Hawaii Swimming Legacy

Interviewed by Hiroshi Yamauchi

My father came from Shimane-ken in 1906 with his wife. Shimane ken is on the Japan Sea side below Tottori-ken. It's real country there. When I visited there in 1966, it took me a long time to get there. My mother was his second wife and they were already married when they arrived. She used to tell my wife, Kiyomi, a lot of things about their early days. Although my father was married, he used to hang around with about 4-5 guys who came on the same boat with him from Japan. They were bachelors (Kagawa, Yokouchi, Tamura, one or two others) and she had to take care of them like a maid. She had to feed them, wash their clothes, and look after them. My parents were originally contracted to work at Ewa Plantation, but the Luna was mean there. So one night, with Tamura and some others they took off for Maui. My mother told a lot of stuff like that to my wife, Kiyomi, so she knows more than I do. To this day we still get together with the Tamuras every year.

[Kid time days]
When I was young, I was a bit on the rascal side, a free spirit you might say. I grew up doing some crazy things. Even as an adult, I got into trouble for going to Egypt and staying too long. I'll tell you about that later.

Keo Nakama (actually Kiyoshi) and I grew up together. We started swimming from around age 3 or 4. He was a prankster too, a Kodomo Taisho who never got caught. I was not so lucky. He was a natural athlete, the best in any sport we played. He was quarterback in barefoot football, shortstop in baseball, forward in basketball (I was standing guard). We always won in the Maui community/school competitions. Except, one year Haiku beat us in barefoot football. They had a good team. Keo had that something special that few ever have. Even before Roger Bannister's famous One-Mile Run when they said he went beyond human endurance, Keo was already doing it.

Pachi Tsukano used to keep us all in stitches, He was Johnny's older brother and a very good storyteller. He was also a good music composer; he wrote the words for the 3YSC song. That's the song we all used to sing: Swim, swim for 3YSC, da da da da......, to the Ole Notre Dame Fight tune. Pachi was his nickname, and he was always fun to have around.

One year there was a steamship strike and we had gone to Honolulu to swim in a meet. There were about 30 of us from Maui and we stayed in Honolulu at the downtown YMCA, (now the Hemmiter Center building). It used to be known as the Army-Navy YMCA then. In the rooms, they had these big white towels with a fancy Army-Navy YMCA logo in the middle. We were only kids then and never saw such towels that were so perfect for drying down after swimming. After the swim meet, we had to catch a fishing boat from Kaneohe (instead of a regular passenger steamship from Honolulu Harbor). It was really rough waters in the open ocean and it took us a long time to reach Maui. We all got seasick and when we finally made it back to Maui, we landed in Lahaina. Mr. E.L Damkroger was waiting for us there. We were surprised to see him and wondered why he was there. Well, when we got off the boat, he made us open our suitcases. When we opened our suitcases, there were the souvenir towels we borrowed. Damkroger had gotten a long-distance call from Honolulu to retrieve the towels.

[This incident recalls Dawn Fraser at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This Aussie, one of the greatest swimmers ever, led a midnight raid to "borrow a souvenir flag" from the Emperor's Palace. She was arrested but charges dropped and the Emperor graciously gave her the flag as a gift. The Australian Swimming Union, nevertheless, punished her. But later, she was elected to the Parliament of New South Wales. Although Halo and his swim mates didn't get their gifts, Halo, became our top probation officer and some of the others got elected to high political posts as well.]

People say and write that swimming was our ticket out of the plantations, to go to college. That was what motivated us. But when we were in the water swimming, things like that never crossed our minds. We just swam and had fun until Coach came along. Then it was hard work every day.

There's this well-known picture of our national record breaking relay team from Puunene - Keo Nakama, Jose Balmores, Bunny Nakama and me. Not much is said about where we lived except that we came from Puunene. Actually, the four of us lived as neighbors in Camp 5. That's something really unusual. Four guys living as neighbors, making a relay team and breaking the national record. I don't think anything like that has ever happened before even to this day.

When Coach started coaching us he really didn't know anything about swimming. In fact, he could have been the first Eagle Scout in Maui if he knew how to swim. But, it took him over six months to pass the swimming test and by that time somebody else, Tamotsu Ono, had beaten him to the first Eagle Scout badge. His main claim to fame was that he ran the mile, but that was because nobody else would run it. He first job after he finished Normal School in Honolulu was at Haiku School. He was there for about a year and then he came to Puunene Elementary School where he taught science and started coaching sports like baseball and basketball. That's when he saw us swimming in the irrigation ditch, and when he saw us being chased out of the ditch by the Luna, he took up our cause.

