"The Three-Year Swim Club" By Julie Checkoway on Monday's Access Utah
In 1937, a schoolteacher on the island of Maui challenged a group of poverty-stricken sugar plantation kids to swim upstream against the current of their circumstance. The goal? To become Olympians.
They faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The children were Japanese-American, were malnourished and barefoot and had no pool; they trained in the filthy irrigation ditches that snaked down from the mountains into the sugarcane fields. Their future was in those same fields, working alongside their parents in virtual slavery, known not by their names but by numbered tags that hung around their necks. Their teacher, Soichi Sakamoto, was an ordinary man whose swimming ability didn't extend much beyond treading water.
In spite of everything, including the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment of the late 1930s, in their first year the children outraced Olympic athletes twice their size; in their second year, they were national and international champs, shattering American and world records and making headlines from L.A. to Nazi Germany. In their third year, they'd be declared the greatest swimmers in the world, but they'd also face their greatest obstacle: the dawning of a world war and the cancellation of the Games. Still, on the battlefield, they'd become the 20th century's most celebrated heroes, and in 1948, they'd have one last chance for Olympic glory.
They were the Three-Year Swim Club. This is their story.
Julie Checkoway will be at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, October 27, at 7:00 p.m.
Born to a large and voluble Massachusetts working class family Julie is the author of Little Sister: Searching for the Shadow World of Chinese Women (Viking Penguin) and the editor of the bestselling Creating Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and numerous anthologies. In 2001, she gave up tenure at the University of Houston (where she had been a professor and director of the creative writing program) and while producing and reporting radio stories for NPR’s Morning Edition and PRI’s This American Life, she came across the story of artist Billy Pappas. With the encouragement of her older brother, she set out to make WAITING FOR HOCKNEY, her first film. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and two daughters.