People Who Made a Difference: Sports Edition is a special series recognizing those in the Maui County sports community who have made significant impacts. Stories will run periodically this summer in The Maui News.
Former Olympic weightlifter following in the footsteps of his mentor, Doc Yogi
WAILUKU — In the middle of a practice with weightlifters — from the very young to seasoned veterans — all around him, Vernon Patao was limited to silence when asked about his mentor.
Dr. Masayoshi Nelson Yogi died in 1999, but he has never left Patao’s heart. It was in Yogi’s garage in Kahului where Patao, now 51, trained and eventually developed into a U.S. Olympic weightlifter — he competed in the 1992 Games in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Patao was 14 when he started with Yogi.
On Monday while sitting in a corner of his HI Performance Athletics gym in the Maui Lani industrial area, Patao, a captain in the Maui Fire Department, fought back tears when asked about his mentor.
Patao finally shook off the question, but later texted an answer.
“I don’t get emotional about too many things,” Patao wrote. “Doc was so instrumental in many of my successes in life. Doing my best to perpetuate his legacy and pay it forward.”
Patao won a junior national title and three at the senior level. He is a former American record holder in the snatch, was a member of senior and junior national teams, was a coach at the 2016 Olympic trials, holds a USAW Advanced Sports Performance Coach Level 2 license and has coached at the international level for USA Weightlifting.
After Patao retired as an Olympic-level competitor, he looked to get into the coaching ranks as Yogi did after his national-level competitive career ended.
Patao recently took a team of Maui athletes to the national championships in Detroit. All seven of the athletes on the trip recorded a top-10 finish.
Kaylee Yagi, competing in the 13-under 55-kilogram division, was third in snatch, fourth in clean and jerk, and fourth in total.
Kanoe Mitnik was ninth in snatch, ninth in clean and jerk, and eighth in the total in the 16-17 73-kilogram division.
Ryan Padron, competing the 16-17 67-kilogram division, was third in snatch, fourth in clean and jerk, and fourth in total.
Lia Vanderpoel, competing in the 16-17 71-kilogram division, was 10th in the snatch, sixth in the clean and jerk, and sixth in the total.
Trevor Tanaka, competing in the junior 55-kilogram division, was second in the snatch and fourth for total.
Tiffani Lee, competing at the open 55-kilogram division, was fourth in clean and jerk, and fourth for total.
Charis Chan, a Californian that Patao’s trains remotely, was third in clean and jerk, and fourth for total competing in the open 59-kilogram division.
Patao was happy to share his team of Mauians with some of the 2020 Olympians who were using the national meet as a warmup for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
“They call me Uncle Vernon or Uncle Vern because I’ve traveled with at least a handful of them to some of the junior meets,” Patao said of the current U.S. Olympians on hand in Detroit.
Lee’s fourth-place finish in the open division was the best for a Maui competitor since Patao competed.
“It makes me pretty darn happy,” Patao said of the overall performance of his team. “The last time I’ve been to Detroit was 34 years ago, that was my second national championship. So, it came full circle. I said to myself, ‘I hope I can do this with some of the kids one day, to be able to travel and enjoy the entire experience of a national championship and the area.’
“So, 34 years later I’m on the opposite end as a coach now and I really, really enjoy it. I embrace it. I think much more now I can say that I have a broader perspective on this whole journey to being the best you can be.”
On the trip, Patao made sure the journey was about much more than just the competition. He spends four to six hours per day at the gym, helping the 50 athletes who come in waves to keep capacity numbers within COVID-19 regulations.
“I used to go travel all around the world and I didn’t do much,” he said. “Some of these kids, maybe one or two of them, are not going to do this again. Now, I make sure they enjoy the culture of wherever we go. We went to a Major League Baseball game, Tigers and Astros. That was pretty damn cool. I brought them to the art museum, Henry Ford Museum. So, every year from here on out we’re going to take some kids and make sure they enjoy the entire experience — of travel, of competition, all of it.
“All of these experiences is going to contribute to them being successful outside of this gym, off the court, outside of the classroom. So, that’s the most important thing.”
When he retires from MFD, Patao plans to start a kupuna program.
“One of the biggest successes in my program is Val Matsunaga,” Patao said as he saw the masters competitor walk by. “She’s 65 years old, she could barely walk and talk at the same time and now she feels as strong as she’s ever been. She can run, she can jump, so those are the things that make our success.”
Coaches in the program include Lee, Matsunaga, Lori Kikuchi, Kats Kikuchi, Val Patao, Frank Tam and Ryan Towata — all of them work with the athletes on a volunteer basis.
“The value of Coach Vernon to these kids, the knowledge that he has and the dreams that he brings to the platform is not written in any book, or captured on any film,” Matsunaga said. “It emerged organically when he looks at an athlete, touches them, adjusts them. And it is not textbook, it is truly based on what he sees with these athletes.
“Now tell me, any computer program can’t do that, but Vernon teaches with them. That value, I can’t put a price tag on it, no one can.”
Cade Taniguchi, a 2018 King Kekaulike graduate, was the first youth client Patao took on — Patao calls him “The OG.” Taniguchi will be a senior at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., in the fall — he plays soccer for the NCAA Division III school.
“I think it’s super valuable,” Taniguchi said of Patao’s gym. “I’ve been here since my days in high school and it really played a big role in taking me to the next level in my athletic career. I think it’s doing that for all these other kids as well.”
The mission is simple at HI Performance Athletics, which Patao is in the process of turning into a 501c3 non-profit. His goal is to reach a point where none of his youth weightlifters have to pay to be part of the gym that is nearly seven years old.
“In the end, when they ask me what I do here, it’s just about building good people,” Patao said. “As far as the competition itself, it’s not even that high on the priority list. That’s what Doc Yogi instilled in me throughout all of my career. I mean family, taking care of your good health, your faith, your education. So, that’s what we do, we’re trying to build good people.
“I guess I will just let the success speak for itself. As of now, it’s been pretty damn good.”
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org