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Excerpt from The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Three-Year Swim Club

The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory

by Julie Checkoway

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway X
The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 432 pages
    Jun 2016, 448 pages


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The Three-Year Swim Club

The aquacade reached its climax when a professional hula dancer by the name of Girlie McShane shook her ample hips awhile, and a local wrestler named Al Karasak, a former ballerino, demonstrated that he was as tough as he was delicate when he pinned an opponent pronto on the deck. Then, only one competition event remained, but that last race was meaningless on the whole, a fait accompli. The event was a middle-distance one—the 400-meter freestyle—and so, confident of themselves, the Flying O's had put in a sprinter and long-distance swimmer instead of anybody with middle-distance expertise.

The San Franciscans were Dick Keating and Ralph Gilman. Keating, a reigning Pacific Coast distance champion from Stanford, had broken his own record in both the furlong and the quarter on Wednesday night; and Gilman, a collegiate star and alum of the 1936 US men's Olympic relay team with a silver medal to his name, had raced against Duke Kahanamoku's younger brother Sam in the 100-yard freestyle. Sam Kahanamoku had attempted an ill-advised middle-aged comeback and Gilman outswam him by several body lengths. In the 4x200 team relay, the same race in which he'd medaled in Berlin, Gilman had been lightning in the water, leaving the other Hawaiians in his wide, white wake.

Dick Keating was dark-haired, towering, trim, and sinewy; and Gilman was blond, a 6-foot-2-inch mountain of muscle with shoulders as big as drumsticks. He looked amiable enough when on the deck—he had warm, dark eyes and a smile that seemed to be authentic—but in the water no competitor was to be taken as a friend.

There was only one other swimmer of note against whom the Californians were set to swim the final race, and he was notable for the fact that he was a most pathetic challenger. He was a boy from Maui, fifteen or sixteen at the most, and, like others on his sorry squad, he was at least a hundred pounds lighter than either Keating or Gilman, and had a face so thin that it made his ears, which weren't in truth that large, appear as floppy as the flaps on an aviator's cap.

He wore an old-fashioned, full-bodied black woolen swimsuit, one he had either cheaply acquired or obtained as a hand-me-down from an older kid, and even dry, the suit had clearly been waterlogged so many times that its narrow shoulder straps sagged down to reveal the concave chest not of an athlete but of an invalid. The boy's fragility was tragic to a depressing degree: the curve of his spine suggested that he suffered from scoliosis, and he was as bowlegged as a weaning colt, his feet disproportionately wide, the arches flat as a duck's, the spaces between his toes gaping and spread out like a geisha's fan: he had clearly spent his life to date entirely barefoot.

When he proceeded slowly to the starting block, bystanders, who over the course of the long evening had breached pool etiquette and crowded the deck and taken over the blocks as seats, parted like a wave—in sympathy—to let him through. He stood alone among the crowd and looked as though he might be better off, rather than pulling himself up onto the block, if he were to stand still and collapse instead into a pile of unremembered bones.

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.

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.

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Excerpt copyright (c) 2015 by Grand Central Publishing.

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