Lessons from Legends: Soichi Sakamoto and Water Innovations


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

In 1933, the island of Maui housed the huge Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company. In order to irrigate the fields where the sugar cane grew, concrete irrigation “ditches” were created and each day millions of gallons of water swiftly flowed from the pump house, through miles of ditches and out into the fields.

Those that worked in the fields were of all nationalities and lived in nearby camps. There was a Spanish camp, a Japanese camp, a Chinese camp, etc. After school, the workers’ children found a soothing and exciting recreational outlet of swimming in the ditches. One day the management of the sugar mill insisted on them being supervised for safety, or being expelled from swimming in the ditches.

A junior high school teacher named Soichi Sakamoto volunteered to be the supervisor. Although he had no training in swimming, he saw the beauty and talent in the kids movement through water and began to provide some structure to their swims or what we might call “training.” Soon he became Coach Sakamoto.

The fledgling coach read some information about swimming and coaching, but it didn’t help him very much. He used his logic to guide him.

The irrigation ditches were about eight feet wide and four feet deep—similar in size to a lane in a pool. The water moved swiftly through the ditches. The coach thought about the resistance of swimming against the current and the benefit for speed of swimming with it. He developed a system of racing up against the current and resting and working on technique while swimming with the current. Since the ditches went on for miles, he marked on the sides of the ditches various distances of 50, 100, 150, and 200 meters.

For years his developing squad of swimmers never had the opportunity to practice turns, but by 1937 some of the squad was good enough to compete in a local senior competition. They were successful. The young coach was so confident in his swimmers’ talent and in his training system that he was creating in the irrigation ditches that he set goals for his newly named team “The Three Year Swim Club” (3YSC) to compete at the 1940 USA Olympic Trials. He and his swimmers committed to have some make the U.S. Olympic Team and compete in the Helsinki, Olympics.

The outbreak of World War II cancelled the Olympics, but the war didn’t slow the 3YSC. They won the 1939, 1940 and 1941 Men’s Outdoor National Team Championships.

It’s tough to have a swim team without a pool, but Coach Sakamoto’s ability to innovate with the use of water enabled his swimmers to have a great experience in the sport.

Many coaches, and sometimes swimmers and parents, become frustrated with the pool that they don’t have. But what about the water you do have? 

  • 25-yard pools swum as widths can often create great opportunities for speed and wear out legs and abs with the demanding work on turns.
  • Missy Franklin reportedly trained once a week in a Fitness Center a 15-yard pool. Her coach saw it as an opportunity to do a lot of speed work.
  • Shallow pools are great for jumping toward the wall to develop fast turns.
  • Deep water can be used for vertical kicking compacting a lot of swimmers in a small space.
  • Pushing off the bottom in deep water toward the surface can be a great way to practice underwater pullouts by maximizing propulsion and minimizing drag.

And Then They Won Gold (Small)Coach Sakamoto’s utilization of what he did have helped enable him, in 1966, to become the first swimming coach inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Chuck Warner is the author of two books written for swimmers, coaches and parents: …And Then They Won Gold and Four Champions, One Gold Medal. To learn more about the books or order go to areteswim.com