Passages: Hawaii’s Keo Nakama, 91

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida, September 10. BORN on May 21, 1920, Keo Nakama passed away on Wednesday, September 7th in Hawaii, he was 91. One of the greatest swimmers of his era, Keo was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975.

Keo never got his chance at the Olympics because of WWII, but his "Big Meet" record is no less Olympian. At the 1940 Pan-American Swimming Championships in Ecuador, the diminutive Hawaiian won 5 events. At the Australian Nationals in 1939, he won 6 titles, adding the 330 yard individual medley to his sweep of all 5 freestyle events. Nakama was a little guy compared to the size of most swimming champions, but wherever he went big things happened, not only to him but to whatever team he swam for. During his swim career in the early 1940s, Nakama won 27 US National Championships from 100 yards to 1500 meters. His world records extended from the mile (1760 yds.) swum at Yale University when he was 22, to the 26 mile Molokai Channel, a first-time-ever swim, when he was 41.

Nakama's 3 varsity seasons at the Ohio State University were Big Ten and NCAA Championship years for Hall of Fame Coach Mike Peppe's Buckeyes with Keo the captain his last two years. He also captained University's baseball team.

Nakama recalled that he was the victim of racism only once when he was on the mainland during World War II. And that his coach, Mike Peppe, punched out the Army colonel who thought it wrong that a guy who looked like the enemy was the Buckeyes' star swimmer.

But there was a time he was scared.

"I'll never forget Dec. 7, 1941," Nakama says. "Peppe ordered me to report to his office. I thought I was done, that I'd have to go home or worse. But he just said, 'Just play it cool. We're in the same boat; I'm Italian and (assistant coach Carl) Wirthwein is German. We'll be OK.' "

Nakama served in the Army Reserve and also taught sailors how to swim as a volunteer. He tried to get to the front, but was rejected for having flat feet.

Back in the Islands, Keo's coach, Hall of Fame coach Soichi Sakamoto, was beginning a new era of great Hawaiian swimming. He trained them in an irrigation ditch on Maui and his first of many National Champions was Keo Nakama. Keo's Paunene School won its first Maui School Swimming Championships when Keo and his friend Halo Hirose became old enough to swim. It was the same at Maui High School and on the mainland when Sakamoto's Nakama-led Alexander House Community Association Team won the first of several U.S. National AAU Team Championships in 1939. After the war, Hawaii's big Annual International Swimming Meet at the tide-filled Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium was naturally named the Keo Nakama Meet.

Keo received his Masters Degree at Ohio State in 1945, taught at the University for two years and then returned to Hawaii as a high school swim coach, teacher and athletic director before being elected to the Hawaiian Legislature in 1964.

Whether he was scouting baseball players for the Detroit Tigers or serving as assistant Majority Floor Leader of the Hawaiian State Legislature, there was always action and achievement wherever there was Keo Nakama.

Keo and his wife Evelyn and six daughters, who survive him. Memorial details are not available at this time.

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