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Loud and Clear

Golf phenom Pono Tokioka earns a scholarship to play next year at UH-Manoa. Because he’s deaf, he’s also become an inspiration for anyone with a disability. That’s a message he hopes comes through loud and clear

Recent Kaua’i High School graduate Pono Tokioka is taking his talents to the University of Hawaii at Manoa golf team with a tuition scholarship as the only representative from the Garden Isle.

That would be noteworthy enough. Adding to his accomplishment, Tokioka is deaf.

The humble-yet-talented athlete says it “felt good” when he got his scholarship letter. He now enjoys imagining what it will be like playing under UH golf coach Ronn Miyashiro.

“I never thought I would get a scholarship from anywhere,” Tokioka says through his mother Beth Tokioka, an American Sign Language interpreter.

He has been shooting under par since he was in eighth grade, and has started on the Red Raider varsity golf team since he was a freshman.

Parents Beth and Jimmy Tokioka, a member of the state House of Representatives, couldn’t be more proud.

“Pretty much everything is harder for Pono because he is deaf,” says Beth, Kaua’i County communications director. “He has to work harder to understand and be understood. But he never complains and tries his best to get along without drawing attention to the fact that he may be struggling. He demonstrates courage, grace and dignity every day.”

Says Jimmy: “He always gave everything he did 100 percent – he’s a very competitive kid and never let any obstacles get in his way. English was always hard for him but other than that, he looked at all of the obstacles that he faced as challenges and rarely back down. To others who have similar challenges in life, embrace the challenges together and never give up.

“We heard from students who stayed in the dorms at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind that many of them who stay in the dorm didn’t want to go home for the holidays because their parents would-n’t know how to communicate with them. That brought tears to our eyes and helped us to stay focused on learning ASL as best as we could to make sure that he never had that feeling being around his family.”

Moving outside of his comfort zone seems to be part of Pono’s personality.

“Many people encouraged us to enroll him in the deaf school on Oahu, but he insisted he could succeed in a mainstream setting. And he did,” Beth says. “He’s graduating with close to a 3.5 GPA.”

Offering sage words for an 18-year-old, Pono says if he were to advise other youths who may be in a similar situation, he would tell them to go after their dreams.

“Keep doing what you’re doing. If you enjoy something that you love, go after it. And don’t think about what other people say about you, it’s your life. Do whatever you want and make sure you have fun.”

He says much of what he’s learned on the golf course can be applied to life.

“If you have a bad hole, you have to forget about it just like if you have bad day,” he explains. “The next day is a different day, a new day. And you have to just start again.”

A local celebrity of sorts, Pono was thrust into the spotlight at a very young age. He made national news as a PONY baseball player after being denied a sign language interpreter while playing on the Big Island. PONY later agreed to a settlement filed by the U.S. Department of Justice on Pono’s behalf, and modified its rules to allow players to use sign language interpreters during games.

Of course, he’s appeared in local news thanks to his golfing skills, too.

Perhaps that’s because having played in dozens of tournaments and championship games, he’s taken first place nine times in Kaua’i Junior Golf Association tournaments, including the Match Play championships in the Boys 13-14 division in July 2009, and the Boys 15-18 division in July 2012. He also took second in the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association, Kiahuna Junior Classic, Boys 13-14 division in 2009, and in the International Junior Golf Tour at Wigwam Resort in Arizona in April 2010.

Pono says the one price to pay for his exceptional golf skill has been the recognition that comes along with it, as nowadays he would rather keep a bit more to himself.

“Sometimes I don’t enjoy being in the newspaper,” he says. “But I do have a lot of support from a lot of people and I appreciate that.”

As far as leaving baseball for golf, Pono says he was “so over it,” and never looked back.

“I was ready for a change from baseball,” he says. “When I started in junior golf I enjoyed meeting the other kids, and they’ve become my really good friends. There’s golf etiquette, so I learned how to conduct myself on the course, and I think that’s helped me make good choices in other parts of my life.”

Golf has taken Pono to several states, including Florida, Colorado and Oregon, as well as out of the country. Last year he went to Tsu, Japan, where he represented the United States in the World Deaf Golf Championship. While there, he qualified for one of six men’s team spots. He finished eighth out of 55 in the men’s division.

“I like seeing new places and getting to try out new (types of golf course) grasses,” he says.

In addition to wanting to improve his golf game and “making the nationals” with his college team next year, Pono looks forward to getting his degree in business accounting while at UH – a good fit, given that math is one of his academic strengths.

He plans to use the degree to go into business for himself and perhaps teach golf.

“There aren’t too many deaf golfers, so I want to encourage other people who are deaf.”

When asked whether he sees himself as an example for other people, Pono says “I hope so.”

“If other people with disabilities can see that I can succeed, hopefully they know they can succeed also. People have given me respect for what I’ve accomplished and I appreciate that,” he says. Those people include family, friends, coaches and teachers.

“So many people in the community have supported and encouraged me. The golf courses on Kaua’i also have really supported me and allowed me to practice on some of the best courses in the world. There are too many to list, but I appreciate them all.”

His mom says if she were to advise parents who are in similar situations to what hers was years ago, it would be: “If your child has a disability or a challenge, don’t ignore it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you’ll find they have unique abilities all their own. And if they need support and accommodations in the classroom, it’s important that you advocate for that. I’ve always viewed our role as parents is to try to stay one step ahead of him to ensure all the doors are unlocked, and then let him decide which one he wants to walk through.”

Though he’s moving to Oahu, Pono says he is grateful for growing up on Kaua’i:

“It is a safe place and I have a lot of family here. You can go surfing and play golf whenever you want.”

When he’s not playing or practicing golf, Pono says he is likely going to the beach with friends or watching golf tournaments on TV.

“I love watching Tiger Woods play,” he says.