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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

Posted on: Friday, February 12, 2010

Inspiring story of long ago Maui comes to life on stage

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They knew it was a "story that needs to be told," but the big challenge for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth in producing "The Three Year Swim Club" was, how to tell it?

How do you put on a stage play about national and world champion swimmers from Maui, without using a pool or any water? How do you portray a legendary coach, without a single actor designated for that role?

And how do you pull off a live one-hour performance about events that happened more than 70 years ago, with actors who are less than half that age, and one of the main characters sitting and watching from the front row on opening night?

Somehow, HTY managed the feat on Feb. 5 with its charming and inspiring "The Three Year Swim Club" at St. Andrew's Priory's Tenney Theatre.

The play, written by Lee A. Tonouchi and directed by Harry Wong III, creatively captures the true story of coach Soichi Sakamoto, who developed teen-age children of Maui sugar plantation workers into Olympic and world champions.

One of Sakamoto's pupils, Bill Smith, won two gold medals in the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

"They did an outstanding job," Smith said about HTY, just minutes after watching "The Three Year Swim Club" on opening night. "It brought back great memories of those days on Maui, when Coach was such a great motivator for me."

Performances will be held at 4:30 p.m. tomorrow, Feb. 20, Feb. 27 and March 6 at Tenney Theatre.

Tonouchi, 37, said he first got the idea for the play about 10 years ago after reading about Sakamoto in the book, "Every Grain of Rice: Portraits of Maui's Japanese Community."

"It was such a great story, but I was wondering why I had never heard about it before," Tonouchi said. "I was born and raised here, have family from Maui, but I never knew about it, none of my classes at (the University of Hawai'i) ever mentioned it."

Tonouchi wrote a first draft in the early 2000s and showed it to HYT, and then had to put in years of research for the project.

"In some ways these kind of stories are the easiest to dramatize, because they're real, but in other ways it's harder because since it's real people, we have to make sure we nail the character correctly," Tonouchi said.

Moses Goods plays Smith, a reserved but intellectual Honolulu native who moved to Maui to train under Sakamoto. Actor "Q" plays Takashi "Halo" Hirose, a loud and confident plantation kid; Herman Tesoro, Jr., plays Kiyoshi "Keo" Nakama, a diminutive swimmer with surprising ability; and Maile Holck plays Fujiko "Fudge" Katsutani, yet another plantation teenager who trains alongside the boys while fighting 1930s female stereotypes.

They each take turns playing the role of Sakamoto, a stern yet caring father figure who established the Three Year Club in 1937, with a goal of sending members to the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.

To accomplish this goal, Sakamoto set strict rules and demanded year-round commitment from all club members, who trained under his unusual yet effective methods such as swimming against the current in the plantation's irrigation ditches of Pu'unēnē.

The club's motto, repeated often, was "Olympics First, Olympics Always."

With no pool or water to illustrate the training sequences, director Wong had the actors balance themselves on wooden storage crates, voicing Sakamoto's instructions and their own thoughts while doing the strokes.

"(Logistics) forced us to use creative theater devices," Tonouchi said.

The story climaxes with the club's first trip to Honolulu, for a major swim meet at the Waikīkī Natatorium. Sakamoto's small-town swimmers stun the big city crowd with their performance, and Nakama makes national news with a shocking victory over 1936 U.S. Olympian Ralph Gilman.

National and world championships won by Hirose, Nakama and Smith would follow, but alas, the 1940 Olympic Games were canceled due to World War II.

In 1948, however, Smith won two gold medals at the Summer Games in London, making Sakamoto's dream a reality.

Goods said, "Everybody who can hear this story, should."

"In Hawai'i sometimes kids don't think they can get very far being from here," he added. "But these swimmers overcame more than anyone could imagine."

The play's ending was greeted by a standing ovation from a capacity crowd of about 150 at Tenney.

"The main reason we wanted to do this play is to show the local kids that they shouldn't feel limited," Wong said. "It shows them that if you work hard and steady, you can achieve almost anything. It was an honor to tell this story, and I'm glad people thought it came through correctly."

Read his blog on high school sports at http://preptalk.honadvblogs.com.