Julie Checkoway's Three Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory (Grand Central, Nov.) follows the life of Japanese-American grammar school teacher Soichi Sakamoto (1906–1997), who turned dozens of impoverished schoolchildren into world-class competitive swimmers. Checkoway's agent will talk about her book on today's Buzz Panel, in Room 1E12/1E13/1E14, 4:15–5:30 p.m.; and she will be at the Downtown Stage tomorrow, 10–10:45 a.m., with the other Buzz authors.
How did you find this story?
I'd just finished my documentary [Waiting for Hockney] and was working as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune, on the lookout for a story that was about great people who've made a difference in the world. My friend and agent, Eileen Cope, called and said, ‘I just heard this story. Do you think it's true?' There was no scholarly material at all, no mention of the swim club in books. Sakamoto innovated some of the significant methods by which we still teach competitive swimming techniques, and his swimmers went on to be Olympic and world champions. I wondered, why don't we know that story?
Why don't we?
Sakamoto was incredibly modest. He was also busy coaching until fairly close to the end of his life. And he was never encouraged to see himself as a voice in the vaster narrative about competitive swimming, although he brought many Olympians to the games and his name was mentioned in Colliers, Time, Newsweek. It's also the story of a team, and none of its members felt it was their place to tell it.
What made you decide to take it on?
Several original members [of the club] were still alive, and they or their children had vast archives no one had ever seen. I did wonder, do I have the right to do it? I'm a New England–born woman, I don't speak Japanese, everything was new to me, including competitive swimming. What persuaded me was visiting with people who had lived the story, and they were so generous in telling it. There was a collaborative quality to it, to piecing together everybody's narratives
It sounds like more of a massive editing project than a writing project. How did you keep focused?
I tried to see the key moments and turning points in terms of personal stories and the historical context, then figure out, where do they intersect? It was overwhelming and the material was voluminous, and I had to learn how to cut through the noise. Contemporarily, we're critical of the press and how inaccurate it is, but they were pretty inaccurate back then. It was only by triangulating on multiple sources that I was able to find out what happened, say, at a particular swim meet.
How much material did you wind up finding?
At least 5,000 sources and at least 3,000+ photographs. It's crazy. What I hope to do is put a bibliography up on a website that will give access to anyone who wants it, because these materials aren't mine.
Will this be your first time at BEA?
Yes. This will also be the first time I've spoken about the book as an object, as a thing that's done. Going to BEA is the official sharing of the story.
This article appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.