Sisters Bring Family Mindset to Coaching

The sibling duo of Mari Malama and Nani Tanaka work together to bring a family mentality to their skating program as it reaches new heights in the Pacific Northwest

By Rachel Lutz

“It’s a joke but it’s not really a joke that the team is family. ‘Ohana’ right?'” Mari Malama said, using the Hawaiian word for “family." “But the more I see it over the years, it’s very clear to me that the team is something special. The environment that we have with the kids, how the kids interact with each other and they interact with us, it does feel like family.”

Two women stand with their young skaters on the ice
Malama and Tanaka with two of their skaters at their home rink in Portland

Malama and her sister, Nani Tanaka, both began skating in Honolulu, Hawaii, but life later later brought them to Portland, Oregon. Soon after, the sisters embarked on a mission to put Pacific Northwest figure skating on the map through their program Axis on Ice.

When Tanaka started skating in Honolulu, it was not popular among her peers, but it was certainly a unique after-school activity. Their mother loved skating and Dorothy Hamill, but especially loved that the sport was indoors and air conditioned. Malama was “essentially born in the rink” when she came along 10 years later, and followed her sister into the sport.

Growing up a skater, Tanaka thought a coaching job made sense when she turned 18, since she was still competing and was spending so much time at the rink already. She moved to Portland when she got married and Malama spent summers visiting her. Since Malama enjoyed the vibes from that part of the “mainland” so much, she decided to go to school at the University of Portland with an eye toward going to medical school. Tanaka then brought Malama into the fold so they could start coaching together at the same rink, and to help break Malama out of her shell.

But while Malama was preparing her medical school application and working with doctors at a hospital, Malama got some strange advice.

“They basically told me, ‘If there’s something else that you’re passionate about, you should go try it,’” Malama recalled. “’Go and follow it and see where it goes before committing yourself to this,' wasn’t the advice that I was expecting from them.”

Ultimately, Malama did not go to medical school, but instead decided to stay in Portland to coach. While she was in the process of debating her decision, students of hers and Tanaka’s began to indicate they would like to train full-time and transition to online school. Without coaches dedicated to working with them full-time, though, the transition wouldn’t make sense.

Two women sit in the kiss and cry with a male skater at the 2023 U.S. Championships
Malama and Tanaka reach to Samuel Mindra's scores at the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

The sisters took the leap.

Soon after, they brought their first student to sectionals. In 2021, their hard work was recognized, and they were awarded the Professional Skaters Association President's Award of Excellence.

At the 2024 Prevagen U.S. Figure Skating Championships that took place in Columbus, Ohio, the sisters had three skaters compete. Ryan William Azadpour finished 19th among the junior men, while Samuel Mindra and Michael Xie placed 14th and 15th in the championship men’s division, respectively. They also currently coach a skater who represented Great Britain at the Gangwon 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games. 

“At the end of the day, we’re family,” said Tanaka. “I’m never going to get rid of you and you’re never going to get rid of me. There are times we disagree, but at the end of the day, we keep going. I think that’s the difference. We have to get over it. The bottom line is, we’re in it together.”

The mentality of sticking together no matter what has served them well as the pair coach their athletes as a team.

Nani and Mari stand with a group of athletes wearing red National Development tshirts
Malama and Tanaks with their athletes at the 2023 National Development Camp

“She’s an extremely talented choreographer,” Tanaka said of her sister. “When she started choreographing, it was because we had a student that needed some fun new ideas. I was like, ‘Take this and figure out what you can do.’ She did all the research. I remember that particular program. I was like, ‘wow I didn’t know you could do that.’”

The two have learned to work so well together that they have been able to identify the differences in each other’s personalities and can work together as a team in order to get things done.

“I’ve come a long way in terms of social skills from being an antisocial teenager who didn’t want to talk to anybody, but she definitely is better at having the tough conversations if they need to be had,” Malama added of her sister’s strengths. “She’s also very outgoing. When we were first going to PSA conferences, she was the one to approach someone and introduce herself and say, ‘this is my sister.’”

Tanaka admitted that being a mom of three kids also gives her some relatability among the parents that bring their children to skate.

“I think it gives me a different kind of outlook on things,” she said. “I know how hard it is to do the daily grind of getting your kid where they need to be, getting them there on time, paying for it and providing that side of it. From the mom perspective, and then from the coach perspective, I think that it gives me a different kind of holistic outlook on things.”

The sisters hope their program continues to blossom and they get to keep building a strong foundation in their community, together. 

“I know that it’s just the beginning,” Tanaka said. “There’s so much more for us to do … I don’t even think we’ve scratched the surface yet of what we can do. I think things are just starting to roll in the right direction.”

U.S. Figure Skating is proud to celebrate our diverse membership. Click here to share your story with us for a chance to be featured on U.S. Figure Skating’s website or social media channels.