Checkoway’s ‘Three-Year Swim Club’ will be a major motion picture following attention from New York Times, NBC

Writer Julie Checkoway, wife of head of school Lee Thomsen, has recently had a few major developments with her book, “The Three Year Swim Club.” The book is about Soichi Sakamoto, a teacher who founded a swim team for under-privileged children in Hawaii and trained them to be Olympic swimmers. Even though the swimmers faced many hardships, including not having a real swimming pool to train in, they still competed on a worldwide level.

(Photo used by permission of the Sakamoto family)
A picture of coach Soichi Sakamoto that will be in the Smithsonian museum’s permanent collection.

Q: What has happened recently with your book?

A: The book has been selling steadily, but what’s even nicer is that it seems to be drawing attention to all the right things.

The curator of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian happened to read it, and, as a result, the Smithsonian has procured two photographs of Soichi Sakamoto to include in its permanent collection.

What’s so gratifying is that those inducted into the Portrait Gallery are because of the museum’s mission to “tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.” Team coach Sakamoto is finally being recognized for his great contributions to the world of swimming and the lives of children in poverty.

Also as a result of the book, both Steve Clarke, an Olympic swimmer, and I nominated Halo Hirose, a member of the three-year swim club, to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Halo will be inducted in late August in Fort Lauderdale, and he’ll join some of the best swimmers in the world, including his teammates Bill Smith (double gold in ’48), Keo Nakama (national champion) and his coach.

Q: Your book was recommended by the New York Times; how does that feel?

A: I was thrilled when the Times recommended the book to readers who like sports stories, in large part because I was in such good company with writers far better than I.

(Photo used by permission of Sono Hirose Hulbert.)
Takashi “Halo” Hirose’s high-school graduation photo. Hirose was the first Japanese-American to swim for the US Olympic team in 1938.

It also made me tremendously happy to see that the book was beginning to be considered “evergreen” in the sense that it will possibly stand the test of time for readers and not just be a short phenomenon. The hope is that I’ve made at least a small but lasting contribution to the historic record.

Finally, the book is in development as a major motion picture! The screenplay is done – it was written by Iris Yamashita, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

Q: Did you play any part in the production of the movie?

A: I’m a consultant on the film; it has not yet been made.

In November, the production team traveled to Hawaii to scout locations.

One of the challenging things about production will be that sugarcane is no longer grown or in production. The plantation and mill depicted in the book closed down this last fall. That was the end of 175 years of sugar in the Hawaiian islands.

I’ve worked on responding to drafts of the screenplay and have led a location-scouting trip to Hawaii.

(Photo used by permission of Julie Checkoway)
Olympian Sonny Tanabe (second from right) discusses the Three-Year Swim Club at the Waikiki Natatorium with producer Tim Moore (second from left) and screenwriter Iris Yamashita (obscured, far left).

Q: How were you contacted for the profile NBC did on your swimmers?

A: A reporter from NBC got in touch with me about five or six months ago. We had a great talk, but with these things you never know when the story will come out. It’s nice to wake up to an email every now and then that’s a surprise.

Q: The last living member of the swim team died recently; did you do anything to commemorate her?

A: Blossom Young Tyau died in Honolulu last month. She was, I believe, in her late 90s, but with Blossom you could never tell. She was ageless!

The last time I saw her was last fall when I was in Hawaii. I wasn’t able to attend her memorial service but have sent my condolences.

She was a wonderful, buoyant and triumphant person, who made such a difference in the Chinese-American community on both Maui and Oahu. I am really going to miss her sweet, smiling face, infectious laugh and her self-deprecating sense of humor.

Whenever I would see her, she would always say that her role in the three-year swim club was minimal, when, in fact, she was a central figure in it. Whenever we sat down to talk, she would always joke, “I’m deaf in one ear, blind in one eye, but you can talk to half of me if you want.”

Q: Do you have any other book-related plans in the future?

A: As much as I said I would never do another book, I’m beginning to think about one.

— By Spencer Scott

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