Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel
Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel

At the age of 15, Adolph Kiefer set his first world record.

At the age of 16, he was the first person in the world to swim the 100-yard backstroke in less than a minute. As this article states, Kiefer held every backstroke record there was for 15 years.

And in 1936, at the age of 18, he won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter backstroke, setting Olympic records in the heats and the finals. He had a streak of over 200 consecutive victories in the back stroke, and in his career, lost only twice.

At the age of 98, on May 5, 2017, Kiefer passed away in his home state of Illinois.

The great swimming coach from Hawaii, Soichi Sakamoto, was inspired by Kiefer, and got tremendous insight in technique by watching film of the Chicago native. Here is how Julie Checkoway, in her wonderful book, The Three-Year Swim Club, describes Kiefer through the eyes of Sakamoto:

When he filmed backstroker Adolph Kiefer, he found in him the same relaxation – in Kiefer’s legs, his rolling arms, his outstretched but loosened palms and fingers, a catch that seemed effortless, a recovery that took no time at all. For too long Sakamoto had believed that Kiefer had merely been a talented natural whom Stan Brauninger had discovered in a concrete culvert in Chicago; Kiefer was talented, all right, but he hadn’t become the world record holder in the backstroke without a technique that was, to Sakamoto, nothing less than genius.

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there was anticipation of so much more Olympic glory for Kiefer – but like others of his generation, the war years intervened. That did not, however, stop Kiefer from making an even bigger impact. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kiefer joined the Navy. As Checkoway, revealed, Kiefer was shocked to hear that 50% of the soldiers who perished at Pearl Harbor did so by drowning. And yet, when soldiers returned to his port in Norfolk Virginia, he was surprised to hear that learning how to swim was still not a priority.

Adolph Kiefer

At his insistence, Kiefer was sent to Washington DC to make a case for institutionalized swimming instruction. Kiefer made a strong case. “What good [is] a 5-man gun crew,” Kiefer asked the Navy brass, “if one of those 5 couldn’t swim and fell in? With one man drowned, what good [is] a 5-man weapon?” Kiefer got the funding and set up a training center for naval swimming instructors. As Checkoway explained, Kiefer was so well known and so well liked, he had little trouble rounding up some 1,200 swimmers to teach survival swimming, who would in turn train every naval sailor how to swim.

As the obituary in The New York Times explained, Kiefer met the Fascist leader, Adolph Hitler, after his gold medal victory.

One day, while Kiefer was training, Hitler came by with an entourage of Nazi officials, including the powerful Hermann Göring. Hitler had learned of Kiefer’s German heritage and wanted to meet him.

“I remember him being a small man with a small hand,” Kiefer told the Times columnist Ira Berkow in 2000, “and his handshake wasn’t a firm one. Then he spoke to the interpreter, and I was told he said something like, ‘This young man is the perfect example of the true Aryan.’”

Kiefer added: “At the time, I was honored to meet this important head of state. But if I knew then what I know now about Hitler, I should have thrown him into the pool and drowned him. I even can’t stand the name Adolph now. But I’m stuck with it.”

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Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake
These black and white photos seem eerily similar. They are both of Tokyo, but the first picture is the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 1923. The second picture is the result of firebombing that took place by the US Air Force on March 9-10, 1945.

In other words, Tokyo climbed out of the fiery ashes of destruction, not once, but twice in the first half of the 20th century. People outside marveled at the patience and resiliency of the Japanese after the triple shock of earthquake, tsunami and radiation terror that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011. But the world has seen these qualities before.

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Tokyo after the firebombing in 1945
And both times, out of the ashes of 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake and the horrifying and sustained firebombing of Japan’s capitol in 1945, Tokyo rose to the pinnacle of international recognition in sports by being selected as the host country for an Olympiad. Many know of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, how a defeated nation, subservient to foreign governance for 7 years after World War Two, rose to economic prominence to host the first Olympics in Asia, and arguably, at the time, one of the best run Games ever.

But many are unfamiliar with Tokyo’s selection to host the 1940 Olympic Games.

The idea to nominate Tokyo to be a host was the brainchild of Hidejiro Nagata. He was the mayor when the earthquake struck Tokyo on September 1, 1923.

In all, though, 140,000 people died, the first in buildings that pancaked immediately on top of them; the second swept away by a tsunami that had followed hard upon the great tremor, and the third in a pillar of fire that consumed everything it found in its freakish path. Tokyo was gone. A pile of rubbish, ash, the smoke of fires, even after months, still rising from the ruins. Mobs had taken over the city, gangs in the streets torched what little there was left of shops and homes, sowing even more fear among the people, who worried that the government, too, might fall.

