The year was 1937, and for the first time in recent memory not one Islander was on the U.S. Olympic men’s swimming roster. After the memorialized Duke Kahanamoku retired, no swimmer from the Sandwich Isles had been trained to continue his legacy. But Maui schoolteacher and dreamer, Soichi Sakamoto, an ordinary man whose swimming abilities didn’t extend much beyond treading water, challenged a group of scruffy plantation kids full of moxie to swim upstream against the current of their circumstance. The goal? To become Olympians.
They faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The children, 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 sugar cane fields. They were destined for lives of virtual slavery, like their parents’ in the fields. But in spite of everything, including the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment of the late 1930’s, in their first year they outraced Olympians twice their size; in their second, they were national and international champs, shattering American and world records and making headlines from LA 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.
Meet the Author
JULIE CHECKOWAY is an author and documentary filmmaker. She graduated from Harvard College, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant and fellowships at writers’ colonies, including Yaddo. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salt Lake Tribune, and Huffington Post.