A brightly told story of the triumph of underdogs.
In 1937, Soichi Sakamoto formed the Three-Year Swim Club, whose members were children of workers living on a Hawaiian sugar plantation. Sakamoto, a teacher who could hardly swim, had seen them frolicking in a dirty, shallow ditch and made a proposition: “Three years of discipline. Three years of sacrifice. Three years of nothing except swimming” would yield great results. If they worked hard and cared enough, he was certain they could become members of the United States men’s swim team at the 1940 Olympic Games, to be held in Tokyo. Filmmaker, journalist, and nonfiction writer Checkoway (Little Sister: Searching for the Shadow World of Chinese Women, 1996, etc.) fashions the story of the tireless Sakamoto and his eager swimmers into an exuberant, well-researched, if sometimes overly detailed celebration of unlikely champions. As a coach, Sakamoto combined encouragement—he learned the power of positive thinking from Norman Vincent Peale—with intense attention to stroke technique and training regimens. With the help of former Olympians and enthusiastic sportswriters, he publicized his team and raised money to send them around the world to compete, and they performed astoundingly well. His star, Keo Nakama, for example, swam against 1,100 competitors in Sydney, Australia, coming in first in every race. Not surprisingly, where money and fame were at stake, rivals emerged. One in particular tried to wrest control of the team from Sakamoto, criticizing his methods and manipulating himself into a position of power. But Sakamoto persisted, even when the 1940 Olympics were cancelled after Japan invaded China and subsequent games were scratched because of war. Not until 1948 did members of the team—men as well as women—compete in the Olympics, proving themselves champions. Details about training, swim times, and the team’s travels occasionally overwhelm Checkoway’s tense, vivid, and inspiring narrative.
Not without its flaws, but a good choice for fans of David Halberstam’s The Amateurs (1985), Daniel Boyne’s The Red Rose Crew (2000), and similar books.