The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story Of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids And Their Quest For Olympic Glory, by Julie Checkoway
In reading this book, which I generally enjoyed, although I am not particularly well-versed in swimming history, I was struck by a somewhat contradictory set of feelings. On the one hand, I felt that this particular narrative about a group of underprivileged Hawaiian children of sugar workers, many of them of native Hawaiian or Japanese heritage, who made it to the heights of swimming excellence (including Olympic glory) in the face of discrimination and the difficulties of World War II, would make a great movie. Of course, I think it would make a great (even obvious) movie for reasons that I am not universally pleased about, including the author’s open Democratic partisanship and the obviousness of the book’s cultural and identity politics. That said, when one seeks to write a book about ethnic minorities in the 1930’s and 1940’s, one is going to have a lot of unpleasant matter to write about, including internment camps, discrimination, and the troubles of war. The book, thankfully, has a friendly and colorful cast of characters, though, that allow the book to rise above the level of political screed, which it might have if left to the author’s predilections alone.
Containing roughly 350 pages of material, this book is divided into five parts and eighteen chapters, bookeneded by a preface and the author’s note. The first part of the book examines the early dreams of the club and its humble beginnings in swimming in a ditch in the sugar plantations of Maui from 1932-1937, which takes up the first four chapters and includes the background of coach Soichi Sakamoto and that of his earliest students. After that comes three chapters of the events of 1938 that led the Maui swimmers to national glory and found their Olympic dreams of 1940 shattered by the protracted warfare that became part of World War II. Three chapters deal with the continued success of 1939 and the coup that led to a haole to be the official leader of the team instead of Sakamoto. Part four shows the team maintaining its strength and having a new generation of young swimmers, both young men and women, while living under the shadow of the looming entrance of the United States into the war, including the entrance of one Mr. Bill Smith into the Maui swimmers from his Honolulu background. The fifth and final part of the book then deals with the struggles of World War II and what was going on in the home front and the final opportunities for Olympic glory for the swimmers of Maui.
At the end, the reader is left with a set of complicated feelings. How is one to think about the “mythical Olympians” who never had the chance to compete in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II? How does one feel about “Halo” Hirose, the overly privileged and pampered swimmer who never reached his full potential because he lacked the drive to train with diligence, and who had the habit of flaking out and going incognito for unknown reasons? How does one feel about the intensity, even the obsession, of coach Sakamoto to make his team as great as possible and the distant relationships he had with others and his obvious eccentricities as well as his fundamental role to the development of swimming training? How does one feel about Keo Nakama’s missing the chance for Olympic glory because his student teaching was considered going professional by the blinkered AAU and his efforts in middle age to swim from Maui to Oahu? This book is full of such interesting tales and fascinating questions, as one explores everything from the business of farming sugar to the politics of race and identity in Hawaii and the United States during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Whether you are interested in sports history or political matters, there is much of interest here.