The swimmer is a cave-chested runt from the sugar camps. He mounts the blocks in a tattered woolen swimsuit, dwarfed by the golden boys from California. The coach is an obsessive schoolteacher who doesn’t swim. He clutches his stopwatch like a shield, aware that his Olympic ambitions are ridiculed as a fool’s dream.

This unlikely duo is the heart of “The Three-Year Swim Club,” Julie Checkoway’s reverent tale of Hawaii’s “ditch swimmers.” Through meticulous research, Checkoway brings crisp focus to a fuzzy time in American history. A motley clutch of kids — undernourished, overworked and born into “inescapable lives” of segregation and poverty — are plucked from the filthy irrigation ditches where they splashed off the despair of the cane fields.

Then they are tossed back into those same ditches by an exacting, and not always likable, coach and taught to swim.

This is Hawaii in the first half of the 20th century, when the islands were a U.S. territory but not yet a state. The tale dives in deep in 1937, when Soicho Sakamoto — marooned by history and ethnicity to a teaching outpost in rural Maui — squints at his scrappy students and sees an escape: the 1940 Olympics. “Three years” becomes training mantra and club name, emblazoned as surely on his swimmers’ souls as on their warmup suits.

The book carries hints of “The Boys in the Boat,” Daniel James Brown’s page-turner about the improbable quest of young men from the log camps and farms of the Northwest who row to Olympic gold at German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. Both honor the hearts of working-class kids who defied those who would dismiss them as lesser. Both revolve around a coach whose vision is fueled by genius, hubris and not a little self-doubt.

Checkoway’s narrative suffers from the lack of original archives. When she stumbled onto this tale, Sakamoto and most of his swimmers were dead. None had left deep written or oral accounts. “I’ve been told that it’s the story of a team, and no one felt they had the right to claim it as their own. Each was … resigned to the fact that the story would simply disappear.”

So Checkoway digs in as a “forensic archaeologist” to dust off their history. The 1940 Olympics were scuttled by World War II, and along with them Sakamoto’s dream. Other events in Hawaii, most notably the bombing of Pearl Harbor but also, surely, the desire by some to erase the scars of anti-Japanese and anti-native racism, could have relegated the ditch swimmers to a forgotten footnote.

Checkoway stays true to her salvage mission. She unearths characters flawed and fetching and shines an unflinching light on race and class.

Her retelling sometimes bogs in the trivia of swim meets and swimmers’ times. In that way it echoes the progress of the Three-Year Swim Club itself: Readers have to swim some of the same tedious laps to be rewarded by moments of glorious storytelling and a triumphant, unpredictable finish.

 

Jacqui Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and coaches writers worldwide.