The Three-Year Swim Club
by Julie Checkoway


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numberslisted refer to iPad edition.


1. Discuss the near super-human efforts of Soichi Sakamoto regarding training, promoting, and his overall focus on the 3YSC. How does this add to the myth of the man?

2. What about Mary Sakamoto? Discuss her contributions to both her marriage, her family, and to her husband’s drive.

3. Of all the Three-Year Swim Club participants, whom did you most admire and why? Consider both boys and girls.

4. Duke Kahanamoku had a long and illustrious career. What did you learn about swimming in this novel? Discuss the Austrailian crawl and the Kahanamoku kick.

5. What else could have caused the riff between E.L. Damdroger and Sakamoto besides class and/or training?

6. There have been three Olympic games canceled due to war: 1916 Berlin (WWI), 1940 Japan/Germany/Japan/Finland (WWII), and 1944 Italy/UK (WWII). Discuss the significance of what countries should and should not be included in an international sporting event during war times.

7. Avery Brundage (and Robert “Bob” Kiphuth) felt unhappy about the exclusion of Japan and Germany from the 1948 Olympic London games. How do you think Sakamoto felt about it?

8. Catastrophic events also hold bearing: Sept 1, 1923 Japan earthquake and the Jan 1937, Kentucky floods. Do you know of any others? 9. Note the French root definition of Amateur: one who loves, one who has devotion to.

10. There are nine Hawaiian Ocean Channels. Can you name them? A) Alenuihaha Channel—“great billows smashing”--between Hawaii Island and Maui at 29.6 miles, B) Alalakeiki Channel—“cryiing child”--between Maui and Kahoolawe 6.7 miles, C) Kealaikahiki Channel—“the road to Tahiti”--between Kahoolawe and Lanai at 17.8 miles, D) Auau Channel—“to take a bath”--between Lanai and Maui at 9.5 miles, E) Pailolo Channel—“crazy fisherman”--between Maui and Molokai at 8.8 miles, F) Kalohi Channel—“the slowness”--between Lanai and Molokai t 9.2 miles, G) Kaiwi Channel—“the bone”--between Molokai and Oahu at 25.8 miles, H) Kaieiewaho Channel—“outer Kaʻieʻie”--between Oahu and Kaui at 72.1 miles, and I) Kaulakahi Channel—“the single flame or streak of color”--between Kauai and Niihau at 17.2 miles. Ref:


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 than 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 thought 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 successes 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—memories, 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 that.” 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 country—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.

WMBC Questions compiled by: Elaine Gallant
West Maui Book Club
Jan. 2022