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

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

by Julie Checkoway


$15.99 View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, May 24


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.

*Includes Reading Group Guide*

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781455523450
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 06/21/2016
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 203,322
Product dimensions: 5.12(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Julie Checkoway is an author and documentary filmmaker. A graduate of Harvard, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, she is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant and a Yaddo fellowship. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salt Lake Tribune, and Huffington Post.

Table of Contents

Preface 1

Part 1 Such Stuff us Dreams (1932-1937)

Chapter 1 To Race with Giants 7

Chapter 2 Hardhead 23

Chapter 3 A Wide Awakening 40

Chapter 4 The Pursuit of Greater Ventures 55

Part 2 On Such a Sea (1938)

Chapter 5 An Exercise of Will 83

Chapter 6 Owing to the Protracted Hostilities 102

Chapter 7 Keeping 1940 in Mind All the Time 120

Part 3 Taken at the Flood (1939)

Chapter 8 Down Under 147

Chapter 9 Youths of the Sea 167

Chapter 10 The Coup 187

Part 4 A Tide in the Affairs of Men (1940-1941)

Chapter 11 A Season of Flame 205

Chapter 12 Santa Barbara 215

Chapter 13 Mr. Smith Comes to Maui 222

Chapter 14 Blitzkrieg 239

Part 5 Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight (Nana korobi, ya oki) (1944-1948)

Chapter 15 Go for Broke 265

Chapter 16 Home Front 284

Chapter 17 Detroit, Redux (1948) 307

Chapter 18 Goals and Sacrifices 325

Afterword 347

Author's Notes 353

Section Notes 359

Three-Year Swim Club Members 389

Mahalo Nui Loa/Thank You 393

Reading Group Guide 405

Index 419

About the Author 431


On Writing as Dating

I believe that stories and their writers have a way of finding each other; it's as if in the world they're part of some kind of enormous "dating" pool — a veritable literary, and that finding the right "partner" is a matter of time, fate, circumstance, and — I have discovered — making good choices.

Writers and stories don't marry. They just date for a long time. And they get engaged. Writers and stories are essentially serial monogamists: after a mutually beneficial relationship, they break up — amicably or not — and move on to the next one.

I've had satisfying "friends with benefits" hook-ups with a number of "pieces," public radio stories I've written or produced, newspaper and magazine articles. And I've also fallen in decent love a couple of times, most notably, with two long-form projects - - a memoir about Chinese women, for example; a book of essays on teaching writing.

I've also been cursed, however — and scarred — by one pretty messy affair from which it took me a long time to recover. The project was a documentary film, (it's called Waiting for Hockney) and however positive the outcome was for the audience — people liked it, the film got great reviews in both the U.S. and the U.K., and it premiered at Tribeca and was broadcast on the Sundance channel and lots of other places, too, I was mostly a wreck during it. My relationship with the film was a torrid "affair." It involved, for example, among other things, bitter disagreements about money — and money is the death knell about any relationship.

Indeed, the bell tolled for me and my film, and when it did, I lost tons of weight and sleep, I was depressed, I was mostly broke, and I was entirely disheartened, frankly, about morality and potential of the human race. When I finally got better and the lights came back on, I began to think of "dating" again, but this time I had a whole new approach.

I decided that I needed to change the way that I would engage in narrative relationships from then on. No longer would I see myself as a passive participant in the process of finding a "mate." No longer would I see writing/story relationships as inevitable or passive. In other words, after an ugly breakup, it I knew both that it was going to take a heck of a lot of "dating" (i.e., spending a lot of time with a story), before I'd allow myself to jump into something new, let alone allow myself to become "engaged," with it. And I knew for the first time that I had agency in choosing who or what to spend (part of) my life with.

I sat down and literally made a list of the qualities I was looking for in a future story/"mate." It goes without saying that the first criterion was about money. I wasn't going to engage with any story that would get me in trouble. The second requirement was that the story had to be pleasant enough for me to want to spend time with it for half a decade; I wasn't expecting perfection nor did I have a Pollyanna-ish view of what was possible, but I knew that the good had to outweigh the bad on a daily basis. To that end, the third thing for which I was looking was subject matter about something of significant historical importance; I'd come to the conclusion that it was a waste of my time to be engaged with projects that had nothing much to say about the world at large. And not only that, the fifth and final requirement was that the people in the story had to have made a positive difference in the lives of others and to have set a good example for future generations. A tall order — I know.

My agent and I batted around a couple of projects. For a while she set me up on "dates" with a story about a woman who lived in a rural town in a basement apartment and who singlehandedly and without authority monitored the online activities of and brought to justice members of Al Qaeda. Then I find another potential mate in a story about a group of antiquities thieves in the American southwest and a group of FBI and BLM agents who'd sought long and hard to bring them to justice. But neither story was a "keeper." The woman in the basement had some unexpected legal problems I decided I didn't want to take on, and the antiquity thieves were mean and had guns.

When I finally "met" the story of The Three-Year Swim Club, to my delight, one encounter after another was positive, enjoyable. The story met all of my "dating" criteria (see above); we were emotionally compatible; and the more time we spent together, the more and more I found myself falling truly and deeply in love.

What wasn't to love? The story is about a ragtag group of Japanese-American kids who, in 1937, on the island of Maui, band together, and with the inspiration of an intrepid teacher and coach, vow to make it to the Olympics in 1940. The odds are completely against the kids. The individuals were endearing and sympathetic, and in the end, the group achieved the improbable and even went on to change the course of history.

I spent five years happily involved with The Three-Year Swim Club. I loved the research the most — delving deeply into the soul of the thing and knowing it as intimately as I could — and I enjoyed the writing part, too, although it harder for me and sometimes getting the sentences and sections right and thinking about the audience, it felt a little bit like the pressure of taking your newly beloved beau home to meet your parents: you hope, in other words, everybody's going to be reasonably well dressed and also on their best behavior.

When people have ask me what project I plan to take on next, I admit to both appearing to be and being largely shocked and appalled. I know in my heart that some day I'll have to move on — all writers have to accept that — but in the meantime, I'm so madly in love with all the goodness that is The Three-Year Swim Club that I'm going to keep shouting its name from the mountaintops for as long as people will let me. —Julie Checkoway

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
gaele More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im the grand daughter of a 3YSC member, how i wish my grandma was still here to tell us more stories and to see how accurate this book os with her memories. I met Bill Smith when my grandma was inducted into the hawaii swimming hall of fame... I knew he was a legend by my grandmas stories, but wow, what an honor to have met him. This book shows so much history of Hawaii and the island of Maui.
bbb57 More than 1 year ago
This is a noble story that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is a part of American History that I was unaware of. My only complaint is that the author used words that had to be looked up, which were totally unnecessary and took away from the enjoyment. Simple, everyday language is all that's needed to tell a story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago