“I was a stranger,” writes Julie Checkoway in her preamble to this nearly lost story of a remarkable Maui swimming coach, “but it seemed to me that someone ought to try to save it.” Save the story she has, through exhaustive research and sparkling prose.
In 1932, a schoolteacher named Soichi Sakamoto couldn’t bear to deprive the children of sugar plantation workers from playing in the only recreational water available: a dirty irrigation ditch. Sakamoto got permission to watch the children so they could keep playing in the ditch, and watching turned into a desire to teach. First, Sakamoto showed the kids how to float; then he taught what he called “speed-floating.” Eventually, his innovative teaching methods came to include rigorous physical training and individualized techniques for each swimmer.
In 1937, Sakamoto challenged the children to join the “Three-Year Swim Club,” committing to three years of total sacrifice and discipline. Their audacious goal: nothing less than placing swimmers on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team.
Checkoway’s compelling narrative reveals the incredible odds Sakamoto and his team faced: meager budgets, exhausting travel via ship, discrimination in mainland pools. And in the end, of course, the 1940 Tokyo Olympics never took place. If it had, Maui swimmer Fujiko Katsutani would have been a member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Swim Team.
Sakamoto wasn’t to be denied. At the 1948 Olympics, one of his swimmers, Bill Smith Jr., won the 400-meter freestyle. Sakamoto became coach of the University of Hawaii swim team, producing seven Olympians and 25 national champions over his long career. Through it all, he adhered to his vision to use “swimming as a means of teaching . . . children life values."