Sakamoto: inspired greatness.

He coached some of Isle's top swimmers.

Soichi Sakamoto taught his students to follow their dreams.

By Dayton Morinaga. Advertiser Staff Writer

This story reprinted with the permission from the editor of the Honolulu Advertiser.


The tears shed for Soichi Sakamoto over the last few days could fill an Olympic-sized pool.

Sakamoto, one of the most successful and recognized swimming coaches in Hawaii history, died on Saturday (August 2, 1997) of complications associated with pneumonia. He was 91.

"It was kind of a shock," said Bill Smith, a former Olympic gold-medal swimmer and Sakamoto prodigy, "But we sort of felt it was coming. He was sick for a long time."

From humble beginnings on Maui, Sakamoto went on to coach several of the best swimmers ever produced here: Bill Smith, Keo Nakama, Jose Balmores, Bunmei Nakama, Halo Hirose, Bill Woolsey, Ford Konno and Evelyn Kawamoto, among others.

Sakamoto's first training grounds were the irrigation ditches in the sugar cane fields of Maui. Through much of his efforts, a pool was later built at Baldwin Park that virtually became his home.

"Seven days a week until the sun went down, he was there," said John Tsukano, a former swimmer who wrote several journals on Sakamoto. "That's how much he loved it."

As a science teacher and swimming coach at Puunene School on Maui, Sakamoto taught all his students to aim high.

"Our motto was always: 'Olympics first, Olympics always,'" said Smith. "He made you believe that if you set your goals high enough, you could achieve anything."

Tsukano said he remembers others mocking the Olympic dreams.

"We were kids from this small town in Maui, so we believed anything was possible," Said Tsukano. "We would tell all the other teachers and our friends that we were going to make it to the Olympics. They would just laugh."

But several of those Maui kids would fulfill the dream, including Smith.

"He had everything to do with my success," said Smith who won gold medals in the 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle relay in 1948.

Later, Sakamoto's legend crossed international waters. He was an assistant coach for the United States Olympic Swimming Team in 1952 and '56. Nine swimmers with Hawaii ties participated in those Games. Four earned medals, including gold by Yoshi Oyakawa, Konno and Woolsey.

Sakamoto would go on to coach at the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Swimming Club.

He is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the University of Hawaii Sports Circle of Honor. Earlier this year, the swimming facility at the War Memorial Complex in Wailuku was renamed after him.

"I wish everybody could have had the chance to meet him," said Halo Hirose, another former swimmer for Sakamoto. "Because he wasn't just a swim coach. He taught music, he coached track, he was a Boy Scout master. There was nothing he couldn't do."

Tsukano, 72, said: "You take away what he did for swimming and you still have a great man. He put so many kids on the right track. I remember when I was a young rascal he always used to tell me, "Don't drink, don't smoke, That stuff is no good." to this day, I don't drink or smoke."

Sakamoto is survived by sons Raymond (wife Yuki) and Donald (Wife Myrna), daughters, Janice Lam and Rene Takata (husband Dennis), 12 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

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