Legendary Swimming Coach Soichi Sakamoto: Created a Swimming Hotbed in Hawaii that Produced Olympic Champions

Soichi Sakamoto, founder of the Three Year Swim Club in Maui and coach of champions
Soichi Sakamoto, founder of the Three Year Swim Club in Maui and coach of champions

“He made you believe that if you set your goals high enough, you could achieve anything,” said Olympian Bill Smith of his coach and mentor.

Said John Tsukano, “We were kids from this small town in Maui, so we believed anything was possible. We would tell all the other teachers and our friends that we were going to make it to the Olympics. They would just laugh.”

Soichi Sakamoto was not a swimmer. He was a learner and a teacher, who asked the simple question “What makes a swimmer go fast?” When Sakamoto passed away in August, 1997, it was clear he knew that answer better than most, as he personally coached five Olympic champions, making Hawaii a swimming hotbed.

Sakamoto was a grade school teacher and a Boy Scout scoutmaster on Maui who knew only basic survival swimming techniques. The school where he taught was near the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, a sugar plantation that utilized miles of irrigation ditches to water the canes. In the Hawaiian heat, the schoolkids would often cool off in the ditches. The management of the plantation were concerned for the safety of the children so they asked Sakamoto to supervise them. And when Sakamoto watched the kids swim in the ditches, he asked himself that question.

Training in the irrigation ditches of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company
Training in the irrigation ditches of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company

“I didn’t know anything about swimming, but I realized that, if I put them in the water and watched their progress, maybe I’d learn something,” Sakamoto explained in this article. “So I watched their progress and tried to eliminate haphazard movement. It was common sense.”

The ditches were 8-feet wide and 4-feet deep. While similar to the size of a swimming lane in a pool, this lane had a current. It occurred to Sakamoto that swimming against the current of the irrigation ditch in the most efficient manner could help develop a swimmer into a very fast swimmer. He marked off distances of 50, 100, 150 and 200 meters, and developed an interval training system that helped build up the form, strength and speed of his students.

“In that ditch, the current coming down offered them natural resistance, and when they swam up they were developing a stroke that was very efficient and practical,” explained Sakamoto. “If they had done it in entirely still water, I don’t think it would have developed. Drifting down in the current gave them very relaxed movement gave them a very beautiful style. Gradually, everything started to fall into place.”

In 1937, Sakamoto built a philosophy and set a goal for his kids. He called it “The Three Year Swim Club”, where he gathered a group of children aged 9 to 14 years with the goal of getting them to the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. The club had a motto: Olympics first and Olympics always.”

The Second World War resulted in cancellation of the XII Olympiad in Tokyo, as well as the XIII Olympiad in London. But finally in 1948 at the XVIV Olympiad in London, the first of Sakamoto’s boys put Hawaii on the map when Bill Smith took gold in the 400 meter freestyle and the 4×200 meter freestyle relay. Smith was from Honolulu, and at the age of 15, lost to Bunny Nakama in the one mile swim in a national competition in California. It was there that Smith met Nakama’s coach, Sakamoto. Smith was so taken, that he moved to Maui to train and live with Sakamoto, where he swam in the ditches against the currents, swore off alcohol and cigarettes as Sakamoto demanded, and went on to captain the team that went to London.

Coach Soichi Sakamoto and London Olympian Bill Smith
Coach Soichi Sakamoto and London Olympian Bill Smith

The Three Year Swim Club continued to produce other Hawaiian swimming champions. Ford Konno was a gold medalist in the 1500 meters freestyle, and 4X200 meter freestyle, a silver medalist the 400 meters freestyle in Helsinki in 1952, as well as a silver medalist in 4X200 meter freestyle in 1956 in Melbourne. Yoshi Oyakawa won gold in the 100 meter backstroke in 1952. Bill Woolsey was a gold medalist in 4X200 meter freestyle in 1952, as well as a silver medalist in the 4X200 meter freestyle in 1956. And Thelma Kalama also took gold in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay. Sakamoto was an assistant coach on those US swim teams in Helsinki and Melbourne.