The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”
The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.
I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.
Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.
I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?