It’s not an exaggeration to say the green Waikapu on 30 restaurant has been there forever. It’s a little convenience store, selling plate lunches, sandwiches, snacks and drinks, but inside are little reminders–a shelf covered with old bottles, tin signs–that recall its past. The building dates back to the early years of the 20th century, when it was the old Sakamoto Store. Out front, in 1918, little Soichi Sakamoto–the 12-year-old son of the store’s proprietor–was hit by a Maui Police truck and nearly killed. Had Sakamoto died then and there, one of Maui’s greatest stories of courage and determination might never have happened.
Most people on Maui today know of Coach Soichi Sakamoto Pool, an eight-lane, 50-meter public pool located near War Memorial Gym in Wailuku. But the details of why we honor Sakamoto today aren’t so apparent. Even the County of Maui’s webpage for the pool includes just two sentences on Sakamoto:
“Named for legendary Maui Swim Coach Soichi Sakamoto who developed many Olympic champions in the 30’s & 40’s. ‘Maui Ditch kids’ trained in the Irrigation ditches using repeat & wind-sprint techniques. Coach Sakamoto brought these revolutionary training techniques to the world and are the standard today.”
The story of Sakamoto and his “Three-Year Swim Club” is an extraordinary tale of Hawaiian and Japanese-American kids in the 1930s who in just a few short years went from swimming in the Pu‘unene sugar plantation’s irrigation ditches to equaling or besting swimmers who’d medaled in the Olympics. It’s a wild, improbable story that makes for popular Hollywood movies but rarely happens in real life.
But this story’s real. Coach Sakamoto, who taught at Pu‘unene Elementary School, really did revolutionize swimming instruction and train his kids to go to the Olympics (his plan called for three years of training–hence the name of his club). The kids really did learn how to swim in the ditches (a very dangerous activity, then and now, and even today Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar has posted ads warning people to stay out of the ditches). And some of his kids really did qualify for the 1940 Olympics (which were cancelled in 1939 when war broke out in Europe). And they did so facing all the racist prejudice and injustice that came with being a person of color in America in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Now there’s a new book out called The Three-Year Swim Club that details Sakamoto and the sugar ditch kids. Written by Julie Checkoway, the book represents the first thorough documentation of Sakamoto’s life, and the achievements of his swimmers. I recently spoke to Checkoway by phone to discuss the book, her research and why she chose to spend so much time writing about Maui’s sugar ditch kids.
MAUITIME: Thanks so much for speaking with us. I heard you’re recovering from a concussion, and didn’t do a lot of promotion.
JULIE CHECKOWAY: I had mostly finished the book, which was lucky. I was taking a puppy out on a rainy morning, and I slipped down the back step. I hit my head five times. It cost me a lot of cognitive abilities right away. I couldn’t work on the proofs of the book. I lost a lot of abilities to retrieve language. When the proofs came, I had some extra time. My husband was super helpful. I rewrote the ending of the book.
MT: How were you originally going to end the book?
JC: I was going to end with Bill Smith [a Hawaiian boy from Honolulu who received training from Sakamoto and ultimately medaled in the 1948 Olympics but who wasn’t an original Three-Year Swim Club member]. But I was always uncomfortable that he was the de facto hero of the story. He fulfilled the dream of the club, but it wasn’t enough to acknowledge the gold. I had to acknowledge the achievements of others. I went back to reading about Keo Nakama’s swim in the Molokai Channel, and I got really weepy.
MT: Why is the story of the club not so well known anymore?
JC: When I’ve been on Maui, I found myself puzzled. I went to Kahului Harbor. There are a lot of old-timers hanging out there during the day. I asked the guys what it was like in the old days. They asked me why. I told them [about the 1939 boating accident that killed three people there, including Sakamoto’s brother Benzo], and they said they’d never heard of it. Benzo’s accident had been a front-page story in The Maui News at the time.
I went to the old Sakamoto store and saw all this stuff from the original store–tiny medicine bottles, metal signs. I approached the owner, and she said that when she bought the store, all this stuff came with it, but she didn’t know the story.
I went to Pu‘unene School. I went into the classrooms and could see Sakamoto’s handwriting was still on the walls. I asked if anyone knew what had happened in the school in the 1930s. They didn’t know. I felt kinda like a jerk, but it was such a gift to me to be able to share what little I knew.
One reason is that when you talk story, it changes. People valued their history tremendously, but they didn’t archive it. People love their family’s history, but it might be in their garage.
MT: How did you first hear of the club?
JC: I was working at the Salt Lake Tribune as a staff writer. Maybe I’ll find a book there, I thought, but nothing felt right. My agent Eileen Cope called from New York. She scours newspapers, the Internet, for stories. She saw this somewhere, I don’t even know where. She called me at my desk at the Tribune, and said she came across this story that she didn’t think had been told. She asked me if I thought it was true. “Eileen,” I said, “if that’s even close to being true, then it’s too good to be true. And if it’s even vaguely true, then I want to see what I can do.”
MT: Where did you start looking for information?
