Irrigation ditch was site of swimming lessons
by Jim Borg, Advertiser Staff Writer
_____It's as good a yarn as "Rocky," "The Natural" or "The Karate Kid."
_____The difference is, it really happened and the star is not an athlete who wins against seemingly insurmountable odds. The key character is the coach.
_____This story is to Island
swimmers what "Chariots of Fire" is to runners from
the British Isles.
_____All the more amazing is
that Sakamoto could barely swim when he took on his improbable
task. He relied , then as now, on common sense, hard work, healthy
habits and faith in God.
_____The mythical element arises from the fact that, after a traffic accident when he was 9, Sakamoto was pronounced dead.
_____While riding his bicycle to school on Maui, he was hit from behind and run over by a truck. After three months in the hospital, Sakamoto recovered fully, and at 78, still holds the conviction that God "must have wanted me to live."
_____It's a life that has touched hundred of people deeply.
_____"I love that man," said protege John Tsukano, to whom Sakamoto gave the name "John" after one of the swimming greats of the era, Johnny Weissmuller. "He's a rare individual. I think they threw away the mold when they made him. He led by example and, you know, today I don't smoke or drink. He taught not only swimming but good sportsmanship and good citizenship."
_____Sakamoto began teaching
at Haiku School in 1927, transferring to Puunene School the next
_____Sakamoto noticed this and persuaded plantation authorities to let the children swim in the ditch under his supervision.
_____As a Boy Scout leader, Sakamoto
knew only "survival swimming," but he knew inefficiency
when he saw it and began to coach the children on their strokes.
_____Believing that success has a common thread in all endeavors, Sakamoto turned to some of the better plantation laborers for advice. "I said to myself, What makes a swimmer go fast?' It struck me, why not go to some of these people who are practical people. So I went to the workers, the plantation laborers, who worked from 5 a.m. to 5 in the evening. As the workers were coming home from their work, I would stop some of them and ask them. 'How do you manage to work so long during the day?' And they would say 'Steady, Not hurry up, but steady.'
_____"And I'd say, "you're
number one in the cane-cutting gang. How do you manage that?'
and they would say, 'Steady, Steady.' And then a guy would emerge
as bonus winner on the plantation, and I say, 'How do you manage
that?' and he said, 'Work harder, harder. Don't give up.'
_____Sakamoto recalled, "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. 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
_____He called a meeting in his homeroom class and announced the formation of the Three Year Swimming Club. The rules of membership were: no smoking, no drinking, no gambling, no swearing, strict daily training, loyalty to the club and a three-year commitment.
_____The goal: By 1940, the swimmers
would be ready for the Olympics.
_____About 100 youngsters, 16 on the average, signed up. The club motto: "Olympics first, Olympics always."Said Tsukano, then 12, "It was a crazy idea, but Coach believed it."
_____Hawaiian Commercial and
Sugar Co. chipped in for a pool in Puunene, and Sakamoto spent
nearly every spare hour there, 6 a.m. to midnight in the summer
and 2:30 p.m. to midnight on school days.
_____Having long since hung up his whistle, Sakamoto spends much of his time caring for his wife, Mary, who became ill in 1981.
_____He continues to keep mind
and body well-tuned. His twice daily exercise regimen includes
100 pushups, as well as situps, stretching and exercycle work.
_____"People use to tell
me, 'Sakamoto, you know, you're lucky, you have all these natural
swimmers back in Hawaii," the Coach recalled chuckling "I
used to say, 'No, don't say that, because it's not true.'