The above is how Julie Checkoway, author of the book, The Three-Year Swim Club, described Tokyo after the tragedy. But she continue to write how, a decade later, the city recovered and celebrated its rebirth. Checkoway writes about Mayor Nagata and his pride in Tokyo’s phoenix-like re-emergence. The mayor was proud of the shiny, modern metropolis Tokyo had become, and he wanted the world to know. “He had come to make it a habit to personally greet every delegation of foreigners arriving in his city, and in so doing to show them both the warmth of his and others’ welcome and the grandeur of which the new Tokyo was capable.”

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Checkoway’s book is about the legendary American swim coach, Soichi Sakamoto, who was part of a Boy Scouts delegation visiting Japan. Sakamoto, who was a Nisei American who had never been to Japan, was eager to see the Japan of his past. As Checkoway explains, “what he found and enjoyed most on the trip was not the Japan of the past but a country in the midst of embracing its modernity. Like everyone, he heard about the destruction of Yokohama and Tokyo – the quake had occurred during the year in high school he’d been ill – and so when he found that both cities had risen from the rubble and the conflagration, it was among the sights that stunned him.”

Mayor Nagata knew this was the way to change the world’s neutral to negative perceptions of Japan – get them to visit. And what better way to bring the world to Tokyo was to host the two biggest socio-economic events in the world: The World Exposition and the Olympics.

But Nagata needed supporters in high places. He began to put ideas together and lobbied influential people with a plea to nationalism by citing what he said was historical fact – that 1940 happened to be the 2600th anniversary of the year that Japan’s first emperor founded the country. And what better way to honor the creation of the nation, and to reveal to the world Japan’s inherent greatness than to hold the Olympics.

“[1940] would be an occasion,” wrote Checkaway, “to celebrate the glorious past and speak loudly of the Empire’s strength, but Hidejiro Nagata-san idea was to take the 1940 celebration even further: simultaneous with the anniversary, Tokyo could host the Twelfth Olympiad, and demonstrate not just to itself but to the world the millions of miles it had traveled into modernity.”

But the 1940 Olympics never were. Tokyo did indeed win the bid. But as international conflict deepened in the late 1930s, and with Japan’s increasing pre-occupation with its colonies and conflicts in Asia, the Japanese government decided to decline its hosting responsibilities. The IOC made a quick switch to Helsinki, Finland, but the war came to the world, and the Olympics would be cancelled, not returning until 1948.

The flag of the rising sun
Went up the main mast.
It is no longer a dream.
On the scoreboards for each nation
Japan’s points are rising fast.
Gloriously, truly gloriously
Several Japanese flags are fluttering
Against Los Angeles’ blue sky.
My body shakes with emotion.
Tears of joy well up in my eyes.
Victories extol victories.

Sayoko Ishikawa, “Hirugaeru Nisshoki,” Rafu Shimpo, August 11, 1932 (a newspaper in America for Japanese)

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My grandfather and grandmother, Kiyoshi and Fumi Tomizawa
My grandfather was 53 when the Olympic Games came to Los Angeles in 1932. He was an Issei, a Japanese who emigrated to the United States in 1903. After graduating from Miami University of Ohio in 1908, he went on to become the director of the Japanese YMCA in San Francisco.

He was proud of living in America and contributing to his community through his service in the YMCA, but it was not easy for Japanese at that time. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 put a ban on immigration to America for essentially one race – the Japanese. This dispelled hope for many Japanese issei, like my grandfather, of ever becoming accepted by the rest of American society, let alone gaining citizenship. But my grandfather never gave up hope, and during the Great Depression, he helped raise funds to establish a building that would become the home of the Japanese YMCA in 1936. (The Buchanan YMCA still stands today.)

During the difficult times in his quest to develop the YMCA building, I am sure he was lifted by the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. After all, the Japanese team exploded for 18 medals, including 7 gold. The Japanese were particularly strong in swimming events, as swimmers took two thirds of all medals for Japan. In one instance, Japan swept the podium, going 1,2,3 in the men’s 100-meter backstroke.

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An AP article from August 13, 1932 proclaimed the following: “With the swimming championship beckoning to the sturdy sons of Nippon, Japan stood on the brink of its first Olympic team title today in the finals of the international aquatic carnival.”

No doubt Japanese communities all across America were following the exploits of the Japanese team in Los Angeles with tremendous pride. Julie Checkoway, author of the brilliant book, The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory, stated that the achievements of the Japanese at the 1932 Olympics not only transfixed the Japanese in America, they transformed them.

