Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
There is a hauntingly telling interlude in Julie Checkoway’s second book, “The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids,” that captures all at once the complexity and mystery of Soichi Sakamoto, the legendary Maui-born nisei, who some consider the greatest American swimming coach of his era. As Sakamoto grew more successful, he became increasingly inaccessible and distant from his family, driven by a voice to achieve perfection in the water that only he could hear. In the darkness of their Wailuku home, his wife, Mary Po‘opa‘a Sakamoto, was often awakened in the middle of the night by the ghostly sight of her husband sitting in the darkness, bathed in the faint glow of the light of his movie projector, advancing and reversing through the celluloid images of his swimmers churning through endless laps in faraway pools around the world. It was as if Sakamoto could only find peace in the sanctuary of his imagination, detached from the reality of the everyday life that swirled around him.
Sakamoto had grown up in an era that was unique in American history. It was the golden age of the great amateur and it was a time when even backyard tinkerers, gypsy moth pilots and absolute beginners could create something world-changing: Imagine brilliant and unconventional loners working in the shadows of their anonymity, transforming the world with the alchemy of their own talent. The big money professionals and giant corporations had not taken over yet and there was still room for these small town Davids to make their mark in a world of Goliaths.
Sakamoto himself was the most unlikely of stories. He was a fifth grade grammar school teacher who could barely swim, trapped in a backwater plantation town within shouting distance of nowhere. But Sakamoto was an unapologetic, exorbitant dreamer who rebelled against the constraints of following the same straight-edged path as his contemporaries. As a youth, he had spent years knocking around the corners of his small world, trying to find his way out until he was forced to return to his home island of Maui. And then, as if preordained by destiny, he stumbled into what would become his life’s work.
Banned from the only serviceable pool within reach, his swimmers initially practiced in the flotsam-filled sugar cane ditches of Pu‘unënë because there was nowhere else to go. Knowing almost nothing about teaching swimming, he began by telling the children to float on their backs and then their stomachs, imagining the water as a soft cloud that would cushion them and protect them forever. Soon he had them windmilling their arms and kicking their legs in a wild frenzy he called “speed floating.” When they tired of that, he began to organize tumultuous weekly races that drew crowds from all over the sugar plantation camp.
He would develop a systematic blueprint of breaking down a swimming stroke that would be years ahead of everyone else: It was Sakamoto who would invent modern-day technical innovations such as interval training, negative splits, dry land conditioning, resistance exercises and much more using discarded wooden planks as kick boards and leftover, rusted-out buckets that he filled with rocks and sand to create his own plantation-style dumbbells. Always controversial, he pushed his swimmers far beyond what experts at the time considered safe limits for athletes. For that, he would be depicted by some to be as much a tyrant as a visionary.
At the center of everything from the very start was a dream so extravagant it bordered on madness when people heard him declare it out loud: He would take these ditch swimmers, these dead-end kids, these children who were trapped within the codified world of plantation Hawai‘i, and prepare them to compete — and win — in the Olympic Games.
His legacy would be extraordinary: Sakamoto’s teams would set over a half-dozen world and Olympic records, win six national championships, and he would coach 10 Olympians and help train six more. In 1948, he would be named an associate coach on the United States Olympic Swimming Team, and in 1966, he would be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Perhaps most importantly, the “Three-Year Swim Club,” which he founded in 1937 as an inspired ideal to reach the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, would become the template for the wide rainbow of age-group swim organizations that exist in Hawai‘i today.
Checkoway wisely opens her book with a seminal race in the history of Hawai‘i swimming. In 1937, 15-year-old Keo Nakama was a raggedy, hollow-cheeked, bowlegged unknown from Maui as he faced the Olympian Ralph Gilman and national champion Dick Keating in the inaugural Duke Kahanamoku Outdoor Swimming Meet. Dressed in a shabby, worn-out, oversized swimsuit that only accentuated his collapsed chest and spindly arms, Nakama struck a pitiful pose on the pool deck, attracting only sympathetic looks and derisive stares from the huge crowd. Even more of a target was Sakamoto, who many blamed for the audacity of even entering the young boy in a men’s race that would only expose him to the inevitable humiliation that was to follow.
