Book Review – “The Three-Year Swim Club”, Recalling An Era When Anything...

Book Review – “The Three-Year Swim Club”, Recalling An Era When Anything was Possible

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Book Cover for "The Three-Year Swim Club" By Julie Checkoway

Alan Suemori
Commentary
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Coach Soichi Sakamoto studies a swimmer’s form in the sugar irrigation ditch in Pu‘unënë, where Sakamoto turned ordinary plantation kids into championship swimmers. (Photos courtesy Hawaii Swim Club)

Coach Soichi Sakamoto studies a swimmer’s form in the sugar irrigation ditch in Pu‘unënë, where Sakamoto turned ordinary plantation kids into championship swimmers. (Photos courtesy Hawaii Swim Club)

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.

Coach Soichi Sakamoto in 1960 with one of his best Three-Year Swim Club achievers, Keo Nakama. In 1961, Nakama became the first person to swim the entire 27-mile Ka Iwi Channel from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu.

Coach Soichi Sakamoto in 1960 with one of his best Three-Year Swim Club achievers, Keo Nakama. In 1961, Nakama became the first person to swim the entire 27-mile Ka Iwi Channel from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu.

 

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.

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A 1976 photo of Coach Sakamoto with Three-Year Swim Club member Bill Smith, who captured two gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics.

A 1976 photo of Coach Sakamoto with Three-Year Swim Club member Bill Smith, who captured two gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics.

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