In Other Words

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Check­oway and The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Pos­si­bil­ity of Life in Cap­i­tal­ist Ru­ins by Anna Lowen­haupt Ts­ing

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The Three-Year Swim Club: The Un­told Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory

by Julie Check­oway, Grand Cen­tral Pub­lish­ing, 432 pages In the vil­lage of Pu‘un­ene, Maui, in the 1930s, sugar reigned. Vil­lagers lived in seg­re­gated work camps next to thou­sands of acres of sugar-cane fields, where they toiled un­der the eyes and whips of bosses. Low wages led to im­pos­si­ble debts to the plan­ta­tion. Ill­nesses spread across the rows of shacks; sick work­ers were dragged out of their homes by camp po­lice and or­dered back to work. “The con­di­tions were as close as one could get to slav­ery,” writes Julie Check­oway, au­thor of The Three-Year Swim Club.

The camp kids were stuck, but they had a clever way of both prov­ing their au­ton­omy and hav­ing a bit of fun: When the bosses weren’t look­ing, they would sneak past fences and go swim­ming in the plan­ta­tion’s in­tri­cate ir­ri­ga­tion ditch sys­tem. The dan­gers — the pos­si­bil­ity of en­coun­ter­ing a f loat­ing scythe or rat, the like­li­hood of get­ting whipped and locked up in a sta­ble if caught — did not stand up to the joys of swim­ming. Soichi Sakamoto, a lo­cal school­teacher, saw this act of de­fi­ance and de­cided to push it a bit fur­ther. He would train the kids to be real com­peti­tors.

Check­oway’s ac­count of Sakamoto and his rag­tag team of record-break­ers is set against an in­ter­na­tional back­drop of loom­ing crises and a na­tional back­drop of deep prej­u­dices against Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans. In any con­text, long- shot con­tenders go­ing for gold prom­ise a great story, but the ob­sta­cles fac­ing the Three-Year Swim Club (as Sakamoto dubbed his team, an­tic­i­pat­ing the Olympics planned for 1940) were par­tic­u­larly in­sur­mount­able. Even if those ob­sta­cles were to be over­come, in the years lead­ing up to 1940, it was be­com­ing un­clear whether there would ac­tu­ally be an Olympics to look for­ward to, fol­low­ing the in­va­sion of China by the 1940 games’ ex­pected host, Ja­pan.

Check­oway dis­cusses t he “gee- whiz” st yle of j our­nal­ism of t he fi r st half of the 20th cen­tury, with “sports page[s] as full of hy­per­bole as a bal­loon with he­lium.” The au­thor’s own ten­dency to up the stakes, whether with ex­ag­ger­a­tion or self-con­sciously l ively l an­guage, can be dis­tract­ing and de­tract­ing. One swim­mer “might have had a fever, but he was on fire in the wa­ter,” she writes. Sakamoto “knew that his brazen­ness was be­cause now, some­thing greater than he — it might be god; it might be fate — spoke through him, and he stood at the start of a road on which he knew he’d find his life’s path.” Sev­eral com­par­isons seek to tran­si­tion from the pool to the global sphere. The in­ten­tion is fine, the ex­e­cu­tion un­com­fort­able: “As oc­cu­pied as the swim­mers were in those weeks, the führer was busier by far.”

I nter­ludes i n Tokyo, Cairo, a nd el s e where pro­vide up­dates on t he Olympics com­mit­tee de­ci­sion-mak­ing process, but nei­ther those dis­cus­sions nor their par­tic­i­pants are as en­gag­ing as the mem­bers of t he swim club. The per­son­al­i­ties of the group’s top swim­mers are pre­sented with vivid de­tail and pal­pa­ble fond­ness, so t hat we re­ally do come to root for Kiyoshi “Keo” Nakama, Bill Smith, and even the seem­ingly “smug” Takashi “Halo” Hirose in meet af­ter t ense meet. Sakamoto’s con­tri­bu­tions to the sport, par­tic­u­larly his in­no­va­tions with in­ter­val train­ing, are well noted.

“It was a time of ris­ing and of fall­ing,” Check­oway notes, “[t]he ris­ing of the voice of Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans and the fall­ing of an em­pire of cane.” It’s a broad­strokes kind of state­ment, but one with un­de­ni­able po­tency. — Grace La­batt

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