AOY Rewind: Highly decorated in her past, Okada focused on the present
AOY Rewind is a special series of stories catching up with a handful of past Maui News Athletes of the Year. Stories will run periodically throughout the fall in The Maui News.
It is easy to call the 1990s a decade of dominance for the Maui Interscholastic League in tennis. The list of impressive players is long and worthy, but no one on it was better than Jean Okada.
While the 1992 Lahainaluna High School graduate, HHSAA state singles champion and The Maui News MIL Girl Athlete of the Year is hesitant to accept the accolade, she is arguably the best-ever tennis player from Maui.
She was the first women’s tennis All-American ever for UC Santa Barbara when she reached the round of 16 at the NCAA tournament in 1996, was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2010, played in three U.S. Open qualifying events — she advanced to the main draw in 1998 — and played three seasons on tour as a professional, rising as high as No. 204 in the world singles rankings and No. 127 in doubles.
“It’s funny to say, from a young age of trying to have the ability, but it was back then,” she said. “Back then you feel proud, but you move on — it’s just the past is how I see it. I don’t remember a lot of the awards I’ve had. It’s just during that time you’re happy and you can’t believe it, but then what’s more important is what’s going on now.
“Sometimes I am amazed — I’m like, ‘Wow.’ “
Indeed, her life has come full circle as she is back in Lahaina, raising her three sons, taking care of her parents and working as a tennis professional at the Royal Lahaina Tennis Ranch.
She works in the mornings so she can be done by 1 p.m. to get home to take care of her parents, Kenneth and Nguyen Okada, who are both in their 80s. The boys help take care of their grandparents when Jean is not home.
“We all manage it, it works, you know, the circle of life,” Jean Okada said. “We take care of their meals, bath time, someone being home in case they need something, but in this case, the COVID (break) is perfect because my kids are at home if they need them. If I can’t get home to get my mom her Subway (sandwich), my kids take a walk — I’ve been having to work all mornings, I can’t come back. My mom likes a Subway for lunch or something, so my kids will go and walk over, get her Subway and come back.”
Okada, 46, grew up on courts named for her legendary tennis mentor, Shigeto “Shigesh” Wakida, usually under a blazing sun on Front Street. To think back to her humble beginnings brings a smile to her face, even now — she still reverently refers to her longtime coach as “Mr. Wakida.”
“I think back and I look at my resources, a small town of Lahaina, coming from a small town, public courts and no real private lessons, none of us, just public courts,” she said. “Getting a scholarship back then, we were top 25, I played No. 1 against, like, all of the top schools and then getting to the pros and making it there, I know it’s tough.
“Back then, I was thinking, ‘I’m never going to get a ranking.’ … I start to feel more proud of myself. I was only 200, but 200 in the world in three years? I had no financial help — I did that on my own. … When I think back on that now in my older age, I think: ‘Wow, I was really lucky that I even got there.’ “
Her sons — Christopher Mueller, 16, Noah Mueller, 14, and Kekoa Mueller, 12 — are all tennis players.
“They all know how, they grew up coming with me to the tennis courts,” Okada said.
Her sons have attended awards ceremonies and seen videos of their mom from back in the day, but she’s not positive they know how good she was — none of the boys can beat mom yet.
“I don’t know — they think I’m OK, I guess,” Okada said. “I think they know I played on tour.”
Christopher played No. 1 for Lahainaluna last season before it was cut short by COVID-19 concerns. Noah is now a freshman at Lahainaluna and hopeful of joining his older brother on the team this coming spring, while Kekoa plays tennis and soccer.
Okada remembers her days as a Luna well.
“I just remember I had the best team, I loved my teammates,” she said. “Because I know now it’s changed a lot, the kids are so competitive, everyone is kind of doing their own thing. … Back then at Lahainaluna, I trained with the boys a lot, but I always had my teammates supporting me. They always had my back, everyone was always helping each other — that’s the one thing I always remember about playing tennis at the Lahaina tennis courts. We’re all still great friends, even to this day.”
She moved back to Maui about a decade ago and immediately got back into the island groove, starting at the Royal Lahaina in 2011.
“I see some of (my friends) here and there and it’s like back then, whether we talk to each other or not, it’s like the same friendship that picks up where we left off, always,” Okada said. “I see Ryan Ideta … or Kimmie Ouchi or Kari Luna (Nunokawa), yeah, and I grew up with them.”
The Lahainaluna boys won the 1990 state team title, while the Lunas’ Ideta and Malino Oda each won two state singles crowns in the decade. The MIL combined for three boys doubles state titles in the 1990s.
Baldwin and Lahainaluna tied for the 1992 state girls team crown — Okada won the singles title that year — Baldwin won the state girls team title in 1993, and the MIL combined for four girls doubles titles in the decade.
“You know what? We were dominating, yes,” Okada said. “Maui was one of the stronger islands or we were the strong island. That’s right, we had a lot of state champions and team titles way back.”
Luna Nunokawa, who won state doubles and singles crowns for Baldwin before her own standout college career at Washington, does not hesitate to say who she thinks is the best player ever from Maui.
“For Maui, yes, Jeano was the best,” Luna Nunokawa said. “Her playing ability, her heart, I can’t tell you enough about how much I just love her. She’s such a beautiful person and beautiful soul and she was always like that, from the time we were little and growing up.”
Luna Nunokawa remembers a tennis trip she took as a teen while traveling with Okada to a Mainland tournament sponsored by Seventeen magazine.
“Each state could choose their top girl for 14s, 16s and 18s,” Luna Nunokawa said. “So, I went for the 14s, Jean went for the 16s and there was a girl, Cathy Peterson from Oahu who went for the 18s, but Jean and I being from Maui, we traveled together. So, we went up to California, played the tournament, it was an all-girls tournament, it was beautiful, Lindsay Davenport was No. 1 in the 14s at the time.
“That’s the caliber of what we did and where we were at. It is a very special memory for me because just being with Jean, spending all that time with her and traveling with her was so much fun.”
Okada treasures the game that has been a huge part of her life.
“I’ve been fortunate,” she said. “I guess for me, I grew up playing tennis, I’ve done clinics, I’ve been through the whole process of everything that you could go through, so I’m fortunate that I can go out there and share my experience and everything.
“I have a lot of knowledge in the field, can share my experiences. I love it, yeah, and I love teaching those kids.”
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org