The Molokai Channel

By Lin Clark

HSN Assistant Editor

 All Hawaii is proud of you, Keo Nakama.

You and your spirit and your strength have given us all a thrill that goes far beyond the automatic burst of pride in a victor.

You have reminded us all what man can do if he has a mind to. Sometimes in these dark days of world danger when awesome forces threaten, we tend to forget what a man is, how he is, what he can do.

You have refreshed our memory.

Your triumph over the Molokai Channel is our triumph, too.

Thank you for that, Keo Nakama. We all needed it.

..........So read a note of appreciation which appeared in the Monday, Oct. 2, 1961 editorial section of the Honolulu Advertiser. From 1930 ,Keo Nakama was a 41-year-old physical education instructor at William Paul Jarrett Inter ate School. The 5-6, 145 pound swimmer hadn't competed since winning 13 National AAU championships between 1939-45.

What drew over 10,000 spectators and well-wishers to the beach and cliffs surrounding Hanauma Bay on Friday evening, Sept. 29, 1961 was history in the making. Nakama had tackled the 27-mile Kaiwi (Molokai) Channel and would emerge from the water 15 hours and 37 seconds after diving in near Laau Point on Molokai.

But what awed the entire state of Hawaii was something more. It was that something Nakama tried to instill in the Island youngsters he came in contact with as a teacher, swim coach and softball coach. That even those goals which seemed in able can be achieved through the proper dedication, preparation and effort.

Kiyoshi (later "Keo") "Casey" Nakama began his legendary swimming career in the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company irrigation ditches in Puunene, Maui under the tutelage of Hall of Famer coach Soichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto had started with a small group of youngsters - including Nakama's sprint running-mate Takashi (Halo) Hirose - which grew to over 100 boys and girls.

The plantation allowed Sakamoto to move his entourage to the new Frank F. Baldwin Memorial Park Pool where, in 1937, "The Maui 3-Y.S.C."(Three-Year Swimming Club) was born. From 1930 - 1941 the 3-Y.S.C.s won three AAU men's outdoor teams championships, but their real goal was the 1940 Olympics.

Both Nakama and Hirose went on to win several individual and team honors under Ohio State University Coach Mike Peppe, during WWII, But it is believed that the war and subsequent cancellation of the '40 Olympics was the only factor that kept them from winning Olympic swimming medals.

In 1943 the Buckeyes were greeted by jeers and snide remarks at the National Indoor Championships at Yale University for entering a certain fresh man of Japanese ancestry. We were at war with Japan. Coach Peppe stood up and told the crowd that Ohio State has only Americans on this team and our American-Japanese boy swims. The crowd cheered the favored Yale swimmer, Rene Choteau, when he stood up on his block. When little Nakama took his place the crowd was deafeningly silent. Choteau caught Nakama at the 350 mark of that 400, but Nakama - not to be denied - pulled ahead in the last five yards to win the event. The crowd, realizing here was a man worth of his Japanese-American title, gave Nakama a standing ovation.

Nakama had shown a lot of people that day that anyone - even the Oriental son of an immigrant plantation worker - can become anyone he wants to, provided he is wiling to work hard at it and be proud of what he is.

It's a philosophy Nakama has carried with him wherever he has ventured.

And after winning 27 National championships, obtaining his master's degree from Ohio State, and returning to Hawaii two years later to teach and to coach high school swimming at Farrington, Leilehua, McKinley and later at UH. Nakama didn't abandon that philosophy.

 In fact, it was that notion of believing in oneself that was most responsible for pushing Nakama across that Channel - even after others, including Greta Andersen, the Danish-born channel swimmer - had failed.

The whole idea of tackling a channel crossing came from buddies at the "Y", and it started as a joke. "I had let myself get out of shape and my doctor told me to exercise more, so I joined the YMCA,"Nakama related. "It was there that my racquetball buddies started telling me that I could do it. Greta Andersen had tried two times earlier that year, so it was on eve one's mind. The joke turned serious and I finally decided to try it."

So Nakama increased his training regimen, enlisted the help of a few friends and dove into (so to speak) the seemingly impossible.

The event entailed a great deal of planning: Bill Chung and Tom Higa co-chaired a committee to sponsor Nakama; experienced fishermen and divers familiar with existing currents were recruited; Capt. Tommy Akana charted the course and Dr. Coolidge S. Wakai prepared a high protein concentrate for Nakama's meals in route. After one postponement due to unfavorable currents Nakama plunged into the water at 3 a.m. Friday, Sept 29. All paddling surfboards, Allen Chang, Sodie Kabalis, Marco Nomura and D. Kaeo provided an escort on either side and behind Nakama. In front was a shark cage towed by one of several accompanying sampans and cabin cruisers. Forty-three men in all came across the Channel with Nakama.

At times other swimmers joined Nakama-for short period of time-to pace him.

One hour out, Nakama became sick when a glassy sea turned to rough open ocean and he lost Thursday evening's steak dinner. For a short time he entered the shark cage to recover, then re-entered the water.

Twice more he was sick and felt nauseated until he was stung on the arms and torso by a man-o'-war. "The stings made me forget I was seasick. I thought about all the work my friends had done and how they believed I could do it. I kept going."

After several course changes and some "feedings" of tea and orange juice (with honey), and more man-o'-war stings, Nakama came within view of Oahu. He ordered his crew to "put on some steam." By 1 p.m. five-foot swells were pushing Nakama toward Hanauma Bay. "I swam for what seemed like hours and the mountains of O'ahu didn't come any closer." Nakama recalled. " I was sure somebody was moving those mountains back."

At about 4:20 a strong current did start to push him back. After a double dose of the orange mixture he pushed stubbornly on.

Finally, at 6:33 p.m., after negotiating the coral reef inside the bay, Nakama walked ashore, looking a little bewildered and smiling shyly. He looked more as if he'd just finished a leisurely afternoon swim than a grueling 35- mile (actual distance covered) channel crossing.

Throngs of people swarmed around him-almost disqualifying his effort before he reached the designated finish line. They screamed and reached out to him, yelling congratulations.

"I made it Mama," he said to his wife, Evelyn, as she draped a lei around his neck and hugged him. His six daughters , also bearing leis, struggled through the crowd to join him.

Nakama recalled he was "kind of tired, but wise I felt real good." Asked by a reporter if he wanted to repeat the feat, he'd replied, "No, I don't think so. That's the last time I swim that one."

Nakama's mentor, Coach Soichi Sakamoto, wasn't sur prised by his protege's milestone:"When he made up his mind to do it, I knew he could." he said simply."In all his years of competitive swimming, he always accomplished whatever goal he set."

WHAT'S MORE: Nakama, who picked up the nickname "Casey" since he never struck out on the Buckeye base ball team, is still active in the Kawananakoa Softball League and assists the Detroit Tigers as a local talent scout. Nakama: Recalling the Crossing, the Man behind It