“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.
“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