‘Three-Year Swim Club’ a New York Times Best Seller after eight years of research by new head’s wife

(Photo used by permission of Checkoway)
Julie Checkoway, writer and wife of head of school Lee Thomsen, stands in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Julie Checkoway, wife of head of school Lee Thomsen, is an author and documentary filmmaker. She has written two books and directed the film “Waiting for Hockney,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and aired on the SundanceTV channel. Her most recent book, “The Three-Year Swim Club,” is a New York Times Best Seller about a group of poverty-stricken kids from Maui who want to become Olympian swimmers. She has two daughters, Sophia and Abby Thomsen, who are a sixth grader and college freshman, respectively.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in a really small town about an hour north of Boston in a place called Newburyport. (It’s) right on the water.

Q: Where do you consider your home?

A: Lee and I have lived in so many places while we’ve been married, so home has changed for me to wherever our family is – where he is and where my children are. Our home has been in Baltimore; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Athens, Georgia; Houston and Salt Lake City.

(Over my) whole life I’ve lived in China and England, so my philosophy is that home is wherever you are.

Q: What were you doing in China?

A: I taught at a university; I was a visiting professor, and I taught literature to graduate students who were so open-minded and so hungry for information about the West and new ideas, so it was a very exciting time.

I was very young – I was 24 – and I went there right after graduate school. It was at a time in China where things were just starting to open up – in 1987-88 before Tiananmen Square.

I lived in an industrial city four hours south of Beijing. It was a fascinating time to teach there.

Q: Did you teach in Chinese or English?

(Photo used by permission of Checkoway)
Some of Checkoway’s notes on the whiteboard she used while writing “The Three-Year Swim Club.”

A: I learned Chinese but not very well, so I did teach in English.

Q: Where did you go to college and what was your major?

A: I went to Harvard College, and I majored in English with a concentration in creative writing.

Q: Why did you decide to write “The Three-Year Swim Club”?

A: I’ve been a writer my entire life. Writers are always looking for a good story – the story of a lifetime. So every story that I’ve done has felt – at its time – like the story of a lifetime. You live with that story for a while, and you go deep.

(“The Three-Year Swim Club”) was the story that so touched me and impressed me because of the achievements of the swimmers.  But it was striking to me that no one had ever told this story, so it was both an incredible opportunity (and) an incredible responsibility to bring that story to life.

It was a pleasure to do it because getting to dig into a piece of history that had never been told was just the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on.

Q: How did you research it?

A: The research process was very extensive. It took me eight years to write the book, and it involved archival work: diving into newspapers from that era – the 1930s and 1940s; reading those newspapers and having them translated because a lot of the newspapers were from Maui and were written in Japanese; finding Hawaiian newspapers written in Hawaiian; and trying to go through people’s scrapbooks and their collections of personal items.

It also involved traveling to Hawaii a lot and being on the ground and interviewing people who had lived the story.

That was the eight-year process of trying to put the pieces together of a story that existed in scrapbooks.

Q: What was the biggest challenge about writing the book?
A: The research was great, but the writing was really hard. The biggest challenge of doing the book was not the research – I loved every moment of the research. But when I sat down to write, I felt a tremendous responsibility to get the story right.

(Photo used by permission of Checkoway)
The paperback cover of “The Three-Year Swim Club.”

That was the hardest thing – I wanted to tell as true a story as a journalist as I could. I wanted every fact to be absolutely verifiable, so I was checking my sources and making sure that I wasn’t saying something that did a disservice to the true story.

Q: What was your documentary film about?

A: That was a quirky documentary about an artist in Baltimore who was seeking attention from a very famous British-born, Los Angeles-based artist named David Hockney.

This young artist just wanted the attention of David Hockney as a mentor, and we followed him in the film for 10 years as he makes a portrait and tries to bring this to David Hockney’s attention.

The film is called “Waiting for Hockney,” and it’s not so much about the artist alone as it is about what it means to finally meet the god of your own making – the person who you think will validate you.

It’s a comic movie, but it’s also quite tragic. It’s a fun movie to watch, but it’s meant to get people to think about what they value in life: do they value their work, or do they value the results of their work?

Q: Do you have any future works planned?

A: We’re hoping to continue the work about the “Three-Year Swim Club,” and we’re hoping to continue to spread that story.

I’m not on another project because that story is still so rich, and there’s so much more about the swimmers and swimming at that time and life on Maui that I’m continuing to work in collaboration with other people to bring more of that story to life.

Q: How has your experience been as a Country Day parent?

A: My experience at Country Day has just started, and I’m really impressed by all of the teachers I’ve met and all of the administrators I’ve met. And I’m very grateful to them for welcoming my daughter to the sixth grade.

We are so excited to be at Country Day, and our whole family is thrilled that Lee was chosen to be the new head. We look forward to a wonderful time here in Sacramento.

Q: Do you have any other hobbies?
A: No. I’m one of those people whose work is her hobby. I get the most pleasure out of that, though I do yoga and meditate; those are things that give me balance in life. I never look at anything in life as a hobby.

Allison Zhang

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