My parents were born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii, so I am familiar with some of the Hawaiian legends—from the pranks of the tiny Menehunes to the wrath of the volcano goddess Pele. But I had never heard of the true story of Maui's Three-Year Swim Club from the 1940s until I read Sakamoto's Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory.
When children of plantation workers were being reprimanded for playing in the sugar field's irrigation ditches, a local science teacher stepped up. Soichi Sakamoto took responsibility for the kids every day after school and trained them in competitive swimming, using the ditch's natural current to improve their strength and speed. Coach Sakamoto also taught his team about commitment, hard work, and believing in themselves. By transforming the Maui ditch swimmers into international champions within three years, Sakamoto became a local hero and one of Hawaii's true legends.
Was there one aspect of Soichi Sakamoto's life—a specific scene, quote, or image—that guided you throughout the writing process?
Yes!! As a teacher myself, I was deeply moved by Sakamoto's unfailing commitment to the children he coached, and his life-long passion to give them the opportunity to be the best they could be—many of his swimmers went on to be accepted by U.S. universities on sports scholarships. He shaped the lives of so many in such a positive way.
While researching this book, which fact surprised you the most?
Probably that Coach Sakamoto wasn't the best swimmer, but taught thousands of children to swim, and achieved so much throughout his coaching career!
Why do you think kids can relate to Sakamoto's Swim Club?
I think most kids find a sport they are passionate about and can relate to the hard work and dedication of Sakamoto and his students, while at the same time being inspired by the success of the swimmers.
Which sources were invaluable to writing this biography?
I was lucky to find a wealth of newspaper clippings collected by the Hawaii Swim Club to mine for facts, with many articles written by Coach Sakamoto and his swimmers. I was also fortunate to connect with Coach Keith at the club, who worked alongside Coach Sakamoto.
You write in rhyming verse. Do you create a draft in prose and then convert it to rhyme or is the rhyme in the first draft?
This is a funny story! When I started drafting the story I intended to write it in prose, but before long, spare rhyming verse ideas began to emerge in my text. I shared this once before, but I think it is worth sharing again:
On Maui, also known as the Valley Isle, streams rush down lush mountain slopes. In the 1930s, water tumbled to the valley and flowed into irrigation ditches that nourished the island's sugar plantations. As the sugar cane industry on the islands had grown, so an influx of migrants had arrived. They toiled dawn to dusk, often leaving their children to fend for themselves.
Dawn to dusk
they toil away,
alone to play.
Once I had these two verses, I continued in verse. I loved the rhythm. Reading it aloud I heard the strokes of a swimmer and the rhythm of cutting cane. It felt like a perfect way to tell the story and so, with my 'voice' set, I wrote the story.
How did you select the timeframe for your book? Was there a version that began with Soichi as a child or that character was always and adult in your book?
In my mind I could visualise the story arc to be swimming in the ditches, becoming a coach, the formation of the Three-Year Swim Club and on to the 1948 Olympics in Wembley when Bill Smith won two gold medals. Even though Sakamoto is an adult MC I never envisioned a version where he was a child. For me, he was always the golden thread in this story for children about children.
How did you determine if elements should be included in the story or the backmatter?
As I mentioned, I was very clear what my story arc should be, but with such a pared-back text I felt the story needed a very detailed author's note, which acts as another chapter to the book. It fills in more story details, clarifies time passing, the meaning of the Three-Year Swim Club, Pearl Harbor, the war, and fighting for your country. Finally, the editor and I were thrilled to acquire a black and white photograph of the team courtesy of the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum to complete the book.
What's your number 1 tip for writing true stories?
The key to the writing process for me is being clear on the story I want to tell. I sometimes write a key phrase to keep me focused, this is what I wrote for Sakamoto's Swim Club: Science teacher turned swim coach, Sakamoto, takes a group of sugar-cane workers' kids from the irrigation ditches in Maui and trains them into Olympic swimming champions.
What other books would you recommend to readers who love Sakamoto's Swim Club?
I'd like to stay in Hawaii with Surfer of the Century (by Ellen Crowe, illustrated by Richard Waldrep) and Ohana Means Family (by Ilima Loomis and illustrated by Kennard Pak) and then head back to swimming with When You Can Swim by Jack Wong.
TRUE STORY TIDBITS
An inspiring read aloud with stunning illustrations, this book is on three shelves in my TrueStory Bookshop:
- True Stories~Athletes
- True Stories~Olympics
- True Stories~Asian and AAPI Stories
To take a peek inside the book, checkout my BookTok.
Every day is a good day for a true story but here are some special tie-in dates for Sakamoto's Swim Club:
- May 24: National Learn to Swim Day (date varies in May)
- July 27-August 11, 2024: Summer Olympics
- August 6: Soichi Sakamoto's birthday
- September: Hawaiian History Month
A former preschool teacher, Julie Abery is also the author of two other biographies, Yusra Swims, and The Old Man and the Penguin: A True Story of True Friendship, as well as the Little Animal Friends board book series and the Baby Dinosaurs board book series. To learn more about Julie and her work, visit her website.
A note from Karlin Gray:
Like the rest of the world, I was horrified to learn about the devastation and deaths caused by the fires on Maui this summer. How can we help? West Maui has opened back up to tourism--if you are able to travel to Hawaii, consider Voluntourism. To learn about other ways to help, visit Maui Strong.