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Halo Goes From Irrigation Ditch To Hall Of Fame

Photo of the members of the Maui Swim Club, L-R: Jose Balmores, Takashi ‘Halo’ Hirose, William Neunzig, and Keo Nakama courtesy of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Imagine growing up and swimming in an irrigation ditch. And then becoming one of the best swimmers in the world.

The island of Maui was the setting for this remarkable development of Takashi ‘Halo’ Hirose who was recently selected for induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame this coming August.

Under the development of Coach Soichi Sakamoto, Halo was recognized by the Hall of Fame in the Pioneer category. The Pioneer category was created to honor great achievements that have been overlooked by the fog of time or special circumstances that interfered with their careers, such as accidents, war or politics.

It’s about time,” says Richard ‘Sonny’ Tanabe, a member of the 1956 United States Olympic team and past president of the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame. “Halo made a tremendous contribution not only to Hawaiian swimming, but international swimming as well.”

[It is] a fitting and deserving tribute,” says Olympic gold medalist Steve Clark. “In his day, Halo was one of the fastest swimmers in the world. Thanks to Julie Checkoway, author of the book, ‘The Three Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory’, and now this. his amazing story is being remembered.”

Checkoway writes in The Three Year Swim Club, “In 1937, a school teacher on the island of Maui challenged a group of poverty-stricken sugar plantation kids to swim upstream against the current of their circumstance. The goal? To become Olympians.

They faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The children were Japanese-American, were malnourished and barefoot and had no pool; they trained in the filthy irrigation ditches that snaked down from the mountains into the sugarcane fields. Their future was in those same fields, working alongside their parents in virtual slavery, known not by their names but by numbered tags that hung around their necks. Their teacher, Soichi Sakamoto, was an ordinary man whose swimming ability didn’t extend much beyond treading water.

In spite of everything, including the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment of the late 1930s, in their first year the children outraced Olympic athletes twice their size; in their second year, they were national and international champs, shattering American and world records and making headlines from L.A. to Nazi Germany. In their third year, they’d be declared the greatest swimmers in the world, but they’d also face their greatest obstacle: the dawning of a world war and the cancellation of the Games. Still, on the battlefield, they’d become the 20th century’s most celebrated heroes, and in 1948, they’d have one last chance for Olympic glory.”

Like many poor, Japanese-Americans kids whose parents worked as laborers on Hawaiian island of Maui’s Pu’unene’s sugar plantation, Halo began by swimming in irrigation ditches for fun, before joining Coach Sakamoto’s famed “Three Year Swim Club” in 1937. It was Sakamoto’s dream to have some of his swimmers represent the United States, in the home of their ancestors, at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, in 1940.

One year after joining the club, at the age 15, Halo placed second in the 200-meter freestyle, just inches behind future Hall of Famer and 1936 Olympic Champion Adolph Kiefer, and fourth in the 100 free at the US National AAU meet. His performance earned him a spot on a United States team that toured Europe and he was a member of the United States’ 400-meter freestyle relay team that set a world record in Germany.

In 1939 he was selected for the United States team that toured South America. He was a shoe-in for the 1940 Olympic team, but his and Sakamoto’s dreams were dashed by cancellation of the Games. It was a small consolation that he, along with his Maui teammates Keo Nakama and Fujiko Katsutani were selected for the USA’s Olympic Swimming Teams that never got to compete in 1940.

After winning the United States National 100m title in 1941 came Pearl Harbor. Once Japanese Americans were permitted, he volunteered to fight in Europe as a member of the 442nd ‘Nisei’ Regimental Combat Team. On the battlefield he gained almost as many honors as he had in swimming events in Hawaii, the USA, South America, Germany, Austria and Hungary. A member of a machine gun platoon through some of the heaviest fighting in France and Italy, Hirose received five battle stars, the combat infantry badge and a Presidential Unit Citation. In November 1944, he contracted trench foot during deployment in France and was paralyzed from the hips down. It was feared that he might lose his feet.

Although he recovered the use of his legs after six months in rehabilitation, he would feel the effects of trench foot for the remainder of his life. After the war, Halo followed his Maui teammate, Keo Nakama to the Ohio State University where he became a three-time All-American swimmer. Although he was an NCAA champion in the 100 free and helped Ohio State win Big Ten, NCAA and AAU team titles, Halo was denied his opportunity to swim in the Olympic Games in 1944. His war injuries also affected his chances to make the Olympic team in 1948.

The story of Halo and The Three Year Swim Club has been optioned for possible film development. Along with Keo Nakama, Bill Smith, Jose Balmores, James Tanaka, Charlie Oda, Fujiko Katsutani and others who trained under Sakamoto, and used swimming to get away from the plantations, Halo brought national and international acclaim to Hawaii swimming before he passed away at the age of 79, in 2002.

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