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Golf success leads to college scholarship for Michiko Smith

By Staff | Dec 5, 2013

Michiko Smith is thriving on the golf team at Notre Dame College in Ohio.

LAHAINA – Michiko Smith is a Maui girl born and bred with that island spirit and determination that so defines the collective personality of the people here. She grew up in a lively family setting reminiscent of the television sitcom “All in the Family,” while at the same time, she experienced influences in her childhood that nurtured an innate drive to succeed in life.

Barbie “Doll” Yamamoto was the doting mom in young Michiko’s childhood years, while Brad “Bucko” Smith filled the “Archie” – the stern, conservative, and yes, comical – role in his daughter’s upbringing.

“Mom always gave me that sensitive, complementary support, while my dad laid down the line in a strict way. He insisted on good grades, staying out of trouble and excelling in the sports I participated in,” Michiko explained.

Of course, there was also an older brother, Dustin, that Michiko described as a big influence on her life.

“Yeah, big brothers like to pick on you, but looking back on it now, it made me tougher. He was a two-time state wrestling placer and MIL (Maui Interscholastic League) champion. I saw all of his achievements, and I wanted that for myself,” she said.

Michiko loved basketball and flourished within the West Maui Youth Basketball League. She moved up to Lahainaluna High School with visions of being part of the Lady Luna championship tradition.

She quickly learned, however, that hoops wasn’t her pathway to a college scholarship. There wasn’t a place for a five-foot – on a good day with stacked heels – player at Lahainaluna, no matter the determination and drive she might possess.

More importantly, Smith struggled academically and found herself in Special Education classes.

“In intermediate school, I became very good friends with a boy named Sheldon Camara. He passed away, and this had a huge effect on me. At first I was going downhill, but later I realized that he wouldn’t have wanted me to be depressed about the fact that he wouldn’t be coming back, and that he would want me to be greater than I was. From there, I went from being in Special Education classes to regular classes, and then in high school going into honors and AP (advanced placement) courses with a (grade point average) higher than 3.0. The harder the task, the more I was determined to succeed – and it was because of my friend, Sheldon,” she said.

About this time, the game of golf struck a chord in young Michiko’s life.

“I went to the driving range with my mom and saw Wilma Elefante, who was on the Lahainaluna golf team at the time. I met Lee Munemitsu, the Luna head coach, and Ben Hongo, the PGA professional at Kapalua; and after they saw my swing, I was on the team,” she explained.

As a sophomore on the Luna team, she played for fun, but soon got more competitive and joined the Lahaina Junior Golf program, playing in various Hawaii Junior Golf Association events and some elite tournaments.

Top finishes in MIL play in her junior and senior years at Lahainaluna got her tickets to the state tournaments.

“Coach Lee (Munemitsu) put so much time and effort into helping me with my game to get me where I am today – he is such a great man and will always be my number one coach. And my swing coach, Ben Hongo, and my coach for my senior year at Lahainaluna, Laura Jones, were both important influences on my game. The generosity of the Kapalua Golf Resort facilities was also a big advantage for me,” Michiko explained.

“So I put my name out there with a company called Athletic Quest, that got my name and stats out there for college coaches to see. I visited ten schools on the east and west coasts that had contacted me and settled on Notre Dame College in Ohio,” Smith continued.

“They had a major in environmental science that I liked, and the school offered me an athletic and academic scholarship I couldn’t refuse.”

Although the Smith family had not visited Notre Dame, they accepted the offer for Michiko to go to the small, Catholic college.

She packed her bags and soon met up with golf coach Colleen Groomes and her teammates.

“When I arrived here, I loved it instantly. It’s small, and I get a lot of attention from the teachers… there is academic help whenever you need it. The people at the school are really nice, and they want to see you succeed,” she said.

The women’s golf program at Notre Dame, a Division II college, had been struggling in recent years, but since Smith and teammate Christi Bilas arrived, the Falcons have moved up the Mountain East Conference standings to finish in second place this fall.

Smith was third on the individual list in the conference, carded a two-day record score (77, 79), three-day record (80, 77, 79), finished with a season average of 81, and was named “Student Athlete of the Month” for September.

“Everyone here asks me why I’m here – being from Hawaii and all – but you know, I love new experiences, and I needed to go in a different direction. I enjoy the change of the seasons and the kindness of the people here – I live with Christi (Bilas) now, and the Bilas family is my Ohio family. The school is now a big part of my life, and I am grateful to everyone for that,” Michiko said.

“I am also grateful to my parents for instilling their work ethic into me. My mom and dad, the Moons, the Matsudas and the Villatoras – all the West Side community – have helped me get where I am today. I am so thankful to all of you.”