May 1, 2012
By Amy Hughes
What do you do when you earn half of your dream but watch the other half evaporate? What do you do when the thing you want most is a few yards to your right, and you turn left?
If you are UCLA women's golf alumna Maiya Tanaka, you have a long history of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and finding the positive in your situation.
In high school, Tanaka played with the boys team for San Diego's Mira Mesa High School. When the team advanced to the CIF playoffs her freshman year, she was informed that girls could not play in the boys' playoffs, despite the fact that she had been playing on the boys team all along.
The solution to this problem was to start a girls' golf team, enlisting her older sister, Misa, to help fill out the roster. With Maiya as a sophomore and Misa as a senior, the team advanced to the CIF playoffs and won league titles three straight years with Maiya as player-coach and captain.
UCLA had always been Tanaka's dream school, and she earned admittance without any connection to the athletic department. Tanaka contacted women's golf coach Carrie Forsyth, but the roster was full for the defending NCAA Champions in the fall of 2004.
Tanaka went to UCLA intending to try out for the team and work her way up. Instead, she ended up being away from golf almost entirely for two years. With no public practice facilities or public courses near Westwood and having no transportation, being separate from the Bruin golf team meant that Tanaka would be unable to play golf as a college student.
Until the fall of 2006, that is.
"We had two players who left school early to turn pro [in late 2006], and we were pretty short on players," said Forsyth. "I think we were down to five at that moment, which is barely enough to field a team. I was talking with Tiffany Joh, who was also from the San Diego area, and she reminded me that Maiya was on campus and suggested that maybe she could join our team."
Forsyth placed the call, and Tanaka jumped on the chance to play collegiate golf.
"What went through my head was that I could have held a grudge, but I put differences aside to help out the team," said Tanaka. "I wanted to represent my school and make sure they had the best team going into the tournaments. I was determined to be a part of that team and help them get to nationals and contribute scores. I quit my job and practiced very, very hard to earn my spot on the team."
"When she came back out to [play golf] again, she was really into it," said Forsyth. "We were really pleased with having her out there and adding that element of competition to our team. She had the desire to prove herself and redeem herself."
Tanaka placed 20th at the 2007 Pac-10 Championship, posted a first-round 72 (E) at the NCAA East Regional and tied for 70th overall, and then tied for 65th at the NCAA Championship as the Bruins finished third as a team.
"When she first came on to the team and ended up making the kind of impact that she did, yes, I was surprised," said Forsyth. "It's not very often that somebody is going to take a couple years off of this game and then be able to come back and actually compete. Not only did Maiya compete, we came in third at nationals with her in the lineup. That's just insane."
The following year, Tanaka posted rounds of 73-73-72-72--218 (+2) and tied for 10th place as the Bruins won the NCAA Central Regional Championship, and would finish tied for 20th at the NCAA Championships as the Bruins finished second.
"I'm really glad that we had the opportunity to have her on our team," said Forsyth. "It was a great experience for me as a coach and hopefully for her too as a player. I'm just happy that she's a Bruin."
Since her graduation in 2009, Tanaka has continued to pursue a career in golf. In 2010, she was selected for the Golf Channel's reality show, "Big Break," in which 11 women competed for an exemption to compete in an LPGA Tour event and a Ladies European Tour event.
More recently, Tanaka teamed back up with her sister, and the pair submitted a video for the CBS reality show The Amazing Race.
"I am a huge fan [of The Amazing Race]," said Tanaka. "I've probably seen every single season. I know every season's winner. It's something I've always wanted to do."
When Tanaka decided she wanted to apply for the show, she had some decisions to make.
"It was a process of figuring out who I would best be able to compete with, and who I had the best odds of winning with," said Tanaka. "My sister and I have been a team since I was born, basically. We are very close in age, so although we're very different, we know how to work together. I knew that she would be a great partner. I brought it up to her one day, and she kind of jumped on it. The next day we made a video and sent it out to CBS."
Maiya and Misa were chosen for the current season of the show, Amazing Race 20. As one of 11 teams to start the race in Santa Barbara, Calif., the Tanaka sisters were never able to hit their stride and enjoy smooth sailing through the race.
As the last team to find their opening clue in a field of 100 balloons, they were one of five teams on the second flight to Argentina. When the teams arrived at the first Road Block challenge, they knew that driving a stick shift - a common difficulty for contestants - wouldn't be a problem.
"My sister and I were actually pretty well-prepared," said Tanaka. "We both learned to drive on stick shift cars, so we were prepared for that. I had to teach my sister how to use a compass in the aisle of Wal-Mart when she wasn't quite getting why north kept moving around as she turned. We definitely built a bond in preparing."
While Misa took a turn at skydiving, Maiya was tasked with following a map to the drop zone to find and pick up her sister. After getting the car stuck in the sand, the sisters reunited and were last to arrive for the final challenge, making 120 empanadas.
"We were the last ones there," recalled Maiya. "We love cooking and we love being in the kitchen. It's something we grew up doing with our mom. We sprinted over and got that challenge done amazingly fast just because we were so confident in our abilities because we are sisters and we're used to being in the kitchen together."
The Tanakas made up plenty of time during the challenge, and were the 10th team (of 11) to exit the building, looking for host Phil Keoghan at the show's first pit stop. Keoghan was just a few yards to the team's right, but they turned left. By the time they circled back around and found the check-in mat, they were the last team to arrive and had been eliminated.
"I think that being an athlete, you have the mental toughness. Never give up. Always do your best. Always be prepared," said Maiya. "That helped us prepare for the race. A lot of things that happened on the race we couldn't really control, and we did get a little bit unlucky. A lot of people could have given up or would have let it get to them. We knew we had to figure out a way to get through it, stay strong and finish strong."
"That's totally something Maiya would do," said Forsyth of Tanaka's appearance on The Amazing Race. "She'd already done `The Big Break.' Our opinion was always that she could be a golf model. She's got that look, and for her to step in and get into this realm is totally not a surprise to me.
"I'm hopeful that with all this great exposure, maybe she can get a sponsor," Forsyth continued. "In golf, you can be very limited in terms of what you are able to do in this game if you don't have a sponsor."
Despite her disappointment in being eliminated from the Race so early, Tanaka's relentless attitude still shines through.
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat," said Tanaka. "We both said we need a redemption round. We made one of the biggest goofs in Amazing Race history by not looking to the right and not seeing Phil when he was just a few yards away. If we got another chance, we would be so grateful, and I think we would win."
Meanwhile, Tanaka's focus has shifted back to golf.
"I'm very excited to say that I'm preparing for the upcoming season of golf," she said. "I'm touring on the Futures Tour and Canadian Tour, and I'm going to play as many Monday qualifiers for LPGA events as I can get in to. Right now, it's up to sponsorship. It's very hard to fund everything myself. I'm getting myself out there because I know that I can achieve my dreams."
If past history is any indication, Maiya Tanaka's name will be seen on the LPGA tour before long.