They promised to swim three years and beyond

By Dan Nakaso - Advertiser Staff Writer

At Jose's funeral, swimming wasn't even mentioned.

Two weeks later, five days before Christmas, "Bunny" died in Columbus, Ohio, far from his old friends.

Their passing went largely unnoticed.

But there was a time - 60 years ago - when Jose Balmores, Bunmei "Bunny" Nakama and his older brother Keo, Halo Hirose and Bill Smith swore an oath of allegiance to swimming, and to each other, and wrote a page of Hawaii's history.

They were the core of a remarkable swim club that emerged from the sugar cane irrigation ditches of Puunene, Maui, and ended up breaking records around the country and the world.

Today, after seeing two consecutive Olympics canceled, fighting a world war and, finally, winning gold, Smith, Nakama and Hirose look at the December deaths of their two friends - their teammates - with no trace of tragedy.

"At our age, you expect to go," said Hirose, 74. "The fact that we lived a pretty good life, that's the thing we remember."

In the kitchen of his Kaneohe condominium, Smith, 72 displays the bookends of his career with the team.

On one side of the table are his two gold medals from the 1948 Olympics in London, resting on a bed of blue velvet framed in koa.

On the other, equally as valuable to Smith, sits a crudely cut piece of wood, formed into a small shield. It's the plaque for the 1940 and 1941 "Monthly Boys' Improvement Point Contest." Clearly visible are the straight - edged pencil lines that the "Coach used to guide his hand as he painted in the names:

Nov.: Jose Balmores, Dec.: Jose, Jan.: Jose., Feb.: Charles Oda, March: Bill Smith. April: Bill, May: Bill....

In 1937, a Puunene elementary school science teacher named Soichi Sakamoto dreamed of getting at least one of the dozens of boys and girls on his swim team to the 1940 Olympics three years away.

They each made a three - year commitment and he called them the Three Year Swim Club, or 3YSC. Their motto was: "Olympics first, Olympics always."

Smith remembers one team meeting where Sakamoto pulled out a bamboo pole and made the 30 or 40 older swimmers each grab hold. He talked about team work, common goals and unity.

The pole was a symbol, a "stick - as in, "We stick together," Smith said.

"Coach wasn't a great one for making long speeches. But what he said was effective."

Indeed, Sakamoto - now 91 and not up to being interviewed - helped shape the lives of hundreds of plantation kids who otherwise faced a predictable future of school and a lifetime of work in the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar co. mills or its fields at Puunene.

He took kids who dodged the luna to swim in irrigation ditches and showed them a sport that offered a chance to earn a college education.

The Nakama brothers, Hirose, Smith and Balmores, were among those he coached into national championship and world record swimmers. Balmores was perhaps the the best all-around swimmer. "Bunny" Nakama, not nearly as strong as the others, stunned them all at the 1940 national championships in Santa Barbara, Calif., when he bat Balmores, Smith and the rest of the field in the 1500 - meter freestyle.

The result was a team of record holders and champions. Until they came along, "no one had even heard about Hawaii swimming," Smith said. 


In The Ditches

Before Smith moved from Oahu to live with Sakamoto, and before Hawaiian & Commercial Sugar Co. built a pool at Baldwin Par, Balmores, the Nakama boys and Hirose were "the original ditch boys from Camp 5," Hirose said. The four soon became the perennial national champion 800-meter relay team.

"Old Man DeLima (was) the camp policeman," Hirose said, "He rode a big horse and he had a big whip. Mr. DeLima would wait for us by our clothes, so we had to ditch our clothes. We swam all natural."

Those were the days before pesticides, and Hirose said the ditch water was clear and cool and perfect for swimming. It was usually three feet deep and the channels were about the width of a standard swim lane.

They shared the water with goldfish and catfish and other creatures. Nakama, now 76, remembers bumping into a dead chicken or two being flushed out of the fields.

Smith trained in the ditches a few times when the Baldwin Park pool was closed because of an occasional staph infection outbreak. Sakamoto would mark off a point 50 yards ahead and the the swimmers to sprint to it, fighting the 15 mph current. Once they reached it, they'd float back and start over.

Interrupted By War

In 1940, the war in Europe killed the Olympics. But the boys and girls from the 3YSC continued to knock down records and win national competitions.

After the 1940 national championships, and with no chance at an Olympics, Keo Nakama led his brother ("Bunny"), Hirose, Balmores and Smith to college careers at Ohio State University.

As the war heated up, the draft caught up to some of the boys at Ohio State. Smith went into the Navy. Balmores served with the First Filipino Regiment Battalion in the Philippines. Hirose joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy.

In 1944, another Olympics died.

After their service, they started their competitive swimming lives over. Smith, Hirose and Balmores went back to Ohio State and took a shot at the '48 Olympics.

Dreams Realized

Smith made the team and brought back gold in the 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle relay. Eleven years after "Olympics first, Olympics always," the Three Year Swim Club finally had its Olympic champion.

Sakamoto himself would get his chance at the Olympics as an assistant coach in 1952 and 1956. He also would coach at the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Swimming Club.

In the years that followed, the boys of the 3YSC started careers of their own. Smith ran Oahu's lifeguard program for 25 years and also was a swimming coach. Keo Nakama became a Hawaii school teacher and state legislator. Hirose worked as a probation officer for the state. "Bunny" Nakama joined the Ohio State athletic department. Balmores became a financial whiz for the University of Hawaii and Bank of Hawaii.

They married, became fathers and then grandfathers.

somewhere along the way, even though four of them still lived in Honolulu, the bamboo pole promise to stick together no longer held, and they rarely saw each other.

"I guess we all went our separate ways as we got older," Hirose said.

But once, 60 years ago, there was a time.

Oh, was there ever a time


This article was contributed by Lani Kay Nakama, youngest daughter of "Bunny" Nakama - Mahalo !