I saw the dream of Coach Sakamoto come true
(Note: The writer was one of the original members of the Three-Year Swim Club, who developed into a fine freestyle sprinter. An accomplished writer as well, his special features occasionally appear in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the following is one of them, published in April of 1955).
In 1939, Coach Sakamoto took Halo Hirose, Keo Nakama, Benny Castro, Jose Balmores and Bill Neunzig to Detroit and returned with his first National team championship.
That same year, he made the astounding statement that Fujiko Katsutani, not quite 14, was ready for the Nationals. Swimming officials disagreed. Until the last day, Fujiko did not know whether she was going or not because of the lack of funds.
The coach borrowed money from George Higa, manager of a Honolulu cafe, and took Fujiko. She returned with the 200 meter breaststroke championship.
That was the same year Esther Williams won the 100 meter freestyle title.
In 1940, Coach Sakamoto quietly suggested that Chic Miyamoto, 13 years old, should go to the Nationals. The same story: "no funds." The 3-Year Swimming Club, scrapped bottom and sent her. She returned with the 300 meter individual medley title. In 1941, Chic and Fujiko again won in their events.
It was in September, 1940 that Bill Smith went to Maui to live with the coach and to train under him. One year later, swimming under the colors of the 3-Year Swimming Club, Smith returned to Honolulu and electrified the swimming world with his record shattering appearances.
Then came December 7, 1941 and the dream of "Soichi Sakamoto's Olympics" was shelved temporarily, but never forgotten. His boys, hundreds of them, went to war.
They were not only his swimmers or students, but boys who trained in track and field sports under him . . . members of his wonder baseball and basketball teams . . . youngsters who were in the active, alert Boy Scout troop he headed. Coach wrote them long, inspiring letters, just like a dotting father.
Immediately after World War II, he received an offer from the University of Hawaii. He moved to Honolulu and became coach of swimming at the University.
It is a paradox that many of the youngsters he trained have gone to college on the Mainland after receiving offers from various universities anxious to develop strong swimming teams. It is common knowledge in swimming circles, for instance, that Coach Sakamoto's ground work was directly responsible for many of Ohio State's championship teams.
In all, Sakamoto took teams from Hawaii to the National Outdoor Swimming Championship 12 times, and won the national title six times.
He has developed more national champions that any other coach.
In the Summer of 1948 at the Olympic Games in Wemberly, England, I saw a sight that wrenched my heart.
Bill Smith, the underdog, had fought his way to victory in the 400 meter freestyle championship in the magnificent pool at Wemberly. The crowd was cheering wildly after the most exciting race of the evening. Autograph hunters, officials, teammates, strangers rushed to congratulate Bill.
Bill got out of the pool, hastily dried himself and went to the rostrum to receive his trophy. Everybody stood as the band played the Star Spangled Banner.
Coach Sakamoto stood quietly among the throng of spectators in the bleachers, his face full of emotion.
I saw Sakamoto wipe his brow with his handkerchief after the great race.
There was a lump in my throat as I watched him. For I had been in the classroom in Puunene Grammar School in 1937, when this incredible man of vision talked "Olympics" to a bunch of plantation boys who had never even been to Honolulu.
There's an obscure irrigation ditch in Puunene, Maui. Many old timers who left the confines of Puunene for greener pastures, think of it with fond recollection.
Fences, then barbed wires were strung along both sides to discourage swimmers in it. Even the much feared camp policeman, whip and all, was not able to prevent the happy go lucky, mischievous, barefoot youngsters of Puunene from taking their daily dip.
Many a day, this "hawkshaw," as he was called, appeared on his horse just after English School, when the ditch was filled with yelping youngsters.
Bedlam broke loose. The kids were scared of this man. A hundred nude boys scattered all over the countryside of Puunene, some even running through the campus of the Japanese School, for dear life, with the policeman at their heels.
And the bashful girls of Puunene, needless to say, hid their faces in shame.
Those were the days and those were the scenes in the years before 1936 in the little village of Puunene on the Island of Maui.
Obscure and little known, that is until a dynamic personality dramatically and suddenly appeared in the picture to make Puunene the breeding place of swimming champions.
His name? Soichi Sakamoto.
And some of his ditch boys - Kiyoshi Nakama, Halo Hirose, Jose Balmores, Bunmei Nakama - who had thought it was a crime to want to swim - were destined to write aquatic headlines in Australia, Japan, South America, Egypt and Europe and their own United States in the years to come.
"Mistah Sakamoto," as he was addressed by all of his students, appealed for the right of the boys to swim in the irrigation ditch, and he must have commanded a great deal of respect, for the policeman never bothered the youngsters after that.
Finally, cognizant of the need, the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company built a park and swimming pool in Puunene, a stone's throw from the homes of Balmores, Hirose and Nakama. This was to usher in the golden era of swimming in Hawaii.
It goes without saying that Coach Sakamoto almost single handedly gave swimming its rebirth in Hawaii and has kept it at its pinnacle.
From then on, the hard work and sacrifice of Coach Sakamoto and his swimmers began to pay dividends. From 1938 on, Maui monopolized every swimming meet, both in the men's and women's divisions. Swimming began to be synonymous with Maui.
Sakamoto was not satisfied. Winning Hawaiian championships was but a stepping stone toward National and Olympic victories. He never once wavered from this goal.
In 1938, Sakamoto made the astounding statement that two of his teen-age swimmers, Halo Hirose and Kiyoshi "Keo" Nakama, were ready for the Nationals. But no funds were forthcoming.
Sakamoto approved A. L. Priest, then Puunene athletic director. Mr. Priest, a great lover of sports, was sympathetic and created a committee which went out to solicit funds from the good people of Puunene, who responded generously. This made possible the trek to Louisville, Kentucky. Keo took second in the 400, 800 and 1,500-meter freestyle races, and Halo took second in the 100 meter freestyle.