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Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part XIII; Maui Ditch Kids Conclusion

Published:January 2, 2013

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

THIS is the 13th column in a series about the history of swimming.

The sport's only Presidential Medal of Freedom winner was Robert John Herman Kiphuth. President John F. 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 12 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.

Meanwhile in collegiate competition, Matt Mann's Michigan teams were battling Kiphuth's Yale teams year after year for the Men's NCAA Team Championship. By 1940, the Wolverines had reeled off four consecutive titles but Yale had surpassed Mike Peppe's Ohio State team. Kiphuth's squad was inching closer and closer to Michigan, missing the title by just two points in that 'Olympic year.' However, one of Ohio State's freshmen was Keo Nakama and would play a major role in the future outcomes for the Buckeyes at the NCAAs.

The 1941 Outdoor Nationals were held in the summer in St. Louis. When Coach Sakamoto's team arrived in its bright colored shirts and saw the meet program cover it must have been pleased. The Three Year Swim Club swimmers were pictured on the cover with the heading, "One of the Greatest Collection Of Athletes Anywhere in Sport." Sakamoto's swimmers swam up to their billing, winning the competition again.

On the collegiate side, Mike Peppe had a sensational recruiting year. He noticed Jim Counsilman's ability at those nationals and the breaststroke star joined the Buckeyes along with "Bunny" Nakama, Hirose and Balmores. Eventually, Bill Smith was recruited to join his teammates as well. Although a year later in 1942, Kiphuth's Yale team won the championship, with the help of the ditch kids and Counsilman, in 1943 Ohio State started a run of 10 NCAA titles in the next 13 years. In the same span, Yale won the championship or finished runners-up seven times.

Coach Peppe's dominating teams at the NCAA Championships are well documented. But a less apparent development in the sport of swimming was taking place quietly in dorm rooms, on bus rides to competitions and in hotels. They were the sharing of ideas that the Hawaiians had with Jim Counsilman about swimming and Coach Sakamoto's creative training ideas.

Jim, who became the heralded coach "Doc" at Indiana University, has been credited by some for a variety of innovations in swimming including interval training. But it was his teammates that must have provided him some of the idea when they explained the way Coach Sakamoto challenged his swimmers to race up against the current's in the irrigation ditches of the sugar cane field and float back down to recover. This well-preceded Doc's coaching that began in 1952, after a heroic stint as a pilot in World War II.

One of Doc Counsilman's swimmers, assistant coaches and a legendary coach in his own right at the Punaho school in Hawaii, Steve Borowski, had this perspective on Sakamoto, "He was THE man in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He was making radical changes of the way to train swimmers. With Bill Smith, he innovated a six beat kick. He used a metronome (the forerunner to a tempo trainer) in a lot of his training."

Soichi Sakamoto coached his way through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 1, 1941. He trained his swimmers to improve and to eventually compete in the 1944 Olympics tentatively planned for London. But those Olympics were canceled as well.

In 1945, Coach Sakamoto took his first paid job as a swim coach working and teaching at the University of Hawaii, finally leaving Maui.

The Olympics were revived in 1948, in London. The Japanese were not allowed to participate and the American men, under head coach Bob Kiphuth, won every gold medal. The ditch kids finally had an Olympic swimmer in Bill Smith who won two gold medals.

When as a teenager, Bill Smith contacted Coach Sakamoto about moving from Oahu to Maui to train the coach asked him, "Would you like to be the world's champion?" Smith actually moved into Sakamoto's home. The coach said, "He was a good listener."

The Olympic gold medalist looked back after he retired from swimming and said, "He changed my life, taught me how to be self-sufficient and more important than gold medals he made me into a great person."

It's clear that in Coach Sakamoto's eyes his most important achievement was the growth of the people he coached. He had helped the children of people that worked the sugar cane fields grow athletically, academically and spiritually through their competitive swimming experience.

The sons and daughters of hard-working people in those fields in Maui that began work before sunrise, and often finished after sunset traveled the world because of the sport of swimming, and helped build it at the same time.

68 of those kids went to college on a full scholarship.

The beloved swimming coach Soichi Sakamoto lived 91 years, to 1997. Eventually he was recognized for his work. In 1952 and again in 1956, he was named assistant Olympic coach for the USA. In 1966, he was the first swimming coach inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF).

Who was the president of the first ISHOF Board Of Directors? Jim "Doc" Counsilman.

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

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
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part XII
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