Woo as an Olympic swimming prospect. Star-Bulletin

How could it be that a state which sent six swimmers to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki - four of them secured medals - could produce only one candidate (Mililani's Keiko Price) for the U.S. team qualifying trials this year?

Price, who is expected to be selected by the United States Olympic Committee to take part in Project Sidney (2000), failed to qualify for the team.

"Back when we were competing, we really took it for granted that Hawaii was the heart of swimming," said Woolsey.

There was good reason to believe that. Hawaii athletes had earned 31 Olympic swimming medals between 1912 and 1956.

Then the well went dry.

How it happened and why the future doesn't look very promising is a hot topic among the state's former Olympians and present-day coaches.

It is true that, despite their environment, a surprising percentage of Hawaii's youngsters do not swim.

Some say it was only natural for Hawaii to lead the nation in Olympic swim talent in the first part of the century because the rest of the world did not have as much access to water training. Advancing pool technology in colder states inevitably canceled out Hawaii's advantage.

"They do have good facilities here, the age-group program is good - all the pieces are here," said Allen Stack, a 1948 (London) gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke who moved here in 1956. "But the kids on the mainland are doing OK so something must have changed here."

Woolsey agreed that the raw talent is here but said it comes down to coaching.

"Hawaii has dropped the ball on coaching," he said. "The coaches here do not look at the big picture."

Instead they focus on local championships."

He said former Hawaiian Swimming Club coach Soichi Sakamoto, an inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was a no-nonsense mentor who produced a half dozen Olympians between 1948 and 1956.

"He focused on the ultimate," said Woolsey. "The momentum was there for Hawaii swimming after World War II and he knew he could continue it," he said.

Athletes like Duke Kahanamoku, Warren Kealoha and Buster Crabbe began the pre-war momentum. Sakamoto taught Woolsey, Bill Smith (golds in the 400-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle relay in 1948 in London), Ford Konno (golds in the 1500-meter freestyle and 800-meter free relay and silver in the 400-meter free in 1952 in Helsinki, and silver in the 800-meter free relay in Melbourne in 1956), and Evelyn Kawamoto (bronzes in the 400-meter freestyle solo and relay in Helsinki) to keep it rolling.

Woolsey, Kawamoto and Konno all came from McKinley High School.

Smith recalls how Sakamoto, a Maui native, made his team continue training in an irrigation ditch when the local pool was closed for repair one season. "There were dead animals and rubbish coming at us," said Smith. "He had us swim against the current."

Smith began competitive swimming at 14 and set a United States record in the 200-meter freestyle at 15.

"Sakamoto was a highly motivated coach," said Smith. "I don't know if we have coaches like that anymore. He was a school teacher but he devoted his whole life to the sport."

Kawamoto, who remembers seven-day practice weeks at age 13, said Sakamoto used unrelenting positive psychology on his swimmers. " 'You want to be a champion? You want to go to the mainland?' he would say over and over," said Kawamoto. "You had to want it, to swim through pain and discouragements."

Woolsey said the advent of age-group swimming in the 60s created short-sighted goals for young swimmers and young coaches fell into myopia.

"I think kids do only what pleases them these days, like surfing and boogey-boarding," said New York native Aileen Riggin Soule, who won a bronze for the 100-meter backstroke in 1924 (Paris).

Riggin Soule, who's been here 39 years, still does three miles a week in the pool at age 90.

"Kids these days want instant gratification from a sport and they're not going to find it in swimming," said Iolani swim coach Brian Lee. "You have to set longterm goals."

Lee will be a coach in the USOC girls' select camp in October in Colorado Springs.

Lillian "Pokey" Watson Richardson, who won gold medals in 1964 and 1968 while competing out of Santa Clara, Calif., said scientific training techniques are available on the mainland but there is not enough demand for them here.

"Kids in Hawaii are not that hungry," she said. "They have so many options. They can paddle, kayak, surf, etc. But you either like to swim or you don't. If you like to swim, you have a vision in your mind of where you are going to go beyond being in Hawaii."

Woo sees the problem as a question of economics.

"Swimming is a very time-intrusive and costly sport," said the 38-year-old dentist. "There used to be one parent available to drive a child to practice. Nowadays, both parents often have to work."

Woo said his mother drove him to his three- to six-hour-a-day practices, six days a week, until he was in his mid teens. "Then I got a $100 car and drove myself."

He said most swimmers don't have daily morning and afternoon practice sessions like he did.

Woolsey warned that he doesn't see Hawaii's prospects for an Olympic swimmer improving very much in the year 2000.

"You need another coach out here now like Sakamoto to turn the trend around," he said.

"That coach may have to come from the mainland."


Olympians either born and/or raised here:

Stockholm, 1912: Duke Kahanamoku, gold, 100 free.

Antwerp, 1920: Duke Kahanamoku, gold, 100 free, gold, 400 relay; Pua Kealoha, gold, 400 free relay, silver, 100 free; Warren Kealoha, gold, 100 back; Ludy Langer, silver, 400 free; Bill Harris, bronze, 100 free. Non-medalists: Kahili Boyd, Helen Moses Cassidy, Joe Gilman, Fred Kahele, George Kane, Harold Kruger, coach Dad Center.

Paris, 1924: Warren Kealoha, gold, 100 back; Duke Kahanamoku, silver, 100 free; Sam Kahanamoku, bronze, 100 free; Bill Kirschbaum, bronze, 200 breast; Mariechen Wehselau Jackson, gold, 400 relay, silver 100 free; Aileen Riggin Soule, bronze, 100 back. Non-medalists: Pua Kealoha, Henry Luning, Harold Kruger, Charlie Pung.

Amsterdam, 1928: Clarence "Buster" Crabbe, bronze, 1,500 free.

Los Angeles, 1932: Clarence "Buster" Crabbe, gold, 400 free; Maiola Kalili and Manuela Kalili, silver, 800 relay.

London, 1948: Bill Smith, gold, 400 free, gold, 800 relay; Thelma Kalama Aiu, gold, 400 relay.

Helsinki, 1952: Yoshi Oyakawa, gold, 100 back; Ford Konno, gold, 800 relay, silver, 400 free, silver, 1,500 free; Bill Woolsey, gold, 800 relay; Evelyn Kawamoto Konno, bronze, 400 free; bronze, 400 relay. Non-medalists: Dick Cleveland, Caroline Green Lewis.

Melbourne, 1956: Ford Konno, silver, 800 relay; Bill Woolsey, silver, 800 relay. Non-medalists: Sonny Tanabe, George Onekea, Yoshi Oyakawa.

Mexico City, 1968: Diving: Keala O'Sullivan Watson, bronze, springboard.

Non-medalist: Brent Berk.

Montreal, 1976: Non-medalist: Chris Woo.

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