Summary and book reviews of The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway

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
    Paperback:
    Jun 2016, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp
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About this Book

Book Summary

The inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.

In 1937, a schoolteacher on the island of Maui challenged a group of poverty-stricken sugar plantation kids to swim upstream against the current of their circumstance. The goal? To become Olympians.

They faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The children were Japanese-American, were malnourished and barefoot and had no pool; they trained in the filthy irrigation ditches that snaked down from the mountains into the sugarcane fields. Their future was in those same fields, working alongside their parents in virtual slavery, known not by their names but by numbered tags that hung around their necks. Their teacher, Soichi Sakamoto, was an ordinary man whose swimming ability didn't extend much beyond treading water.

In spite of everything, including the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment of the late 1930s, in their first year the children outraced Olympic athletes twice their size; in their second year, they were national and international champs, shattering American and world records and making headlines from L.A. to Nazi Germany. In their third year, they'd be declared the greatest swimmers in the world, but they'd also face their greatest obstacle: the dawning of a world war and the cancellation of the Games. Still, on the battlefield, they'd become the 20th century's most celebrated heroes, and in 1948, they'd have one last chance for Olympic glory.

They were the Three-Year Swim Club. This is their story.

Excerpt
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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Sakamoto's decision to teach underprivileged children to swim and to challenge them to dream, changed hundreds of lives for the better. I was deeply moved by the fact that so many benefitted from his firm but compassionate attention and coaching. The final scene, focused on student Keo Nakama thirteen years later is inspiring. As he struggles to be the first person to swim the twenty-seven mile Kaiwi channel between the islands of Molokai and Maui, Nakama draws on the lessons learned from Sakamoto, proving that a good coach's influence lasts and lingers.   (Reviewed by Sarah Tomp).

Full Review (921 words).

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Media Reviews

Star Tribune
Checkoway stays true to her salvage mission. She unearths characters flawed and fetching and shines an unflinching light on race and class...glorious storytelling and a triumphant, unpredictable finish.

Kirkus
Details about training, swim times, and the team's travels occasionally overwhelm Checkoway's tense, vivid, and inspiring narrative. Not without its flaws, but a good choice for fans of David Halberstam's The Amateurs (1985), Daniel Boyne's The Red Rose Crew (2000), and similar books.

Booklist
An inspiring true tale of grit and determination... Checkoway skillfully weaves vivid scenes into a larger narrative with a varied cast of characters to create a stirring, though exhaustive, account ...Pair this with The Boys in the Boat.

Library Journal
This captivating nonfiction, featuring engaging individuals and portraying a tumultuous time in history, chronicles Hawaii's second golden age of swimming. Sports and history enthusiasts will enjoy this title as much as book clubs and general readers.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. If the basis for the book doesn't sound amazing enough, how the story unfolds--Japan vying for the Olympic games, Pearl Harbor being bombed, WWII changing the world forever--allows the story and characters to evolve in uplifting and heartbreaking ways...it is evident that Checkoway's ability to set a scene is uncanny and accomplished.

Reader Reviews

Cynthia Aziz

The Three Year Swim Club
The book captures the stories of amazing young children and their unlikely couch who are inspired to achieve greatness oblivious to the challenges of the cold world off their shores. The author's meticulous research using oral histories and ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Unusual Swimming Pools

The members of the Three-Year Swim Club began their careers in rough and dangerous irrigation ditches. However, even after they moved their practices to a more traditional swimming pool, they had to compete in other challenging venues.

Some were simply an unconventional size — sometimes creating an advantage, other times hindering performance times. The overheated pool in Stockton, California was only twenty yards long which allowed for faster event times, due to more push-offs the walls. In contrast, the Detroit Athletic Boat Club Pool at fifty-five yards long by forty feet wide had such narrow lanes that "backwash from adjacent lanes would hit the swimmers and cause drag," leading to slower times than usual.

Other pools were...

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