Duke Kahanamoku is perhaps best known as the father of surfing, but he’s also one of the best swimmers of all time. He participated in three Olympics (it would’ve been four, if not for the wartime cancellation of the 1916 Berlin games), and served as an alternate for the 1932 U.S. water polo team. He won five medals, including three golds, but more importantly, he revolutionized swimming with the invention of the “Kahanamoku Kick.”
Fellow Hawaiians Pua Kealoha and Warren Kealoha (no relation) followed up with Olympic successes of their own, but the Hawaiian swimming boom petered out in the wake of those three Oahu natives, and the Japanese took over. No Hawaiians swam in the 1936 Hitler Olympics, and it seemed that the islands had re-engineered swimming only to miss out on most of the glory. Julie Checkoway’s The Three-Year Swim Club is about the incredible, tortuous path that a few of Hawaii’s most unlikely citizens took to get back there.
It’s a classic underdog story, with a seemingly apocryphal premise and a well-worn redemption arc. You’ve read this type of book before—see Unbroken or The Boys in the Boat—and by now, you know if it’s for you. I tend to roll my eyes at the sappiness inherent to this sort of thing, but Swim Club works because it fills out that started-from-the-bottom formula with a staggering level of detail about those involved.
Today, Maui is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States, conceived of in the American imagination as a paradise, geographically and culturally separated from the nonstop churn of mainland life. But for the workers responsible for making the Hawaiian sugarcane industry one of the largest in the world, life was fairly hellish. After importing Chinese workers during the mid-19th century, plantation owners brought in more than 200,000 Japanese people in a 40-year period to live a hard, neo-feudal life.
Checkoway documents how the kids of the Pu’unene plantation and their science teacher, Soichi Sakamoto, somehow went from swimming in the plantation’s irrigation ditch to winning races in the best pools on the planet. About that ditch: It’s a four-by-eight-foot trough where dirty reservoir water and detritus would flow down from the mountains toward the fields. The ditch takes on a certain holiness in the 3YSC mythos, but it was altogether practical. All the pools on the island at that time were attached to hotels or private clubs; the kids began swimming in the ditch for fun, but it was also all they had, and Sakamoto was so miserable with his own plantation life that he began to organize the mayhem into the semblance of a team.
At first, he simply has them float, but soon they’re moving a little bit, and before long they’re racing each other. Ever the experimenter, Sakamoto had the ditch kids practice against the current and, in doing so, made his first innovation in a series of dozens that saw him, like Kahanamoku, change swimming forever. This is all the more remarkable due to the fact that Sakamoto never learned to swim himself.
This didn’t stop him from changing swim-coaching forever by implementing, well, uh, coaching. As Checkoway writes:
Conventional wisdom on Maui and almost everywhere in the world was that athletes were at their best when babied. In the Ivy Leagues, a difficult workout had long been thought to be a couple of laps in the pool followed by a vigorous rubdown and a fine cigar.
The meat of the book chronicles the near maniacal devotion Sakamoto had to coaching the Three-Year Swim Club. In the early days, he would pile 20 kids into his car to drive them to the only nearby pool they could use; meanwhile, his own biological children almost never appear in the book, and by all accounts, he was too dialed in to the 3YSC to notice them. The Club’s name came from a promise Sakamoto made to its entrants in 1937 that if they showed up every day for three years and followed his intense series of workouts, they would compete in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics.
In 1937, a 17-year-old Keo Nakama represented the 3YSC at a prestigious meet in Honolulu. The then-anonymous ditch kid whooped a pair of Olympians in a 440-yard race, despite wearing an oversized full-body swimsuit that “had clearly been waterlogged so many times that its narrow shoulder straps sagged down to reveal the concave chest not of an athlete but of an invalid.”
Like his teammates, Nakama was a Nisei, or the child of immigrant parents. Checkoway examines the contradictory response to the 3YSC’s success in America, and notes that the kids were celebrated and feted as heroes while touring the country and winning a series of national championships, while at the same time suffering prejudicial treatment, including from within their own federation.
Of course, the 1940 Olympics fell victim to World War II, but Checkoway takes a long, fascinating look at the bureaucratic saga Tokyo went through to get the initial rights to those failed games. The war likewise combusts the notoriously tight 3YSC and scatters the four primary characters around the world: Halo Hirose fought in Italy and France as a member of the famed 442nd Regiment; Keo Nakama and Bill Smith swam for Ohio State, and Smith left to teach Navy sailors how to swim; and Sakamoto continued teaching Pu’unene kids to swim without the carrot of an Olympics.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but Sakamoto and his stars race together again, and the last 10 pages of story ramp up to an intensity unseen anywhere else in the book. The Three-Year Swim Club isn’t perfect, but it’s a fun look at a secret history. While discussing her research process, Checkoway notes that most of her material came from interviewing surviving 3YSC alumni, all of whom are very old. Had she not written this book, their exact story might have never been told, but instead, American swimming’s most fascinating chapter gets the shine it deserves.