Julie Checkoway: A swimming race with giants

Halo Hirose (Block 3) and Keo Nakama (Block 4). Picture: The Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum
Halo Hirose (Block 3) and Keo Nakama (Block 4). Picture: The Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum
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AN extract from Julie Checkoway’s The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of the Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory

Practically no one at the Natatorium knew much about the kid beyond his name and that he was a nobody. He was Kiyoshi Nakama, a schoolboy from a sugar plantation, and almost all the training he had done was in an 8‑foot-wide and 4‑foot-deep filthy irrigation ditch that snaked through the camps in which he and his teammates lived. He and the rest of the ragged island squad didn’t even have a single towel to share between them, and their coach was a fifth-grade schoolteacher who didn’t know how to swim.

'Sometimes the boy was so hungry he sucked on sugarcane for strength'

'Sometimes the boy was so hungry he sucked on sugarcane for strength'

The story only got worse the more you knew of it.

Just a few months before, the coach had set Nakama and all the Maui kids up for failure by filling them with nonsense about the future. Back home, both he and the swimmers had paid the price: they were a laughingstock to many, and now, as if he wished to court even more derision and disaster, the coach had the hubris to put his runt swimmer in a men’s event.

The boy was smaller, weaker, and lived a life more deprived than any of his teammates. The story went that his father drank the family’s money up; his mother beat both the father and the kid; and when the mother was tired of doing that, she beat the family’s skinny pig until, one time, the thing collapsed right where it stood, dead, still tied up to a ragged rope. Sometimes the boy was so hungry he sucked on sugarcane for strength.

In his hand the Maui coach held a shiny stopwatch with which he planned to take the measure of his swimmer’s pace and, in so doing, take the measure of a plan he’d hatched. A dreamer, the teacher had become possessed not long before of an idea of grand and possibly ridiculous proportion, and the race this night would be a test of whether he’d been right or whether he’d become a laughingstock back home.

Keo Nakama, Camp 5 pool, Pu'unene, Maui, 1937. Picture: Sono Hirose Hulbert

Keo Nakama, Camp 5 pool, Pu'unene, Maui, 1937. Picture: Sono Hirose Hulbert

His swimmer had no experience in a pool like the Natatorium or with men who were poised beside him now, world record holders, national champions, collegiate stars, Olympians. The boy’s stiffest competition had been in local races with his own teammates and minor competitions with swimmers of his age back home on Maui. Recently, the boy had acquitted himself in a 440-yard event against a Honolulu college boy, and after he had done so, a few people, including the teacher, had sat up and noticed. Whether the boy’s previous success had been a sign of talent or an accident of fate was what the teacher also wished to know this night, standing on the deck, listening for the pop of the starting gun, his finger poised upon the button on his stopwatch.

Now, on their blocks, Keating and Gilman shook out their enormous arms and legs, and in imitation Nakama did the same. Keating and Gilman leaned down, and Nakama did, too, curling his toes over the edge of the block and locking his arms behind him as they did, in the pose that in those years was customary for swimmers to take before the starting gun. Across the pool, the boy’s coach was watching carefully. No matter what the crowd thought of the boy now, no matter what the boy thought or doubted deeply in himself – the kid had come tonight to race with giants.

The race was over from the plunge.

All the coach could do was watch the tragedy unfold, a dark disturbance in the pool. The salty water offered nearly zero visibility, and swimming without goggles, the boy might as well have been swimming blind between the primitive wooden lane lines. In the first lap, he was far behind, trailing Gilman and Keating by four body lengths, at least. He thrashed in the water with crazy kicks, with arms spinning like wheels gone off their axle, and for every stroke that Gilman and Keating took, the kid was taking two or three in an effort that was clearly unsustainable.

Ralph Gilman reached the wall after the first 100-metre lap, and Keating was right behind. Each pushed off the pads and started up again. Gilman tore ahead, and Keating kept up with him. Nakama arrived at the wall – eons later, it seemed – and turned awkwardly, finding when he did that the Flying O’s were a quarter-lap ahead and that it might as well just be a race between the California teammates now: Keating starting to struggle a bit to keep up, but Gilman carving effortlessly through the mucky tank.

There are worse things in life than watching an athlete fail miserably, but in the world of sport it’s an ugly thing that dulls the edge of fandom. Everyone knows it’s no good for the soul to stay with intention to witness another person’s ruin, but at the same time, like a train wreck one sees coming, it’s also a sickening spectacle from which it’s hard to tear oneself away. Around the coach, the crowd was preternaturally silent, and what he heard inside his head was the deafening sound of a voice declaring him a failure.

On deck stood Duke Kahanamoku, serving as a judge, and he looked on attentively, his job to find irregularities of any sort in the proceedings, though the most glaring irregularity of all was the unfortunate matchup of a boy with men to whom the first was unequal. At the third lap, though, Duke Kahanamoku watched as the skinny boy pushed off at the wall and turned, somehow lurching forward, thrashing, then miraculously pulling up behind Dick Keating. Keating, who by the 200-metre mark had become unable to sustain his pace, fell back, and bit by bit and then by a body length, the boy had pushed the Californian out of the competition.

Gilman also struggled with the pace. As Nakama advanced on him, from high up in the bleacher seats the boy’s teammates called his name out. In the water Nakama inched up farther, propelled by some force it seemed impossible he could have within him. He was a skeleton, a thing of emptiness, but now he sped along the surface of the water as if inside the shell of him he secretly possessed a powerful beating heart.

At the start of the fourth lap, with 100 metres to go, the very tone of the race changed. Then, with about 45 metres to go, the top of Nakama’s 
head was even with Gilman’s heels; at 40 to go, he’d advanced to Gilman’s knee; and after the 35‑metre mark, when he and Gilman were head‑to‑head in what looked to be a dead heat in the final stretch, the kid flew forward, most improbably.

Behind him in the water, Gilman lost momentum, rubbering up. On deck, the reporters dropped their cigarettes. In the stands, the spectators rose to their feet. Nearby, the coach leaned forward, and he shouted to the boy – the boy’s name, syllables of now-revived belief. And from there it was – no overstatement – just the way things happen only in storybooks and in children’s dreams.

• Extracted from The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of the Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway, published by Little, Brown, £14.99.