The Three-Year Swim Club
The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory
The New York Times bestselling inspirational story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.
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 and were malnourished and barefoot. They 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.
This rags-to-riches story revolves around school teacher Soichi Sakamoto, who took a group of Japanese-American children from a poor, segregated Hawaiian sugar plantation and taught them how to be champion swimmers, practicing in one of the plantation's fetid irrigation ditches. If the basis for the book doesn't sound amazing enough, how the story unfolds Japan vying for the Olympic games, Pearl Harbor being bombed, WWII changing the world forever allows the story and characters to evolve in uplifting and heartbreaking ways. Debut author Checkoway is equal to the task of telling this moving narrative. From page one, where she writes "Lip-locking lovers perambulated... and holiday makers gathered... under Maxfield Parrish skies," it is evident that Checkoway's ability to set a scene is uncanny and accomplished. Her top-notch skill as a researcher allows her to bring to life the long-forgotten saga of the swim team, which she fears might otherwise "simply disappear." Depicting determination, discrimination, hope, anguish, hard work, and hard choices, Checkoway has created a sports history that is singular in its own right, and a fitting testament to the over 200 youths who swam for many reasons toward one goal: "Olympics First! Olympics Always."
The skill with which Checkoway brings this story to light is nothing short of marvelous.
Perfect for fans of The Boys in the Boat, this story telling of the forgotten “Sugar Ditch Kids” who went from poverty and strife in the sugar plantations of Maui, overcoming obstacles that few dare to challenge today.
Maui of the 1930’s was a giant sugar plantation, worked by Japanese-Americans and hotbeds of great poverty and struggle. A teacher hired by the plantation, Soichi Sakamoto, saw and demanded more of these underprivileged and unknown children, and soon had them swimming and beating Olympic calibre racers.
Add to this, the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment that only worsened after the advent of Pearl Harbor and World War II and this testament to the power of determination and a goal. While their story may have been lost to time, Julie Checkoway uses powerful visual descriptions, historical research and actual accounts to tell a story that should be shouted from the rooftops.
From dirty irrigation ditches to the prospect of the 1940 Olympic Games cancelled because of World War II, through the War, detainment in camps and even performance above and beyond the norm on the battlefield, the Sugar Ditch Kids survived and found a calling within themselves to keep moving forward.
While it’s easy to feel that the historical detail overwhelms, the skill with which Checkoway uses detail, imagination and empathy to bring this story to light is nothing short of marvelous.
I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.