You could feel it in the hands that joined the circle of old-timers as former Olympian Yoshi Oyakawa was reciting the following grace.
Almighty God, we thank you for bringing us here tonight on this special occasion to be with old friends, some of whom we have not seen for many years. We thank you for the nutritious food we are about to partake to keep us healthy in mind and body. And Lord, we ask you to be with us tonight as we remember the times we shared with one another and with those who cannot be with us tonight. Amen!
It was the warm energy that flowed through their clasped hands that connected them to the days when they helped to keep Hawaii the Swimming Capital of the World. Yoshi had traveled all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio to join Sonny Tanabe and their former swimmates. Among them, Bill Smith, Keo Nakama, Halo Hirose, Emerick Ishikawa, Richard Tom, Ford Konno, Evelyn Kawamoto-Konno, Herbert Kobayashi, Johnny Weiser, Ron Honda, Roy Tanabe, Ivanelle Hoe, Jerry Miki and their spouses. Jin DeSilva was also there with photos of his famous collection of Olympic memorabilia. It was in the mid-1900s that they broke records and left their marks in the swimming world. After those glorious days, they had gone their separate ways, and now, decades later, they were back together again in the beautiful hilltop home of Vicki and Sonny Tanabe overlooking the blue Pacific.
In this nostalgic setting, with the city lights glimmering below, you could feel the unmistakable presence of Soichi Sakamoto. "Coach" as they fondly recalled him, trained them from the sugarcane irrigation ditches in Pu'unene to the Waikiki Natatorium, and then to the Nationals and ultimately the Olympics. What made them special? It was the dedication and endless hours of hard work that they were made to endure for a goal only a few would dare to dream of attaining. An unforgetful moment in young Evelyn Kawamoto's training days tells it best."Coach, she moaned, how long do we have to do this? I don't even know how to cook or sew." Coach's stern reply: "Olympics first, Olympics always!" There was no compromising. It was the same goal he had set for his earlier swimmers in the original Three-Year Swim Club on Maui. As teenagers, Coach had dared them to make it to the Olympics in just three years from scratch. In the process, he also helped to instill in them the humble pride and human virtues that have guided them through their everyday lives ever since.
This was, indeed, a special night for them as well as for the rest of us with connections to their legacy. The swimmers enjoyed the evening, kidding around and bringing back their youthful spirits of days long past. It was a reunion not only of those present but also of those who couldn't make it. Yoshito Sagawa was one of those who really wanted to join the group but couldn't. He coached Olympian Ford Konno and Mako Kobayashi at the Nuuanu YMCA. Sparky Kawamoto was remembered by the Big Island swimmers he coached, Yoshi Oyakawa and the Tanabe brothers. And, there were a host of other swimmers like Fujiko Katsutani, Mitzi Higuchi, Johnny Tsukano, Chic Miyamoto, Dick Cleveland, Thelma Kalama, Bill Woolsey, George Onakea and many more who distinguished themselves in that era. They were, through memories, all part of the reunion.
There were quips like:
To Bill Smith wearing his OSU logo sport shirt. "How come you're wearing the Oregon State University shirt? You never went there."
Bill's reply: "What? Oh Shut Up!
That's Ohio State University, don't you know!" It's got the Buckeye colors, can't you see?"
Yes, we know Bill, Oh Shut Up!
Halo: "I didn't carry my heavy books home those days
because they told me that it would build-up my arm muscles, and
that was not good for my swimming."
Someone asked John Weiser, "What happened to that
mask you always used to wear at the swim meets?"
Everyone was recalling and no one was excluded from the ribbing .
These are the characters that helped to build the swimming legacy of Hawaii. A legacy that began with the accomplishments of Duke Kahanamoku in the early 1900s, expanded in the mid-century Sakamoto years, and continues today in the pools and ocean waters around the islands. They brought pride and joy into our lives, and gave us much to be thankful for.