Hawaii Swimming Legacy

Honolulu Advertiser, Friday, July 20, 1984 

Irrigation ditch was site of swimming lessons
by Jim Borg, Advertiser Staff Writer

_____It's as good a yarn as "Rocky," "The Natural" or "The Karate Kid."

_____The difference is, it really happened and the star is not an athlete who wins against seemingly insurmountable odds. The key character is the coach.

_____This story is to Island swimmers what "Chariots of Fire" is to runners from the British Isles.
Among old-time swimmers, Coach Soichi Sakamoto is a legendary, almost mythical, figure - the man who made champions of Maui plantation children who learned to swim in an irrigation ditch.

_____All the more amazing is that Sakamoto could barely swim when he took on his improbable task. He relied , then as now, on common sense, hard work, healthy habits and faith in God.
Sakamoto generated almost fanatical devotion among his athletes and the confidence he inspired could be felt as surely as the sun over the canefields of Puunene.

_____The mythical element arises from the fact that, after a traffic accident when he was 9, Sakamoto was pronounced dead.

_____While riding his bicycle to school on Maui, he was hit from behind and run over by a truck. After three months in the hospital, Sakamoto recovered fully, and at 78, still holds the conviction that God "must have wanted me to live."

_____It's a life that has touched hundred of people deeply.

_____"I love that man," said protege John Tsukano, to whom Sakamoto gave the name "John" after one of the swimming greats of the era, Johnny Weissmuller. "He's a rare individual. I think they threw away the mold when they made him. He led by example and, you know, today I don't smoke or drink. He taught not only swimming but good sportsmanship and good citizenship."

_____Sakamoto began teaching at Haiku School in 1927, transferring to Puunene School the next year.
The popular after-school spot for children in those days was the nearby irrigation ditch. On a hot day, it was not unusual to see 100 naked bodies splashing in the water, and a whip-packing camp patrolman came by on horseback routinely to scatter the screaming youngsters.

_____Sakamoto noticed this and persuaded plantation authorities to let the children swim in the ditch under his supervision.

_____As a Boy Scout leader, Sakamoto knew only "survival swimming," but he knew inefficiency when he saw it and began to coach the children on their strokes.
"I didn't now anything about swimming, but I realized that, if I put them in the water and watched their progress, maybe I'd learn something," Sakamoto recalled. "So I watched their progress and tried to eliminate haphazard movement. It was common sense."

_____Believing that success has a common thread in all endeavors, Sakamoto turned to some of the better plantation laborers for advice. "I said to myself, What makes a swimmer go fast?' It struck me, why not go to some of these people who are practical people. So I went to the workers, the plantation laborers, who worked from 5 a.m. to 5 in the evening. As the workers were coming home from their work, I would stop some of them and ask them. 'How do you manage to work so long during the day?' And they would say 'Steady, Not hurry up, but steady.'

_____"And I'd say, "you're number one in the cane-cutting gang. How do you manage that?' and they would say, 'Steady, Steady.' And then a guy would emerge as bonus winner on the plantation, and I say, 'How do you manage that?' and he said, 'Work harder, harder. Don't give up.'
:Those things were teaching me a lesson."

_____Sakamoto recalled, "In that ditch, the current coming down offered them natural resistance, and when they swam up they were developing a stroke that was very efficient and practical. If they had done it in entirely still water, I don't think it would have developed. Drifting down in the current gave them very relaxed movement gave them a very beautiful style. Gradually, everything started to fall into place."
In 1937, Sakamoto got an idea.

_____He called a meeting in his homeroom class and announced the formation of the Three Year Swimming Club. The rules of membership were: no smoking, no drinking, no gambling, no swearing, strict daily training, loyalty to the club and a three-year commitment.

_____The goal: By 1940, the swimmers would be ready for the Olympics.
Now this was sort of like the Bad News Bears challenging the New York Yankees, Plantation kids? The Olympics?

_____About 100 youngsters, 16 on the average, signed up. The club motto: "Olympics first, Olympics always."Said Tsukano, then 12, "It was a crazy idea, but Coach believed it."

_____Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co. chipped in for a pool in Puunene, and Sakamoto spent nearly every spare hour there, 6 a.m. to midnight in the summer and 2:30 p.m. to midnight on school days.
Within a year, the Maui club was dominating swimming meets all over the state. And, incredibly, in 1939, the team came back from Detroit with the national AAU title.
The club's goal remained elusive, however: The 1940 Olympics were canceled because of World War II. Many of the swimmers joined the service and marched off to Europe.
Sakamoto left Maui to Coach at the University of Hawaii in 1945, a job he held until 1971. It wasn't until 1948 that Sakamoto saw one of his charges, Bill Smith, win a gold medal in the Olympics in England.

_____Having long since hung up his whistle, Sakamoto spends much of his time caring for his wife, Mary, who became ill in 1981.

_____He continues to keep mind and body well-tuned. His twice daily exercise regimen includes 100 pushups, as well as situps, stretching and exercycle work.
His coffee table holds a cluttered collection of current newspapers and magazines. And the walls of his McCully home are a collage of old photos of swimmers,, celebrities and some of his 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

_____"People use to tell me, 'Sakamoto, you know, you're lucky, you have all these natural swimmers back in Hawaii," the Coach recalled chuckling "I used to say, 'No, don't say that, because it's not true.'
"I used to coach track also and I used to believe up to that point that everybody was born fast, you know, naturally gifted. I found out it was not so. The kid who was a slow poke didn't know how to run. So I taught them how to walk and then run and then he became fast. Every child is like that. They were not born smart, they were not born fast. But with the proper training they will blossom."