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From Sugar Cane Plantation Kids To Swimming Champions

In 1937, Soichi Sakamoto, a Japanese-American schoolteacher on the island of Maui in Hawaii, challenged a group of kids he had been teaching to swim: work hard and in three years, some of you will represent the United States at the Olympics.

It seemed an unlikely goal. Most of the kids were the children of workers on the sugar cane plantation who had learned to swim in irrigation ditches, but the Three-Year Swim Club was extraordinary successful. Some of the swimmers became national champions, though their 1940 Olympic dreams were dashed when the games were canceled due to World War II.

But the club continued and some of the swimmers got a new opportunity to shine when the games were resumed in 1948. Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Julie Checkoway, who writes about the club in the new book “The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory.”

Book Excerpt: ‘The Three-Year Swim Club’

By Julie Checkoway


20° 51′ 44.7″ N 156° 26′ 58.3″ W

—Coordinates of the irrigation ditch

20° 51′ 22.4″ N 156° 27′ 10.7″ W

—Coordinates of the Camp 5 pool

In 1932, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune named Philip Kinsley visited Maui, and on approach by interisland aeroplane, he saw the place as a “sculptured green cup . . . rimmed,” he wrote, “by white Pacific surf lines.” The sides of that cup were the island’s two great mountain ranges to the east and to the west, and at the top of one of those ranges was the famed volcanic crater Haleakala.

In March of 2012, some eighty years after Kinsley traveled to Maui, I, too, saw the island’s lush peaks, but my destination was the very bottom of Kinsley’s cup, the arid, golden lowland that gave Maui the nickname by which it’s still known today: “the Valley Isle.”

In Kinsley’s time that flat valley was planted with 30,000 acres of sugarcane, and it was home to some 8,000 souls living in 13 segregated labor camps in a village called Pu‘unene. Pu‘unene is mostly gone now. It’s still the site of Hawaii’s last working sugar plantation, but it would take a forensic archaeologist to reconstruct the village as it existed in the 1930s. Pu‘unene was then a beehive of life, with shacks and shops and red dirt roads, but now its footprint lies beneath the soil, plowed under into more cane fields. One plot of the old plantation is the 25‑acre Pu‘unene Shopping Center, the cornerstone of which is a 140,000-square-foot SuperTarget. Back in 1932, Philip Kinsley found the plantation at Pu‘unene to be the very model of “enlightened feudalism.”

To find Pu‘unene now, the easiest thing to do isn’t to look for Target; it’s to sight on the horizon the two striped smokestacks of the Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Company mill that rise high above the tasseled cane. Over those stacks hang clouds of steam. Drive toward the stacks. Most tourists find them an eyesore, but to me, the stacks are a ragged kind of beauty: they are among the last pieces of a story that I’d grown afraid had passed away.

When I first heard of the Three-Year Swim Club, most of it, its stories and its people, had disappeared, and what little of it was left consisted of half-excavated bones that long ago had calcified into myth. There were a few original swimmers left; most were in their nineties and crisp of mind, but after years of “talking story” with each other— sitting together and emphasizing this moment or forgetting that one— the tale they told was a legend that went like this: in 1937, a schoolteacher in Pu‘unene taught impoverished Japanese-American camp kids how to swim in the plantation’s filthy irrigation ditches, and he challenged them to transform themselves into Olympians. That much was true, but was there was more that needed telling, and it was that more for which I’d come nearly three thousand miles to Pu‘unene.

The school at which the teacher worked now houses county offices— and though just beyond its smudged windows and across the dusty road is the very ditch in which the Three-Year Swim Club had its start, if you stop and ask anyone nearby, no one will be able to tell you about the teacher or the children or the team.

Farther down that road, just past the abandoned Roman Catholic graveyard with its dark toothlike headstones, is the pool; it’s on plantation land, but the sugar company hasn’t kept it up. It’s had no need to: no one really lives in Pu‘unene anymore; after World War II, when the mill mechanized and laborers unionized, the camps emptied of workers who fled the island or moved on to real houses in a nearby subdivision known as “Dream City.”

