Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part XII; The Maui Ditch Kids Part 3

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

THIS is the 12th 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 X and XI about the first coach to ever be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Soichi Sakamoto and his startling initiation into coaching swimming in the irrigation ditches of Hawaii.

Coach Kiphuth drove closer to Philadelphia, the city that was once the birthplace of a new country. Philly was a womb for a brave new idea called 'democracy,' that became a country born out of a yearning for free enterprise and realized through revolutionary tactics.

Ideas and education had long been held in great regard by this swim coach. His four hours of sleep nightly was an unwanted interruption to all there was to read, learn or teach in a day. His voracious appetite for knowledge was one of the reasons he fit so well into the Ivy League community of scholars at Yale. So one must suspect that he held great respect for Coach Soichi Sakamoto and all that he had accomplished, both in his coaching and in the development of the people he molded through their shared pursuit of excellence.

Between the 1920s and the late 1930s, training to become the fastest swimmer in the world had progressed dramatically from Weissmuller's ideal total daily volume of 400 meters to a variety of programs, including Kiphuth's, that pushed the distance limits to more than a mile per day.

The Maui ditch kids churned more volume and attempted to do it with better technique than anyone in America that we know of at that time. Their workload rivaled that of the Japanese who dominated the world at the 1936 Olympics.

Similar to Kiphuth's fall season, Coach Sakamoto began training his swimmers in October with nearly three months of dryland work. In December, their daily sessions on Maui were 4-7 p.m., five to seven days per week. In the summer, they trained double sessions, once in the morning and again in the afternoon.

Following the Three Year Swim Club's (3YSC) victory at the men's nationals in 1939, Coach Sakamoto had plenty of critics. Swimming 'experts' warned him that he was asking so much of his swimmers that they would burn out.

It is easy to draw a comparison between the 3YSC program and Mark Schubert's Mission Viejo program in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While Mission regularly trained an unusually arduous amount of practices, of 12 times most weeks –or even 13 or 14 times– Schubert, like Sakamoto, saw the fun that came with improvement and achievement. Sakamoto seemed to “live at the pool” seven days per week. But he was having an experience that was enriching to his athletes because of their personal growth in mind and spirit–and especially in their process to prepare to be the best in the world.

The coach's insight into what makes a great swimmer is applicable today.

“The interest factor, on the part of the person, must be sincere and constant.” Sakamoto said. “He must realize the objective and the necessary sacrifice that must be endured over the years. His foresight and vision must be kept alive for hardships and industry are endless – to dim the weak-at-heart, to give up in despair.”

At just 14-years old, Fujiko Katsutani became women's breaststroke national champion that summer of 1939. She looked back and said, “Best time is when training to become a champion. After you become a champion, everyone just wants to knock you off.”

The Maui ditch kids boarded a steamship from California back to the Islands, in August 1939 euphoric as champions. It seemed that they were well on their way to success at the 1940 U.S. Olympic Trials scheduled for the next summer in Santa Barbara, as well as the Olympic Games to be held in Helsinki. There were at least six 3YSC swimmers with a likely chance of making the U.S. team. In an era when there were only six men's events and five for the women, that would be a huge number of team members.

But on Sept. 1, 1939, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler ordered his army to invade Poland and World War II officially began. Until the spring of 1940, the war was fairly isolated in Poland. However, in April the Germans invaded Norway and Denmark, in May, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. By June, most of Europe was occupied with war and Hitler had positioned his troops to invade Great Britain.

The Olympic Games were cancelled not only for the summer of 1940, but indefinitely. This was not just a boycott it was the death of the Olympics for an unknown period of time.

Even without the Games there was much to be learned from the sport of competitive swimming and Coach Sakamoto and his swimmers set out to do so. The women traveled to Portland, Ore., for the women's nationals while the men arrived in Santa Barbara well prepared, especially in the endurance events.

For the third straight year, the Maui team won the men's 800-meter freestyle relay with a squad of Jose Balmores, Halo Hirose, Charlie Oda and anchor Bill Smith. Keo Nakama won both the 800-meter and 1500 freestyle championships (dethroning his brother Bunny in the latter event). Bill Smith won both the 200 and 400 freestyle events and placed second in the 800 after a great race with Keo Nakama.

One of the other races of note was that Jose Balmores surprised everyone by defeating the defending champion, Jim Counsilman in the 200 breaststroke and 300 individual medley (butterfly hadn't been 'invented' yet). Jim would later become known as “Doc” during his coaching tenure at Indiana University.

The 3YSC team missed realizing their Olympic dream, but went back to work.

…Kiphuth continued his drive to Washington D.C. to receive the Presidential Medal Of Freedom.

Concluding story on the Ditch Kids coming next time.

This story comes through the help of movie makers Bill Brown and George Sunga. Their dream of making this movie is more than a decade old, but hopefully still alive.

Chuck Warner is a 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
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part XI

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