Hawaii swimming legend and former world-record holder Keo Nakama, who got his start swimming against the current in a Puunene irrigation ditch, died Sept. 8 at St. Francis Hospice in Honolulu. He was 91.
Nakama was an original member - and a breakout star - of the historic Three Year Swimming Club founded by Maui swim coach Soichi Sakamoto. He swam to national and international championships as a teenager with the team, set the world speed record for swimming the mile at 22, and at age 41 became the first person to swim the Kaiwi Channel from Molokai to Oahu. He was inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975.
In addition to overcoming his humble plantation origins and physical limitations - at around 5 feet 5 inches tall, he stood a head shorter than most of his competitors - Nakama sometimes faced racial prejudice both at home and on the Mainland.
Hawaii swimming legend Keo Nakama is pictured with some of his trophies and awards. Nakama died earlier this month in Honolulu at age 91.
Hawaii Swim Club photo
"He was a pioneer in swimming, especially in Hawaii," said Reid Yamamoto, head coach of the Maui High School swim team and of the Hawaii Swim Club.
Services will be held Sept. 30 at Diamond Head Mortuary in Honolulu, with visitation at 5 p.m. and services at 6 p.m.
Nakama was born May 21, 1920, in Puunene.
He began swimming as a youth in a Puunene irrigation ditch, where Sakamoto would act as a lifeguard and informal swimming coach. He joined Sakamoto in forming the Three Year Swimming Club in 1937 with the audacious goal of sending a team from Maui to the Olympics in just three years.
With the club, Nakama set state and national records for swimming, leading the team to national championships in 1939, 1940 and 1941, and winning medals as a member of the U.S. team at the 1940 Pan American Games in Ecuador.
While Nakama and several of his teammates were expected to qualify for the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki, the outbreak of World War II in Europe forced the cancellation of the games, and he never got another chance to become an Olympian.
Nakama went on to swim competitively and win medals for Ohio State University, where he also played varsity baseball.
After receiving his master's degree in physical education, Nakama eventually returned to Hawaii, where he worked as a teacher and coach.
"He's just a really giving person," said Keith Arakaki of the Hawaii Swim Club. "Really patient and really knowledgeable about swimming. Really on the humble side."
While Nakama was better known in later years for being the first person to swim the Kaiwi Channel, Arakaki said his achievements as a teenager and college student were "amazing."
He said young Hawaii swimmers were often in awe of Nakama when they met him and heard his story for the first time.
"Their first thought is, 'This guy's not very tall,'" Arakaki said. "It's a local kid from Maui who sacrificed a lot, but did really well. I think it affected more than a few kids who went off to college, after meeting Mr. Nakama, just sticking to it."
Even though Nakama was shorter and slighter than most of the men he competed against, Arakaki said it was his drive and determination that set him apart.
"Heart. He really had it in him," he said. "If you see Olympic swimmers now, they're well into 6-feet-plus, and they have all those physical attributes going for them, compared to Keo."
Teammate Bill Smith, who swam with Nakama under Sakamoto in the 1940s and went on to win two gold medals in the 1948 Olympics, said Nakama earned the respect of the team because of his humble attitude and his dedication.
"Keo would have done well at any sport, whatever he wanted to do," Smith said. "He set goals for himself, and made sacrifices to achieve those goals. Keo wanted to be a champion swimmer and set records - and he did."
Nakama always encouraged the other swimmers on the team to push themselves to reach high and do whatever it took to succeed, he said.
"He was an example of what it means to be a great athlete," Smith said.
Arakaki said, in addition to his other challenges, Nakama faced discrimination because of his ancestry.
At national meets, Nakama and his teammates were sometimes confronted by a crowd that was "outraged" to see Japanese boys beat the haole, hometown favorites - a situation Sakamoto often diffused by pulling out his ukulele and having the boys sing or dance for the crowd. Arakaki also said Nakama recalled once being arrested for changing in a whites-only locker room.
Back home, he said Nakama and Smith at one time were turned down for membership in the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki because of their race. Later in life, Nakama indicated that the experience was still a bitter memory, Arakaki said.
"Here he is, swimming for the United States," he said. "He's an American, and gets treated like that in his own hometown of Hawaii."
For everything he overcame to become a champion, Yamamoto said Nakama would leave a long legacy in Hawaii swimming.
"He along with the others on the team paved the way for swimmers from Maui and the outer islands to follow in their footsteps and have goals and dreams," he said. "It's possible to travel beyond where they're from, beyond Maui."
Nakama is survived by six daughters, Karen Oshiro, Kacy Nakama-Kushiyama, Teri Higa, Joey Nakama, Lyn Nakama and Jamy Nakama-Kaneshiro and nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.