There’s hardly any water in the old pool now, just what’s gathered in the rain, puddles in which a couple of hopeful ducks skim the shallow surface and in which a wild black pig sometimes roams around. When I visited, I found the bamboo fence and the old bleachers gone, but the pool deck was intact, its zigzag pattern as perfect as if a team of masons had laid the brick and filled the joints with mortar only yesterday.

The pool’s clubhouses, two of them, are standing, and on the outside walls is a set of hooks where rusty pulleys used to hang. Some seventy years ago, the children’s teacher strung the pulleys’ sheaves with lanyards and tied to one end of each of those ropes a heavy railcar wheel and to the other ends bamboo handles: the arrangement made a poor man’s weight machine.

Knowing what the hooks and brick were once a part of, I couldn’t help but see them all and the pool as symbols: the evaporating water, say, the ineluctable recession of the tale commencing in that very tank so many years before.

On the first afternoon I visited, I went there unseen, and, arriving stealthily, I stepped over two tipped plastic lawn chairs, making my way around oil barrels empty of their contents and slipping beyond an unchained gate onto the abandoned deck. I was trespassing, and in the last of the dim light, I noticed right away four planks of wood, each three feet long, and tacked above one another on a wall near where the pulleys used to be.

The planks had once been signs handpainted with the care of an amanuensis, but now on only two of the planks were words legible. In pretty script the topmost read No Running, and the next one down read No Horseplay, but the third and fourth had been erased by time and weather.

It grew darker still. There was no one around to hear or see me, and I felt in myself an impulse more brazen than trespass. The planks were held on by ancient, rusty nails. I scoured the deck for a tool of any sort, some way to gain leverage on the wood. A small crowbar would have done, a heavy stick, but I found nothing that could do the job.

Gently, starting at the topmost sign, I worked the tips of my forefingers around the edges of the wood until I felt that first resistance that occurs in the split second before a nail decides to give up the place that it’s been sunk into for years. I felt the sweetness of the pull, the surrender of attachment. I gently pulled the wood some more. And then I heard the crack.

It wasn’t loud; it was little more, say, than the sound of a twig breaking, but I knew for certain that I had separated a sliver of the plank from its place in the grain, and to me the noise was thunderous, and it stopped me cold. I felt the front of the sign for damage; finding none, I decided that the ruination was only in the back, and thus undetectable. When I stepped away from the wall, though, I was trembling. The weather hadn’t changed, but I had. I stood in the dark like that for a long time. I was worse than a trespasser; I was a thief.

The plantation owns those signs, but who, I wondered, owns the disappearing story that, in part, they tell? The story of the teacher and the children lives now in so few places: on that weather-beaten wall, in scrapbooks filled with photographs. History isn’t a sculptured cup; it’s more like a sieve through which so many stories pass and disappear.

Over time I’ve learned that neither the teacher nor the children chose to write the story down because it was the tale of a team that no one felt he had the right to claim as his own. Each, instead, was content or, better said, resigned to the fact that the history of the Three-Year Swim Club would simply disappear.

I was a stranger to the story, but it seemed to me that someone ought to try to save it.

Excerpted from THE THREE-YEAR SWIM CLUB by Julie Checkoway. Copyright © 2015 by Julie Checkoway. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Author Julie Checkoway (Photo courtesy Hachette Book Group.)
Author Julie Checkoway (Photo courtesy Hachette Book Group.)
Cover of Julie Checkoway's new book "The Three-Year Swim Club," which comes out tomorrow.
Cover of Julie Checkoway's new book "The Three-Year Swim Club," which comes out tomorrow.
Julie Checkoway, author of “The Three-Year Swim Club,” poses for a portrait at the Amex Insider's Center during the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival on April 28, 2008 in New York City. Checkoway directed the film "Waiting For Hockney.” (Scott Gries/Getty Images)
Julie Checkoway, author of “The Three-Year Swim Club,” poses for a portrait at the Amex Insider's Center during the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival on April 28, 2008 in New York City. Checkoway directed the film "Waiting For Hockney.” (Scott Gries/Getty Images)

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