Thursday, December 3, 2015

THE THREE-YEAR SWIM CLUB: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway

Image result for three year swim clubIn the mid-1930's Soichi Sakamoto, a school teacher on the island of Maui, noticed the sugar plantation kids playing in the filthy camp irrigation ditches.  Something sparked his interest in the kids and he organized a swimming club, despite being a non-swimmer himself.  As many of the kids began to show natural abilities in the water, Soichi Sakamoto continued to coach them, even though he was not paid.  He instilled in the best swimmers a goal that they could be Olympiads by 1940 and named their group The Three Year Swim Club.  Soon they were being noticed beyond Hawaii, entering competitions on the mainland and in Europe.  Sakamoto's coaching methods were called extreme and unorthodox by most, but the results could not be denied.  Today we would label Sakamoto's methods a mixture of cross and interval training, both widely accepted techniques in almost all sports.

This book is lengthy and was not an easy read, but in the end it was worthwhile.  Author Checkoway goes into each swimmer's home life, swim competitions, and records, and sometimes I got a little lost in descriptions of races, but real swim aficionados will love those details.  It was another of those "undiscovered gems of history" that I find so entertaining.  The sugar ditch kids were born and raised in poverty, most Japanese-American and their sudden success in swimming plunged them into a world beyond the ditches and sugar cane.  When they traveled on the mainland and abroad, they were a curious oddity, superheros of the swimming world. While they witnessed blatant discrimination against blacks, their own treatment depended entirely on who was willing to speak out for them. A parallel story to their training and success is the one of Japan's quest for the 1940 Olympics.  Finally their bid was accepted, and Sakamoto fully expected a group of his swimmers would represent the United States (Hawaii was then a US territory), but then Japan invaded China and the IOC decided Japan was not a safe country.  After quick deliberations,  Helsinki was chosed as the alternate cite.  Then as Hitler's aggression through Europe grew, the games were totally cancelled.
Later in 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed the families of many of the sugar ditch kids (now young adults) were held in detainment camps.  As the war progressed, Japanese-Americans were allowed to serve, and many of the swimmers were sent to Italy and France.  Miraculously none died in combat and all returned home.  Bill Smith, one of the swimmers, served his entire time at the Great Lakes Naval Base, a safe duty, but his contribution to the war effort was huge.  Early in the war, over half of those entering the Navy could NOT swim.  Smith and other top American swimmers were sent to set up a much needed swimming component to basic training.  Thousands of lives were saved that way.  The book ends with the 1948 Olympics where some of  original sugar ditch kids and also younger members of the Three Year Swim Club represented the United States in London.  I requested this book through my library system.

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