in books. Sakamoto innovated some of the significant
methods by which we still teach competitive swimming
techniques, and his swimmers went on to be Olympic
and world champions. I wondered, why don’t we know
Why don’t we?
Sakamoto was incredibly modest. He was also busy
coaching until fairly close to the end of his life. And he
was never encouraged to see himself as a voice in
the vaster narrative about competitive swimming, although he brought many Olympians to
the games and his name was mentioned in
Colliers, Time, Newsweek. It’s also the
story of a team, and none of its members
felt it was their place to tell it.
What made you decide to take it on?
Several original members [of the club]
were still alive, and they or their chil-
dren had vast archives no one had
ever seen. I did wonder, do I have
the right to do it? I’m a New
England–born woman, I don’t speak
Japanese, everything was new to
me, including competitive swim-
ming. What persuaded me was vis-
iting with people who had lived the
story, and they were so generous in
telling it. There was a collaborative
quality to it, to piecing together
It sounds like more of a massive
editing project than a writing proj-
ect. How did you keep focused?
I tried to see the key moments and
turning points in terms of personal
stories and the historical context,
then figure out, where do they
intersect? It was overwhelming and
the material was voluminous, and I
had to learn how to cut through the
noise. Contemporarily, we’re critical of the press and how inaccurate
it is, but they were pretty inaccurate back then. It was only by triangulating on multiple sources that I
was able to find out what happened,
say, at a particular swim meet.
How much material did you wind
At least 5,000 sources and at least
3,000+ photographs. It’s crazy. What
I hope to do is put a bibliography up
on a website that will give access to
anyone who wants it, because these
materials aren’t mine.
Will this be your first time at BEA?
Yes. This will also be the first time
I’ve spoken about the book as an
object, as a thing that’s done. Going
to BEA is the official sharing of the
story. —Lela Nargi
Julie Checkoway’s Three Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Ditch
Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory (Grand Central, Nov.) follows the
life of Japanese-American grammar school teacher Soichi Sakamoto
(1906–1997), who turned dozens of impoverished schoolchildren into world-class competitive swimmers. Checkoway’s agent will talk about her book
on today’s Buzz Panel, in Room 1E12/1E13/1E14, 4:15–5: 30 p.m.; and she
will be at the Downtown Stage tomorrow, 10–10: 45 a.m., with the other
How did you find this story?
I’d just finished my documentary [ Waiting for Hockney] and was working
as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune, on the lookout for a story that was
about great people who’ve made a difference in the world. My friend and
agent, Eileen Cope, called and said, ‘I just heard this story. Do you think it’s
true?’ There was no scholarly material at all, no mention of the swim club
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A Story Never Told
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