JC: Keith Arakaki keeps an eclectic website [Hawaiiswim.org]. He’s a wonderful coach, but it’s not a great website. You go through it, and there is wonderful writing that tells bits of the Three Year Swim Club story. I called Keith, and he was so generous. From Keith, it became clear that if I followed the trail he laid out for me, I could pull together the story.
I looked through The Maui News archives and people’s basements. There was a 27-minute documentary [on Soichi Sakamoto] called Coach. The filmmaker had thousands of pages of interview transcripts on Oahu. I felt so incompetent to put all these together, but didn’t know what else to do.
MT: Only a few 3YSC members are still alive. Were you able to speak with them?
JC: Yes. I asked them, and they were okay with it. But the swimmers were so modest about their achievements. Part was from their culture, but there was also a sense that it was a team story and no one person owned it. They were inculcated by Coach Sakamoto to never boast. But when it became clear that their story was getting lost, they said they would tell Coach’s story.
MT: That sounds like it would make research difficult.
JC: For instance, in 1940 Fujiko Katsutani had qualified for the Olympics [which were cancelled that year due to World War II] but had never received her certification. When her son grew up, he said his mom never spoke of her swimming career. “My mom just let it go,” he said.
To the degree it can, the book is to honor the swimmers, let them live again and show the incredible heroism of this incredible team. But it also honors their families–they knew the swimmers, but their stories are almost gone. I have no business telling it, so I’m just handing it back to them.
MT: Will this be a movie?
JC: If it is, I hope they don’t mess it up. It has to be done by the right people. This is a big story that the country lost. It’s part of world history.
MT: Lee Tonouchi wrote a play titled Three Year Swim Club a few years ago. How did that factor into your work?
JC: I was nervous–I’m a white woman from New England–so I talked to him. I asked him how he felt about me doing this story. “I’m dealing with the myths,” he said. “It’s a stylized play. You go ahead, do it.” He didn’t have any more material than I did.
Other people were trying to make a film [about the club]. They had the best intentions, but why have a feature film before the history?
MT: How long did you research your book?
JC: I started looking at the story in 2008. I just wanted to find out if there was enough material for a book–if what was in the public record could be corroborated by living people. Overall, it took five solid years.
I never said, “Will you help me?” I just asked questions. People decided how much they were going to help me. They were extremely generous. They came with whatever archival material they had. I digitized everything, then gave it back. I didn’t want to promise anything. The people making the film had promised them the moon. I just asked questions. It was a very organic process.
I said to every person I interviewed, “I’m not asking for your permission, but your forgiveness. The final product will have errors because I cannot possibly get everything right.
MT: Well, your book has remarkable detail. Sakamoto died in 1997, but I remember reading a paragraph you wrote describing him having lunch at George Higa’s Honolulu Cafe in the 1930s–what he was eating, how famished he was. And I kept wondering how you got all that detail.
JC: Would you really like to know?
JC: Every sentence in the book is sourced. For that part, in 1984 there was a film documentary called Coach. There were transcripts that hadn’t made it into the film, and in those he described how he always had to control his appetite, especially in front of the kids. So I called and called people until I found a waitress who used to work there. I asked what was on the menu, what it felt like, what the seats were like, the windows. I got menus from different restaurants in the area. Things like that all had to come together. So many pieces fell together, and it was such a pleasure to write.
MT: If he were alive and coaching today, how would we view Soichi Sakamoto?
JC: That he was way ahead of his time. I think what people would say is, “I never knew he invented this.” The swimmers were very humble, the coaches were humble. They collaborate.
MT: What did he invent?
JC: No one understood that stroke technique was the key to a swimmer’s success. You had to tailor it to each swimmer. He had a scientific method. He didn’t just say, “swim faster, work harder!” He’d say, “your elbow goes like this, your fingers go like this.” No one did that at the time.
MT: What do you hope readers take from your book?
JC: It’s just a book. Having a book out is like not having a book out. Books don’t matter so much anymore. But I hope everyone on Maui buys the book, or shares it, or gets it from the library.
Somebody said, “Don’t you see how it speaks to the fundamental argument politicians are having today about immigrants?” It was a time of the “yellow peril,” where people were incarcerated for being Japanese. But people of all ethnicities have given to this country. Hard work doesn’t always raise you out of poverty–we know that. But at the same time, to dismiss the power and beauty of what immigrants can offer is missing the point.
This book tells a story of heroes of Japanese ancestry. We don’t have many of those book on the shelves. And as much as I loved Unbroken, it portrays Japanese as horrendous villains. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but I wanted to tell other stories. That film and book makes you angry, but what’s so hard about telling a different story? Balance the scales a little bit? We need to understand the importance of Japanese Americans in history, and the incredibly raw deal they had, and how they prevailed. These are people I’m passionate about, and have come to love and honor.
By Julie Checkoway
Grand Central Publishing, 2015
415 pages, $27
Cover photo of (L to R) Keo Nakama, Soichi Sakamoto and Halo Hirose courtesy Lee Matsui/Grand Central Publishing
Cover design: Darris Hurst