In the beginning he just watched over us. Then he gradually got us started us into a simple training routine, swimming hard going up against the current and easy, mostly floating, coming back down. E.L. Damkroger was the Sports Director for the Alexander House Community Association and he and Coach used to always get into little verbal battles. Somehow Coach always seemed to get his way. Actually Damkroger was a very good organizer and he also helped us a lot. There was only one pool at that time and it was at the Puunene Athletic Club. We weren't allowed to swim in it.

Coach was a genius. One summer two college students who were swimming for the University of Hawaii swim team came home for the summer. Coach made a challenge to have us - Keo and me - swim against them. And he made sure the plantation bosses would be there as fans. Keo was only a freshman in high school and I was still in 8th grade. But we trained very hard to win. When the time came for the big event, we gave it all we had and beat them right in front of everybody including the big bosses. Then, they built the second pool for us. It was better than the Puunene Athletic Club pool, which was wavy and choppy.

Coach was very colorful. He did so many things besides coaching. He played the guitar, composed music, wrote poetry using old English lettering, and etc. Lots of people helped him. Mike Ginoza used to come to the pool every day to help out. Takeyo Shibuya was always there too. He had many other supporters from the community - guys like Iwao Miyake, Lippy Espinda, Ralph Yempuku, and others who helped him with fund raising. But, he was also very demanding and even they found it hard to keep up with him.

I remember one of the songs Coach composed. It goes Aloha Hawaii, Aloha to you, Aloha from my heart means I love you, ...la la la ... night at Waikiki. I can't recall all the words, but it was beautiful. One time, I sang that song to Palani Vaughn, the famous musician who looks like Kamehameha. He thought it was great. Another one that Coach wrote went like this: Beneath the Hawaiian skies... la la la... They're all so nostalgic, they should be background music to Bill Brown's movie. Coach was the first Nisei that was more Hawaiian than Japanese. He even married a Hawaiian women against his parents wishes. And Missus (that's what we called her) was really the backbone of Coach. She made so many sacrifices for him; she handled so many of his problems, he really depended on her so much. In the end, when she got sick, he gave up coaching and devoted his full time taking care of her.

I was in Japan when Chris Conybeare did the "Coach" video. But, there are more photos of me than anybody else in the video. That's because most of the shots they used were mine. Sono, my daughter, loaned them out and I never got them back. I called them a couple of times but they were never returned. Some pictures I took in Rome.

[Do you know about Coach's family?]
Not that much, but I know his younger brother drowned in Kahului Harbor. He was in a small boat with his girl friend and maybe someone else, I don't remember. Anyway, it sank beyond the breakwaters of the Harbor, She was a good looking girl from a well-known Yamashiro family on Maui, and the father was a doctor I think. Coach used to tell us about how his younger brother was the best pool player in Maui and made money at it. Coach also, had two sisters Haruko and Natalie (who still lives on Maui). I knew Haruko well since she was just a year older than me.

[War Years]
When the war broke out in 1941, I volunteered for the army and got into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Later, the 100th Battalion was short of men and they were looking for replacements from the 442nd. Some of us (Shangy Tsukano, Beppu, myself and other Puunene guys) decided to volunteer to join the 100th. I knew there was no future for me in the 442nd and it was the "fun" thing to do. We never thought about what we were getting ourselves into.

I went to Italy and ended up in the hospital with dysentery. I think I ate too many green apricots or something. Anyway I was in the hospital and one day this major came to see me and said "You must be an important person, Division Headquarters want to see you." So I got dressed and his jeep took me up there. When I got there, Captain Kometani was there, and he told me that they had made a call for all swimmers to sign up for the Allied Olympics in Rome. There were lots of guys who signed up, including Johnny Tsukano and Charlie Oda. But, there were also some other guys from Hawaii that had no competitive swimming experience. Anyway, we all went to Rome for 45 days and had a great time. There's Stars & Stripes article written about the event. Charlie Oda showed me a copy of it.
[On Education]
In Puunene, we never had time to study. We were always at the pool from 3:30 pm to after 10 pm. It was like home to us. Coach never required us to study and do homework. That's something he should have done because I was not a good student and had no discipline to study. I thought carrying books would only put muscles in my arm and that would not be good for my swimming. So, I just went to classes without books and graduated high school knowing nothing. Later, I was hurt when I wasn't asked to go to the mainland for college. Keo was going to Ohio State and I wanted to go too, but they didn't let me know.

