family, and many times he would string my racket for free. What was most important to him was seeing each child that went through his program succeed in life. On the weekends, he would be at the courts at 6 a.m. and would wait for the children to arrive to hit. Mr. Wakida wanted everyone to reach their full potential, even if that meant coming in early for the ambitious ones or playing on Sunday mornings.”

Although Shigesh Wakida was asked to drop out of school to help his family — a day he calls the saddest of his life — education was always stressed to the kids under his guidance. He became a self-educated man in engineering and machinery while moving up the ladder at Pioneer Mill and maintained this insistence to focus on the importance of education to all of the children that came down to the tennis courts.

This attention to academics was not lost on young Jean. She continued on a successful pathway in tennis at Lahainaluna High School with top finishes in her sophomore, junior and senior years, culminating with a singles state championship, and led the girls tennis team to four straight undefeated seasons and Maui Interscholastic League titles.

As a team, the Lady Lunas finished in the top three at the state tournament and won the coveted championship in 1992, Jean’s senior season. She was undefeated in MIL play for four straight years and was named Lahainaluna Female Athlete of the Year in her junior and senior years. She was ranked number one in the Hawaii Junior circuit and in the top 40 nationally.

Feeling the expansion of the teenage psyche, Jean yearned for more outside of tennis and especially recognized the importance of academics that had been emphasized in her days with Mr. Wakida.

She became an honor student at Lahainaluna and a member of the school’s National Honor Society Chapter.

“I felt that education is what you make of it, and Lahainaluna did just great for me. I had been recruited to Seabury Hall but felt that I wasn’t ready to leave Lahaina just yet. I really did have some of the best teachers… they inspired me and I studied a lot,” Jean explained.

She graduated with honors from Lahainaluna and accepted UCSB’s offer to attend the school and compete on the Gaucho’s tennis team. Jean struggled with adjusting to college life on the Mainland and with injuries in her freshman year, but she hung on to rise to the highest levels of success on the NCAA Division I level with the Gauchos.

She won All-Big West Conference first team singles honors in 1994, ’95 and ’96 and first team doubles recognition in four straight years.

Jean is the only player in UCSB history to earn All-American status as a singles player. She was named the team MVP in her junior and senior years and achieved the highest ITA singles ranking of any women’s tennis player ever at UCSB.

With her induction into the UCSB Hall of Fame, Jean is considered the greatest women’s tennis player in Gaucho history.

But the most important event was her match-up with Marc, a graduate student from Germany and a member of the men’s tennis team.

Graduating with a degree in sociology, Jean looks back on her days at UCSB with fondness and appreciation.

“UCSB was my destiny. I met great people there, experienced a lot and met the person who would help me to fulfill my life’s goals and dreams,” she said.

With Marc’s help, Jean transitioned to the professional tennis circuit and fought her way into the top 200 world rankings. A highlight was making the draw at the U.S. Open in 1998.

Ranked 115th in singles and 200th in doubles, Jean began to wear down physically and mentally. By 2001, she felt she was done with tennis.

Whatever sadness that decision may have brought on was soon dashed by a proposal of marriage from Marc.

They married that year, traveled, adopted two puppies and, within four years, had three sons together. Life is blossoming for Jean.

“It’s the best part of my life I’m living right now,” said Jean. “I owe so much to my husband, who has always stood by me and made all of my dreams a reality. Life is so good.”

“My family is my passion now in life, and all I want is for them to be happy and enjoy them while I can. What I strive for these days is to have no regrets and try to be a good person — that’s all Mr. Wakida asked for. To live by example and not just talk. My dad is completely the definition of this — he was one of little words, but big in his actions. All of his extra time was seeing that his kids grow and being there for them. We were my parents’ life, and my children and family have become mine. You could never doubt the love of my parents as they gave us something more important than money: the support and belief that we could do anything. And I hope to do the same for my children,” she continued.

“As the years pass in my life, I reminisce more often of my childhood, and I feel so many happy emotions. The Lahaina courts and the Wakida days are always the first to enter my thoughts — the first to come to mind when I found out I would be inducted to the UCSB Hall of Fame. I revisit the memories where it all began. Whenever I come home to visit, I feel a force that draws me to just see the place. Its comfort, love and peace that I feel there. I hope in our older years that I may one day return home to where my heart longs to be again… in Lahaina, where we were once one big family.”

“I miss my tennis buddies; and, when we do meet up, we always continue on where we left off. And for the ones that I’ve lost touch with, I do think of them, for they will always be in my heart — a piece of my history that will never be forgotten. A part of me that I so dearly loved as family — a family brought together by Mr. Wakida and the Shigeto Wakida tennis club.

“I’m so happy now that Macario Pascual has taken the lead to continue what Mr. Wakida left for us. It’s a very difficult task, but there isn’t anyone better that I know of who really cares about the kids. His heart is there and he has so much to offer, because he stands for all that Mr. Wakida believed in establishing in his kids. Macario was a student of his. He is humble, soft-spoken, respectful of people and cares greatly for the kids. I hope that one day the program can come back strong — to be the new Lahaina gang,” Jean concluded.

Through the exemplary vision and integrity of Jean Mueller, the ring is joined and the Wakida legacy lives on.

Shigeto Wakida is still passing this positive force of wisdom to the new generation.