Both Issei and Nisei in California had spent more than $100,000 on tickets to watch events, and again and again they saw the Japanese flag rise over the stadium, an image filled with symbolism. The Japanese sports commentators had even ventured to say that the sporting world of the West was now firmly at the feet of the Empire. After years of being second-class citizens, experiencing prejudice, alienation and racism, those of Japanese ancestry in California and across the US were buoyed with pride. Suddenly, too, other Americans had a new vision of Japan as both friendly and competent, and it seemed as though the tide might turn on the Mainland and a wave of acceptance might come. Famously, one Nisei in Los Angeles told the story that since the Games, white men no longer literally stoned him in the street, and he could look, he said, into his reflection in a shop window and feel, for the first time, respect even for himself.

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Checkoway’s book was a biography of swim coach Soichi Sakamoto, who would go on to become one of America’s most successful and revolutionary swim coaches. Sakamato was an elementary school teacher in Hawaii, who in 1932 did not know how to swim. In his time away from teaching he oversaw the safety of children playing in plantation irrigation ditches. He looked at their joyful faces, many of them of Japanese descent like himself, and began to have a thought. Maybe these kids had the talent too.

Riding the excitement and pride of a new bar set by the Japanese team in LA, Sakamoto allowed a dream to take form in his heart. As Checkoway wrote, “Soichi Sakamoto had no good reason to do it, not right to, no knowledge of how to, but he called out to the children, nonetheless, ‘How ’bout I teach you something about swimming, eh?'”

For Japanese in Japan and in the United States, the 1932 Los Angeles Games were a revelation and inspiration. I’m sure my grandfather took heart. The mayor of Tokyo certainly did. He had an idea – how about bringing the Olympics to Tokyo.

Ans Botha, coach for South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, talks to reporters during media availability at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro.
Ans Botha, coach for South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, talks to reporters during media availability at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 15, 2016. Niekerk won the gold medal in the 400-meter final with a world record of 43.03 (Jeffrey Furticella/The New York Times)

In the world of leadership development, finding the right executive coach is often a matter of chemistry. We often introduce a coachee to two, sometimes three prospective coaches with the hope that one of them will click with the client. So much of a good coaching engagement is the willingness of the coachee to be vulnerable, to allow him or herself to open up and trust the coach. The greater the openness and trust, the greater the commitment of the coachee to change.

The same is likely true in the world of high-performance sports. Not every coach is right for every athlete. While Bobby Valentine‘s cerebral, in-your-face managerial style was perfect for the World Series bound 2000 New Mets, it was awful for the 2012 Boston Red Sox. While Soichi Sakamoto‘s my-way-or-the-highway approach to coaching championship swimmers was perfect for two-time gold medal-winning freestyle swimmer, Bill Smith, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was anathema to fellow Hawaiian swim star Halo Hirose.

When Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa blew away Michael Johnson’s 19-year-old world record time in the 400-meter sprint at the 2016 Rio Olympics, almost everyone was surprised to learn that his coach was a 74-year-old woman whose white-haired, grandmotherly appearance fooled security at the Olympic Stadium. They would not let the woman see her prodigy, Van Niekerk. After being reassured profusely by fellow South Afrikaner athletes that Anna Sofia Botha was indeed the coach of Rio’s newest star, the coach finally got to see her coachee.

As she explained in this New York Times article, “we just hugged each other. It wasn’t necessary to say anything. We knew in our hearts and in our minds what we thought and what we had achieved.”

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Van Niekerk met Botha in 2012, when he enrolled at the University of the Free State, where Botha was the track coach. Even though she seemed to appear out of nowhere, Botha has actually been coaching track for nearly half a century, after competing in track herself. So when she saw this raw talent come to her, and saw a sprinter prone to leg injuries, she recommended that van Niekerk switch from the 200 meters, to the 400 meters, under the assumption that the longer distance would place less stress on his hamstrings.

“I have such a big responsibility to get this athlete to develop to his full potential, and also the responsibility for myself to try to do my very best not to do something wrong which can make or break him,” Botha told the Sunday Times (cited in this Deadspin article.) “The main thing is we listened to what his body said to us. If the body said stop, we stopped, or went a little softer.”

“She’s an amazing woman,” van Niekerk said in this article in The Guardian. “She has played a huge role in who I am today and kept me very disciplined and very focused on the role and who I need to be.” Clearly Niekerk needed someone who could bring the tough love, and Botha confirmed that in the same article.

“I dearly love all my athletes but it’s about being strict … We can laugh, but when we have to work hard, we work hard.”

World-class athletes who self-coach, like javelin champion Julius Yego, are few and far between. The coach can sometimes have a huge impact. Who is the right coach? Well, if you’re serious, you probably should not settle for the first one to come along. The coach right for you is out there. You’ll know it when you meet her.

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