I went to the University of Hawaii and took courses like Hawaiian Language and Survey Methods. After a year or so I took the Yale test and did very poorly. My IQ was alright but they said I was "Academically Retarded." They recommended me for a Prep Academy in Pennsylvania. But, I was 22 years old already and I couldn't go back to prep school just to get into Yale. You ever heard of Alan Ford? He was a great world record holder. We roomed together for a few days at one time. He told me it was no sense to go back to prep school, because it would take me about 2-3 years to make up what I didn't learn in high school. It would be too late to swim in college by then. So, I tried Ohio State University. They accepted me but wouldn't give me credit for the courses I took at the UH. My UH record was only good enough for a freshman, so I had to start over again. I was 2-3 weeks late.

[Swimming at the UH]
I swam for the UH Swim Team for a couple of seasons under Coach Bobby Rath. Keo and I had graduated Maui High School and went to the UH. Hawaii had some of the top swimmers those days, guys like Peter Paulison, Carlos Rivas, Bobby Tribble, Bill Richardson, Bill Poindexter, Gilbert Ching, Alex Young, were all about the same age. We thought that if we could all get together and form a team from Hawaii, we could whip all the mainland teams. But, it never happened when some of the guys decided to go to the mainland instead.

[Cairo, Egypt]
One of the highlights in my life was that trip to Egypt I mentioned earlier. In June 1946, I left Ohio State University to go the Grand Prix in Paris where I was invited to compete in a swim event. There, I met an Egyptian Prince whose was chauffeured around in the #4 Royal Limousine. His name was Prince Lazuli Ratib and he was a member of the fourth family in succession to the thrown occupied by King Farruk. He was there with the Egyptian team, a swimmer and a diver. We stayed at the same hotel and got along great. After the Grand Prix, there was an exhibition swim event in Morocco that we had to participate in. From there, I was supposed to return to Paris for the trip back to the United States. But, the Prince invited me to visit Egypt so I happily joined them on their flight to Cairo. We had to stop over in Algeria for health clearance before continuing on. It turned out that the diver, Kamil Ali Hassen, didn't have his vaccination records and had to pay a fee get the necessary shots. He was out of cash, so I gave him the required $15 to get him through. When we got to Cairo, they took care of all my expenses and showed me all over Egypt. They showed me the pyramids, the sphinx and all those ancient things and places you read about in the history books. I had a great time and it was an education I will never forget. I stayed there for almost a couple of months. And when I left, they even gave me 350 pounds as travelling money. When I got back to Paris, I was supposed to catch a TWA flight back to the U.S.A. But, the airline was on strike and I was stranded there for another month and a half. The travelling money came in handy. I got in touch with Michel Donier of the French Swimming organization and he got me a place to stay until he could book me on a freighter back to New York. In the mean time, they took good care of me in Paris and I got to enjoy the Parisian hospitality. It took about two weeks before the freighter finally reached New York. I used my last nickel to call Sakai Takahashi who was going to school there at that time. I got in contact with him, but when I got a cab to go to his place, I found that I had lost his address and didn't know where to go. So I asked the cab driver to take me the Miyako Restaurant where I knew the manager. Luckily the cab driver knew where the Miyako Restaurant was located. From there, I got in contact with Sakai again and he found me. When I finally got back to Columbus, Ohio, it was March 1948. More than eight months had elapsed on this trip and the OSU officials didn't appreciate it. I had to be reprimanded for violating some NCAA rule on travel. I don't remember the specifics of the rule, but the trip was a great experience that I'll never forget.

[Hitch hiking from Columbus, Ohio] I was in school at Ohio State University and summer was coming up. Coach called me back to Hawaii to swim in some meets. With my good friend, Don Coolahan, we hitch hiked all the way to the West Coast and I came back to Hawaii with him. Don was from Ohio, a big guy, around 6'5" and 240 lbs. He was supposed to play football for OSU but he injured himself. He had a bum knee and so he turned to swimming. He had to maintain his athletic scholarship because he came from a poor family and couldn't pay his tuition otherwise. He was one of my best friends at OSU and kept me honest. He eventually became a doctor. He's dead now and I miss him. Anyway, I instigated all kinds of things like that, we had parties and did other crazy things.

[Other Coaches and Swimmers]
You gotta give credit to people like Yoshito Sagawa, nobody mentions him; he coached and developed swimmers like Ford Konno, Herbert Kobayashi, and great Nuuanu Y teams. In Hilo, Sparky Kawamoto developed Yoshi Oyakawa, Sonny Tanabe, and Eddie Kawachika. The years 1938-40 were golden years when lots of famous swimmers came to Hawaii to train under Coach Sakamoto. Before Coach there was Harvey Chilton who was Bill Smith's first coach and Bobby Rath who coached the Citywide Club and later UH.