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Book Club Kits: The Three-Year Swim Club

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary

The New York Times bestselling inspirational story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers. 

In 1937, a schoolteacher on the island of Maui challenged a group of poverty-stricken sugar plantation kids to swim upstream against the current of their circumstance. The goal? To become Olympians. 

They faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The children were Japanese-American and were malnourished and barefoot. They had no pool; they trained in the filthy irrigation ditches that snaked down from the mountains into the sugarcane fields. Their future was in those same fields, working alongside their parents in virtual slavery, known not by their names but by numbered tags that hung around their necks. Their teacher, Soichi Sakamoto, was an ordinary man whose swimming ability didn't extend much beyond treading water. 

In spite of everything, including the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment of the late 1930s, in their first year the children outraced Olympic athletes twice their size; in their second year, they were national and international champs, shattering American and world records and making headlines from L.A. to Nazi Germany. In their third year, they'd be declared the greatest swimmers in the world. But they'd also face their greatest obstacle: the dawning of a world war and the cancellation of the Games. Still, on the battlefield, they'd become the 20th century's most celebrated heroes, and in 1948, they'd have one last chance for Olympic glory.

They were the Three-Year Swim Club. This is their story.

Read an excerpt.

Discussion Questions

  1. Sakamoto emphasized consistent, planned effort for his athletes. How do you think that emphasis reflected the world in which he worked and they grew up?
  2. Throughout the book, the Olympics serves both as a competitive goal (for the 3YSC) and a symbol of international peace. How do you think the Games use athletics to bring nations together? Can that approach affect serious international conflicts?
  3. Keo Nakama and Halo Hirose swam together but differed significantly. How do you think they reflect the power of personality in shaping our lives?
  4. In some ways, the book focuses more on determination and perseverance than swimming. How do Sakamoto, Nakama and other figures reflect the power of those traits?
  5. Female swimmers clearly received different treatment from their coaches, the public, the media, and even their families. Discuss the role of the female swimmers and the differences between their experiences and those of the males?
  6. The book demonstrates how tragic generational change can be. Discuss the experiences of older Japanese-Americans during the war. Why did they have to abandon their cultural heritage? What do you think of the ways that their children rebelled against their expectations?
  7. Again and again, the book identifies unlikely heroes. Where do you think that personal achievement originates? Think about Sakamoto, Nakama and Smith but also Kiphuth and Peppe.
  8. How do you think the “Gee Whiz” school of journalism helped to support and encourage the 3YSC? Was it entirely positive, or did it both help and hurt them?
  9. Consider the role of expertise in the 3YSC’s success. E.L. Damkroger disdained Sakamoto because the latter was just an elementary school teacher with no experience as a coach. But Sakamoto achieved things no one else had. Why?
  10. Many characters in the 3YSC swam against the current of adversity—economic, racial, gender, and educational. How do you think they responded to those challenges and what do you think swimming contributed to their lives?
  11. Imagine the contradictions between travel in the Jim Crow-era United States and the adulation the 3YSC attracted for its successes. How do you think the swimmers coped with that disconnect, and what do you think it reveals about athletics and race?
  12. Sakamoto demanded more from his athletes than any other coach before him. They loved him and performed amazing feats under his direction. What do you think this suggests about hard work? About leadership?
  13. Halo Hirose became a swimming coach. In that role, he “never promised…more that he…could deliver” and “never played favorites.” Consider what that reflects about his experience in the 3YSC. Does it change the way you think about Sakamoto?
  14. What does it mean to be an American? As the story of the 3YSC shows, American identity rests on ethnic, religious, racial, regional, and philosophical bases. How do you think the members of the 3YSC came to think about their American identity in the course of the forties? How do you think white Americans like Damkroger and Kiphuth though about them?
  15. Why do we admire athletic achievement? What do you think we see in athletes that makes us proud and leads us to invest their success with regional, national, and even international significance?
  16. Do companies owe a decent life to their employees? The people working and living at Pu’unene endured extreme poverty under the umbrella of the sugar companies. Should those companies have done more for the sugar ditch kids?
  17. History, like human life, can be terrifyingly unpredictable. Choose two or three examples from the book and consider how the 3YSC and its coach coped with the changes occurring around them.
  18. Checkoway reconstructed the story of the 3YSC from fragments—memoires, newspaper articles, photographs, and records of swim meets. Some details were lost in time. What would you like to know about the 3YSC that is left a mystery?
  19. Halo Hirose visited Nazi Germany and later said dismissively, “It was Heil Hitler this, and Heil Hitler.” What do you think the differences are between living in the midst of historical events and looking back at them later? How hard is it to see the present and understand the significance of its events?
  20. Over and over, the media portrayed the 3YSC in ways that reflected American racial ideas. Discuss examples of this and what you think it shows about the challenge race posed for the athletes and Sakamoto.
  21. Discuss the various ways in which members of the 3YSC were perceived and treated in different parts of the county—including their home state—in terms of race. How do you think the twenties, thirties, and forties differed in terms of those experiences?
  22. A number of people in the history of the 3YSC escaped near-death scenarios at some time or another, including Bill Smith, Blossom Young, and Sakamoto himself. How do you think these experiences changed them or shaped their lives, and why?
  23. A common adage asserts that “history is written by the victors.” The Three-Year Swim Club was victorious in many ways, even producing an Olympic gold medalist. Why do you think their story was left largely untold for so long?
  24. Who is the real hero of the book? Is it Sakamoto? Which athlete was most heroic? How do you think the stories in the book reflect different versions of heroism?
  25. Were Damkroger and Kiphuth villains? Discuss their motivations and consider whether it’s possible that they were good-hearted with good intentions.

About the Author

Julie Checkoway is an author and documentary filmmaker. She graduated from Harvard College, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant and fellowships at writers’ colonies, including Yaddo. Her writing has appeared in the New York TimesSalt Lake Tribune, and Huffington Post.

In 1937, a schoolteacher on the island of Maui challenged a group of poverty-stricken sugar plantation kids to swim upstream against the current of their circumstance.

The goal?

To become Olympians. They were the Three-Year Swim Club. This is their story.