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Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part X; The Maui Ditch Kids Part 1

Published:November 12, 2012

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

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, November 12. THIS is the 10th column in a series about the history of swimming. The sport's only Presidential Medal of Freedom winner was Robert John Herman Kiphuth. The famed coach at Yale University was selected for the prestigious award by President Kennedy. 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.

Coach Kiphuth completed his ride over the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River. He turned his car south on I-95 in New Jersey in the direction of Washington D. C. The image of the Hudson and its high banks cradling the flow of water might have served as a reminder of one of the most amazing stories that he had ever been exposed to in the sport of swimming. The story began in irrigation ditches that spawned the best swimming team in America and the first coach inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.


While Yale was enjoying bringing swimming stars to its Water Carnival at the fabulous Payne Whitney Gymnasium in 1933, unbeknownst to Kiphuth, 5,000 miles away in the Hawaiian Islands youngsters were being shooed out of swimming in irrigation ditches on the remote island of Maui. The children were those of employees of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company that lived in a plantation community of about 8,000 residents. Families of like heritage, such as the Japanese and the Spanish, lived in camps together and worked in the fields. During the day, the fields and schools were a melting pot of many ethnicities, while at night each returned to their own camp and their own cultural traditions.

Recreation options were extremely limited for the families and kids. If you had money you could join the private Puni Club. In 1910, the club had built a 25-yard swimming pool but it was only for club members. The workers in the fields couldn't afford such luxuries, but there was another option. Each day the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company pumped millions of gallons of water out to the fields to irrigate the sugar cane crops.

After school, kids in the community looked for a recreation outlet. Baseball was popular because all you needed was a stick and a ball to play. But under the warm Hawaiian sun kids also went swimming in the ditches. Swift currents characterized the water flow through the eight-foot wide, four-foot deep, cement lined ditch irrigation system that extended throughout the large fields.

The families couldn't afford bathing suits so when the kids snuck into the ditches they swam naked. (At Yale under Kiphuth's rules, recreation swimmers didn't have a choice but to swim naked!) The police and the plantation owners didn't mind the kids swimming while their parents worked the fields, but the fact that the kids were naked kids, was a problem. The police also were concerned for safety and shut down the swimming unless or until someone would supervise the frolic.

Enter a local junior high school science teacher named Soichi Sakamoto. He volunteered to supervise the kids after school so they could swim. Presumably they covered up with underwear and regular swimming in the ditches became an acceptable recreation outlet.

Sakamoto's involvement in sports was by coaching elementary school teams. As a teacher he also had some basic training in swimming, but like Bob Kiphuth, he had never been a swimmer and had no training in swim instruction. Many believed Sakamoto didn't know how to swim at all.

Just as Kiphuth had learned from observation of swimmers while he ran the old Carnegie pool at Yale, Sakamoto watched the swimmers in the ditches and thought about how to swim more proficiently. The kids seemed to be talented with effortless movement through the water. He began to structure instruction by asking them to swim up against the current and then enjoy the float back down.

In Maui, in the middle 1930s, the ditch kids were training in the same way that Ryan Lochte and the University of Florida swimmers occasionally were doing in 2012; Coach Gregg Troy's swimmer were using rivers for endurance and a change of environment. For these kids in Hawaii the irrigation ditches were the only pool to swim in.

The kids on Maui were improving their conditioning while their volunteer supervisor Sakamoto was learning to become a swimming coach. His personal make up was one of quiet but firm control. He was audacious in his belief that he could do anything he set his mind to. As a child he learned to play the ukulelia and against his parent's wishes, started a band. When he saw the women he wanted to marry, he made sure he met her and soon they were husband and wife.

The volunteer coach trusted his instincts and began develop a training program of working up stream and recovering while floating down stream. He watched technique, learned what was efficient and worked to transfer the image he held in his mind to his swimmers.

In 1936, the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company built athletic facilities for the plantation owners families and workers, which included a 25-yard pool. The ditch kids now had a better place to train and the means to practicing turns.

Coach Sakamoto decided to enter the swimmers for the first time in a senior swim meet in 1937. The competition was on the main island of Oahu and would include Ralph Gilman, a member of the 1936 US Olympic Swimming Team. It was time to find out how good his swimmers really were.

... to be continued...

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 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
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