Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part XI; The Maui Ditch Kids Part 2

As seen through the eyes of Chuck Warner, Swimming World Contributor

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, November 21. THIS is the 11th column in a series about the history of swimming.

The sport's only Presidential Medal of Freedom winner was Robert John Herman Kiphuth. President Kennedy selected the famed coach at Yale University for the prestigious award. Just prior to Coach Kiphuth receiving this award in December of 1963, the President was shot and killed. We are presenting some snapshots of swimming history as thoughts that Coach Kiphuth might have had driving to the Medal of Freedom ceremonies.

Our story continues from column 10 about the first coach to ever be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Socio Sakamoto and his startling initiation into coaching swimming in the irrigation ditches of Hawaii.

When Coach Sakamoto entered his swimmers in their first senior meet, in 1937, he encountered a problem right from the start. Some of the swimmers that he wanted to compete were just 13 and 14 years old. Swimmers at this age were apparently considered age-group swimmers and refused entrance by the meet hosts. But true to his personality the coach pressed forward. He wasn't contained by others norms. He was fearless in moving toward his vision he held in his mind and asked “Why can't 13 and 14 year olds compete with high school and collegiate athletes?” The coach sought a logical resolution to conflicts and quite often the resolution was to get what he believed was right.

The young kids were allowed to compete in the Senior Meet.

Years later the coach looked back on what had transpired from the days when he first became involved with the swimmers and Coach Sakamoto said, “Talent is something that you discover. I watched them in the water and I could see talent. I decided I should do something to get them permission to swim. They said we need someone to supervise, so I supervised.”

It may have started out with him just supervising but soon he became 'coach.' He also began to scout the island of Maui for more talent outside the small camps of workers for the Sugar Cane fields and recruited the most talented recreation swimmers he could find. He had been training his swimmers to improve, and by entering his best in the senior meet in Honolulu against the best swimmers around, he could find out how they measured up.

Coach Sakamoto was not disappointed. Their inaugural senior competition was a huge success. He took Kiyoshi “Keo” Nakama and Takashi “Halo Hirose” to the meet. Nakama beat Olympian Ralph Gilman and won three events, while Hirose won one.

The small squad returned home with a new mission for his swimmers and a new name for his team that matched it: “The Three Year Swim Club” or for the sake of a swim meet program 3YSC. Its mission was to be successful in three years at the 1940 Olympic Trials and at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.

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

But there wasn't support for the Olympic dreams of the coach and the swimmers in many places.

“We were kids from this small town in Maui, so we believed anything was possible,” said John 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.”

In just four short years, the ditch kids were already competing with some of the best swimmers in the world. The coach believed anything was possible and sold his swimmers on his belief. To be a member of his “Three Year Swim Club,” one had to sign a contract agreeing that they wouldn't quit the team during the next three years. Those that chose to stay were in for commitment to an arduous workload.

Training was conducted seven days a week, including holidays, and team members were expected to be on time for every session. Fujiko Katsutani Matsui was 11 when Coach Sakamoto recruited her and 60 years later recalled the expectations of the coach.

“We took the Kahului Railroad bus (to) the Kahului Depot, where Burger King is now, and transferred at the depot,” Matsui said. “By the time we reached Pu'uene, it was 6:30 in the morning. Coach says, 'If you're not here by 6 a.m. don't come.'”

Each practice began with the pledge of allegiance and singing the national anthem. One day the coach gathered his team around a long bamboo stick. He asked each team member to place a hand on the stick and used the moment to reinforce to them the importance of 'sticking together' as one team. One of his swimmers, Yshio Shibuya remembered the experience in his adult years and said, “Coach was a very strict disciplinarian. All of us lived very cleanly. We didn't enjoy nightlife. He told us to eat good vegetables and meat so we would strengthen ourselves. He was an ideal teacher.”

When one explores swimming history, it is at best difficult to sort through the sources of training concepts and accurately determine their inception. For example, what seemed like an innovation in recent years of wearing paddles and fins to swim at maximum speeds, can be found in Benjamin Franklin's biography as something he did in the Charles River near Boston as a young teen.

Innovation was a part of Bob Kiphuth's greatness, as well as with Coach Sakamoto. Ideas that are thought to be new inventions to swim training are found in use at least 50 years ago and some by these coaches, including in Bob Kiphuth's books.

Coach Sakamoto said that when he started coaching he read some books, but didn't feel that helped him too much. He said that he used common sense. He painted 50, 100, 150 and 200- meter distances on the sides of the irrigation ditches. Swimming multiple repeats against the 15-mile an hour current might have been a prelude for interval training or even the flume or Endless Pools.

The ditch kids endured a great deal of endurance training but they also trained with good technique. While many concepts in stroke efficiency have changed over time, the picture provided by the ISHOF for this article suggests a beautiful long extension of the arm and a catch with a 'big hand.' The coach described a swimmer's stroke as a 'working tool.' A drill that he used with his swimmers to improve their freestyle stroke was to have them crawl through sand.

Coach Sakamoto also began working with his swimmers in freestyle on something they called a 'six beat kick' driving the legs more than was common in the 1930s. He built dryland equipment to strengthen the swimmer's body. They worked on what they described as a “one hole” dive in which they tried to slide through the surface of the water instead of the traditional flat entry that was popular in the day.

Coach Sakamoto wasn't just an innovator at the pool but was also revered for building people. He conducted team meetings on training, character development and discipline. While he passed away in 1997 at 91 years old his swimmers might remember his voice telling them in 1938−or coaches and parents in any era−”Patience, above all, is tantamount, and a rule, as improvement, growth, speed and success come only at a snail pace. First, it is learning to swim, training and conditioning, competing and going through the bitter experiences of defeat and chagrin. The light of success comes only when everything seems hopeless and wasted.”

In 1938, Hirose and Nakama went to the AAU Nationals (now USA Swimming) in Louisville, Ky. Coach Kiphuth and the world of American swimming must have taken notice when Nakama placed second in the 400, 800 and 1500-meter freestyle events.

When the team went off the Island of Maui, and in particular to the mainland of the United States, they showed their Hawaiian pride. They wore the brightest colored shirts they could find. When the team when to a restaurant for a meal, the coach would often bring his ukulele and the team would serenade the mainlanders with Hawaiian music.

In 1939, Jose Balmores, Bill Neunzig and Benny Castor joined Nakama and Hirose as a team representing the “Three Year Swim Club” at the Men's US National Championships. Four of them were neighbors at their Camp on Maui that totaled about 150 people. Together they won their first men's National AAU Team Championship.

Coach Kiphuth, and many others, had to have wondered like the old line in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

“Who are these guys?”

The Helsinki Olympics were just a year away and the Ditch Kids were on fire.

…the concluding portion of the Maui Ditch Kids next time…

Chuck Warner is contributor for Swimming World Magazine and author of Four Champions: One Gold Medal. Chuck's latest book titled And Then They Won Gold, is now available for purchase.

Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part I
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part II
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part III
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part IV
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part V
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part VI
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part VII
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part VIII
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part IX
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part X

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