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
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