My Friend, Keo

"The Hawaiian Flying Fish"

by Joan Wade

I was one of only three girls swimming for the University of Hawaii when a little-known coach from Maui brought a small group of swimmers to the Duke Kahanamoku Meet in 1937. Drawn by the presence of top swimmers from the prestigious Olympic Club of San Francisco, a crowd of 2,000 spectators filled the bleachers at the Natatorium, and watched in awe as the kids from Maui stole the show, capturing wins in all the age group events, and ushering in a new era of swimming in Hawaii.

That was when I first met Kiyoshi Nakama, a shy Puunene kid who, a few years later, would become world-famous Keo Nakama, the "Hawaiian Flying Fish!" After finishing high school, Keo enrolled as a freshman at the University of Hawaii. I was then working on campus but still gravitating to the pool every day, and we became friends. The next year Keo transferred to Ohio State University and we kept in touch by mail.

About the same time, I met Wendell Wade on a church picnic at Hanauma Bay one evening, ran into him the next day at Waimea Falls and again that night at the church. He offered me a ride home and en route mentioned that he played basketball. I said "Maybe I'll come to watch you sometime" to which he answered "How about Tuesday night ?" I went just to watch and ended up keeping score for his team for the whole season. To get even, I enlisted his help at swimming meets, never dreaming that we would still be working at swimming meets 50 years later !

We planned to announce our engagement to the church group on the evening of December 7th, 1941, but that morning Pearl Harbor was bombed and lives were forever changed. Wendell enlisted the next day in the Army Air Corps and shortly went off to learn to fly. Early in 1943, he received his pilot's wings and 2nd Lieutenant bars in Marfa, Texas, and asked me to join him there to be married.

I was a real Kuaaina, hadn't been off O'ahu since I was 6 years old, never been to the Mainland or away from home, so this was a BIG step.

Because it was wartime, I had to travel in a convoy of 7 ships escorted by two destroyers.

In Hawaii we had to carry gas masks with us at all times, so I was very happy to leave mine at the dock - - until I was handed a life preserver and told to keep THAT with me at all times !

Our 7-day trip was interrupted only once by a submarine scare. I stepped onto the dock in San Francisco with only one small zippered bag, and not even sure how to use a pay phone.

A friend took me shopping for a whole new warm wardrobe, very welcome after learning that Wendell was now in Colorado, not Texas.

At the train station I was told I would arrive in La Juanta, Colorado at 1 A.M., so I wired Wendell to meet me and began my next adventure.

Gawking at the strange scenery, seeing my first tiny patch of snow, and learning from a G.I. across the aisle how to mark a deck of cards. I also learned that the train would get into La Juanta at 6:30 A.M.

When I was deposited in the snow some distance from the station door, lugging three heavy suitcases in my still-ungloved hands, and found no Wendell in sight, I was almost ready to call the whole thing off - except that people could no longer get to Hawaii unless on official business and I didn't have any other place to go. However, Wendell soon showed up, saying he had been there at 1:00 until someone noticed and told him trains hadn't come in at that time for ages, so he went to the motel room he rented for me and went to sleep. This was probably a good thing because he just got me settled in and had to report to the base for some flying time. A few days later, his parents arrived from Kansas and, I met my new in-laws for the first time.

We had ordered some carnations, telling the florist we didn't need the stems, just blossoms, but we received five dozen huge, long-stemmed hot-house beauties, straight from Denver. I spent my wedding morning stringing a lei so thick and fluffy it looked more like a horse collar, but at least it gave me a touch of home to take the place of family and friends.

Wendell, being a brand-new instructor pilot, could not get any time off for a honeymoon, was gone all day, and I had nothing to do.

I knew that the NCAA Championships were to be in Columbus, Ohio, in two weeks. The thought of seeing Keo and Bill Smith (who had followed Keo to Ohio State University) in action in a major meet was so tempting that I decided to go.

I didn't realize just how much country there was between Colorado and Ohio. It was a loooong ride in an old coal-burning, open windowed train, and I arrived in Columbus very grimy.

I immediately called Keo, who said he had to swim his first race in less than an hour, so I should take a #3 streetcar outside the hotel and get off at the campus, where he would have a cab waiting to take me to the pool With time only to wash my face and rub a damp washcloth over my hair (which came off black with soot !) I hurried down to catch my ride.

Many other streetcars passed while I waited for the #3. I eventually got there, found Bill Smith waiting at the pool entrance, was introduced to his girlfriend and was just in time to see Keo triumph over his top-ranked opponent from Yale. Later, Keo told me I could have taken any of the other streetcars to get up to the campus !

It was a big thrill seeing Keo and Bill, and also Pete Powlison and Carlos Rivas from University of Washington, uphold Hawaii's honor in swimming. After the meet, we spent the rest of the day and evening at the Phi Upsilon fraternity house, where Keo and Bill were room-mates, and time went so fast that I missed the last streetcar and had to take a cab back to the hotel. On the trip home, Pete sat with me until Chicago, where our paths split, and while I did feel a bit guilty for having deserted my husband to spend time with Keo, It had been a very special weekend for me.

In 1945 we were stationed in Champaign, Illinois, and drove up to Nortwestern University to see Keo in the Big Ten Champs. Bill Smith was then in the Navy, stationed at Great Lakes Training Center, but we enjoyed having dinner with the O.S.U. team.

A few months later, Keo came to Champaign in his other role as "Casey" Nakama, the baseball player, in a Big Ten game against the Illini. Then we moved back to the Southwest and didn't see him again.

Wendell had been assigned his crew as a B-29 bomber pilot and we were in Nebraska awaiting his overseas orders when the war ended, and a few months later we were back home in Paradise. Keo got his master's degree and eventually came home, too, and although we have not seen each other very often over the years, it is always special when the Keo Nakama Meet comes around and we have a chance to renew our long friendship and can joke about my spending my "Honeymoon" with Keo.


Mrs. Wade has been the announcer for the Keo Nakama Swimming Invitationals since 1945 up to 1994. Says Mrs.Wade; I think I have worked at almost every Keo Nakama Meet, and whatever it was called before it was "Keo" - maybe "Hawaii Swimming Club Festival" or something ? Coach Sakamoto's kids would sell tickets, and the girl who sold the most was Queen of the meet and sat on the throne while the musicians played, etc.

Our first child was born on July 17, 1951, so I probably did not work that year. Libby, McNeill & Libby transferred Wendell to the Chicago office for two years and then he ran a frozen food plant in Delaware for 3 years, so we were gone from 1961 - 1966, but other than those years, I don't think I've missed any !

When Mrs. Fullard-Leo was alive (she was Mrs. A.A.U. !) Coach Sakamoto always had a cake to celebrate her July 4th birthday. That was also Wendell's birthday so he got in on the celebration, too. When you get old, it fun to reminisce. I've seen so many great swimmers over the years, thanks to Coach Sakamoto and his hard-working kids who helped him to realize his dream. May his legacy continue to inspire swimmers to do their very best.