The Power of OneSwim Coach Soichi Sakamoto A True Inspiration by Tony Pearce If you want to create a successful swimming club, it is my firm belief that the first element required is, no, not the pool, no, believe it or not, not even the swimmers: it’s the coach. This article is about a time in 1937, at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Maui. A young school teacher by the name of Soichi Sakamoto decides to create an Olympic–class swimming team from a group of young Japanese-American sugar plantation camp children in just three years. Defying formidable odds, Sakamoto takes his swimmers to local, national and international prominence. You can read all about it in Julie Checkoway’s fascinating book, The Three-Year Swim Club. Lacking formal swimming facilities, Sakamoto trains his swimmers in the ‘the old watering ditch’, a three-and-a-half-foot deep irrigation ditch that runs parallel to the school. Although the onset of World War II cancels the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games, Sakamoto’s swimmers go on to win medals in later Olympics, thereby fulfilling his dream of creating world-class swimmers and continuing Hawaii’s tradition of cultivating great swimmers like Duke Kahanamoku. Sakamoto is not a competitive swimmer. He would barely be able to save himself if needed, but he evolves interval training and the kick board. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this story is that a man who can barely swim seeks - and gains - permission to oversee a hundred children doing so. Quietly, he sits watching the children splash and play. ‘Dunk and dive babysitting’, he calls it. Sakamoto looks out at the children in the ditch and sees them not just as camp kids but as talented swimmers. With no experience, and no real idea what he was doing, he calls out, “How ‘bout I teach you something about swimming, eh?” Fast forward a few years and in 1945, then as a swimmer, the famed US Olympic Coach to be James ’Doc’ Counsilman attends Ohio State University. The University Swim Team, which has a number of great Hawaiian swimmers on its roster, goes to Hawaii for a summer to train under the legendary coach, Soichi Sakamoto, who has moved on to be Head Coach for the University of Hawaii Swim Club. Doc learns from Sakamoto that swimmers can train much harder than most people think they can; in fact, every aspect of the Hawaiian experience has such a great impression on Doc that it leads him to say: “Sakamoto trained the swimmers hard, but he was a kind, gentle person, and he never screamed or hollered; if you did something that he didn’t like, he would become quiet, but he was not vengeful or vindictive. Sakamoto never won a place as a coach on a United States Team. He wasn’t a politician, and he was never recognised even when he had trained the majority of swimmers on the team. At least he should have been selected as the distance coach.” Sakamoto sacrifices countless hours of his personal time and family life mentoring hundreds of Hawaii’s children. Despite his remarkable success he is driven to win not by the desire for personal acclaim but by the desire to teach them to become better human beings. His greatness will be reflected in the many lives that he touches and transforms, whether they become champion swimmers or not. Perhaps he should serve as an inspiration to teachers who are, now with lifeguard provision, delegated to take a swim class. Well, you never know: the swimming world might truly be your oyster. “How bout I teach you something ‘bout swimming eh?”
1. The Coach Soichi Sakamoto Swim Pool(recent photographs taken in Maui courtesy of Roxana Roman Director of Aquatics St Pauls School Head Coach Barnes Swimming Club).
2. The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway(book cover). ISBN 978-0-349-6. Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc.
3. “the old watering ditch”.
Sakamoto. ”How ‘bout I teach you something about swimming, eh?”
Counsilman. Swimming World News January 2004. A GIANT HAS FALLEN” by Cecil Colwin.