By Andy Lohman 

VCU Men’s Soccer defender Ryo Shimazaki is a workhorse. In his sophomore season not only is he establishing himself on the Rams’ back line, he’s learning an entirely new culture.

“What he brings is a tireless work rate,” Head Coach Dave Giffard said.

Shimazaki made the decision to play Division I soccer in the United States, and committed to VCU early in his senior year of high school after impressing the coaches at a prospect camp.

The only problem was speaking English.

“The biggest wall is language,” Shimazaki said. “When I came the first time, I could barely speak any English words. I just said, ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘okay.’ So I was struggling, even what Coach Giff was saying I couldn’t understand.”

“I don’t think he understood a word I said to him a year ago,” Giffard said. “He would just smile and shake his head, and you just know he doesn’t understand.”

In just over a year, Shimazaki’s English has improved dramatically. While before he struggled to get across his thoughts, now he can be as vocal as he likes.

“Obviously my English is better,” Shimazaki said. “And I was really shy because I couldn’t speak English. I want to speak, but it’s hard to communicate with the other guys. But now I try to speak as much as possible, try to communicate as much as possible, with my teammates, with my friends. That’s a big difference when I came the first year to now.”

Few Japanese student-athletes play collegiately in the United States because of the language and cultural barriers. Out of the 205 Division I men’s soccer programs, Shimazaki is one of just 14 Japanese players.

While Shimazaki broke down the cultural barriers off the field, he also adapted to a more physically demanding game on it.

“Athletically I think he was a good step above some of the players he competed with [in Japan],” Giffard said. “I think he needed to be in an environment where everybody else was more athletic and bigger and stronger to force him to learn how to play in that type of a situation.”

Like he worked to learn a new language, Shimazaki worked to get his body ready for the collegiate game. He spent time in the weight room with Assistant Sports Performance Coach Guil Moreira, and worked to hone his diet.

“He really has grown from a guy that was naturally probably more athletic than the guys he played with to a guy who really works at taking care of his body, becoming stronger, becoming fitter, becoming more durable,” Giffard said. “He’s really transformed himself that way, now the game is starting to slow down for him a little bit too.”

As the game has slowed down for Shimazaki, he has been able to contribute to the attack. He scored his first collegiate goal in the 4-1 win over Davidson, then registered an assist in the next game at Fordham, a 1-0 victory.

After making one start in 14 appearances during the 21-match season in 2016, the sophomore right back has started all 10 of VCU’s matches in 2017. While he enjoys being a part of the attack, his defensive responsibilities still take priority.

“I think connection with the defensive line, that’s the biggest,” Shimazaki said. “If you don’t give up a goal to the other team, you’re not going to lose a game.”

Now an established part of the back line, he has also found a home in VCU.

“Here there’s a lot of diversity,” Shimazaki said. “So I can make friends, and even when I graduate I can keep the relationship with the friends I made here.”

Shimazaki had to make a leap of faith to move halfway across the globe, but the Rams are happy that he did.

“I’m not sure there are too many bigger jumps you could go through between Japanese culture off the field and American university culture off the field. They’re substantially different,” Giffard said. “He’s a very likable person. He works so hard and gives so much, he’s such a good teammate and such a good friend that you fit in.”