If Checkoway has a gift, it is her ability to capture the mounting drama in this race from the very start, building the tension incrementally as she sets the stage for the showdown even before the swimmers hit the water. With the sharp report of the starter’s gun, the race appeared over from the very beginning and the crowd settled back to watch what they believed would be the unfolding of a terrible public beat-down of an innocent kid who was too much of a country hick to realize that he didn’t belong. Instead, inching his way from far behind, Nakama would steadily gain on Gilman and Keating, finishing the race in a ferocious roar during the last 40 meters to touch the wall first before collapsing in complete exhaustion. Nakama’s victory would signal the start of a second golden era of swimming in Hawai‘i, matched only by the first golden age of the early 20th century which was led by Duke Kahanamoku, Warren and Pua Kealoha, the Kahili brothers and others.
From Nakama’s win, Checkoway traces the ascent of the Three-Year Swim Club from 1937 to 1948, documenting its rise from the ditches of Maui to the world stage. Intertwined around this improbable origin song is the tale of the modern Olympics — an always-compelling kabuki drama dominated by iconic international figures such as America’s Avery Brundage and Japan’s Jigoro Kano. At its heart, Checkoway’s story is a book of ghosts and she does a remarkable job of reconstructing a world that has long since passed into memory. In this lost Eden, the Waikiki Natatorium is brand new and Duke Kahanamoku is still sprinting across the water with the crowd delirious at the finish. The Honolulu Cafe is still open for business on Fort and Beretania and the Wai‘alae Avenue trolley car is still grumbling its way up to the Koko Head Avenue turnaround. Beach boys still dive for coins in Honolulu Harbor and Hollywood movie stars like Alice Faye and Shirley Temple are still sailing to Hawai‘i on the magnificent steamships of the glittering Matson luxury line. Checkoway’s attention to detail is meticulous and she captures the evocative atmosphere of a magical era in all of its immense quirkiness, rhythm and poetry.
“The Three-Year Swim Club” is more than just a travelogue of the gilded past, however. It is also a parade of heroes, some of them deeply flawed, but all of them equipped with a singular courage that pushes them to dream beyond the limitations of their narrow lives. Here in the pages of Checkoway’s book is Keo Nakama at the peak of his athletic power, dominating the international swimming stage in a way few of us can even imagine today. If Nakama is Sakamoto’s favored son, his dark twin is his free-spirited, self-absorbed, lost boy teammate, Takashi “Halo” Hirose, who embodies the rebellious, all too human shadow side of this extended Greek family drama. Casting his immense light over everyone is Duke Kahanamoku, the bigger-than-life swimming and surfing demigod who emanates unremitting poise, composure and dignity wherever he travels, even as he is the frequent victim of countless acts of racism and discrimination on the U.S. mainland.
For all of its considerable strengths, however, Checkoway’s book never fully untangles the web of Sakamoto’s inner life, nor explains the demons that drove him to keep those closest to him at arm’s length, and perhaps that is an impossible task to ask of it. Who can explain the eccentricities of a lonely dreamer or why miracles happen or why the gods reach down to tap some mortals and make them divine if only for a brief moment?
Checkoway ends her story with Bill Smith’s extraordinary performance at the London Olympics in 1948. Smith, who many considered a washed-out has-been at age 24, had struggled to regain his former dominance in the sport and was hardly a threat to challenge the frontrunners in what had been his signature race: the 400-meter freestyle. Matched up against the reigning American champion, who was almost 10 years younger, Smith appeared like an apparition from yesteryear when he stepped onto the deck of London’s Empire Pool. Instead, he would lead the race from start to finish and set an Olympic record that would earn him the second of his two gold medals at the London games.
With Smith’s victory, the mastery of world swimming by Hawai‘i athletes would linger until the mid-’50s, then disappear, never to return again. The magic that took Maui kids from the plantation ditches to the pinnacle of the world stage dissipated to wherever it had come from and Hawai‘i would never again be the dominant power in the swimming world it was in the middle of the 20th century. Like a brief, powerful ocean storm that had come and gone, the second golden era of Hawaiian swimming was over.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.