They don't make 'em like Keo no more

At a time when Hawaii was known
for great swimmers, Keo Nakama
became one of the best

By Dave Reardon
Special to the Star-Bulletin

He loves his Sunday softball with his buddies and his beer.

"We're just like dogs," the 77-year-old man says with a laugh. "Every team has its own tree."

This weekend he'll still be talking story and smiling with old friends and new ones, but not at the park. He'll be at the Kaimuki High pool.

He will be at the swim meet that is named for him, to hand out awards and encourage yet another school of young fish. Maybe one of these will someday reach his accomplishments and surpass them. But most will become distracted by team sports, a job, or the opposite sex. Or victimized by plain old burnout.

He would like to see one good enough and tough enough to make the Olympics, the one accomplishment that circumstance denied him.

It's hard for Keo Nakama to tell kids today that they should swim, swim, swim. And then, swim some more, like he did.

That they should swim, swim, swim -- swim until they feel like their arms are going to fall off -- so that they can restore Hawaii to the aquatic glory it enjoyed during Nakama's generation and before.

Sure, there were times when he swam because he enjoyed it. That's how Nakama got started. He and other plantation kids in Puunene, Maui, would shed their clothes on hot days and sneak into the irrigation ditch -- just to cool off and goof around, not to train, not to prepare for world records and channel crossings. That would come later.

"Ho, it was funny," he recalls, laughing. "Sometimes, the camp luna (foreman) would come after us. Everybody gotta run out bare balls and hide. He'd come after us with a horsewhip. It was Huckleberry Finn, but real life."

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Nakama emerges from the Molokai Channel as
photographers and filmmakers capture the historic moment.

In time, it became Horatio Alger, but real life.

"We were a poor plantation family. I swam because it was the only way I could go to college," he says. "I needed to get a scholarship. It was my only chance."

Under the guidance of legendary coach Soichi Sakamoto, Nakama made it. He became one of Hawaii's greatest swimmers when many of the greatest came from Hawaii. And, in the process, he got that college opportunity he wanted and eventually earned a master's degree in education.

After starring in swimming at Maui High, Nakama went to Ohio State. His storied career included a world record 20:29 in the mile, eight Big Ten titles and numerous national and international victories. He even captained the baseball team and played second base for a conference championship squad.

World War II cheated him out of the Olympics when he was at his peak in 1940 and 1944, but Nakama has never been bitter about it.

"Hey, I was lucky," he says. "I got to travel all over the world. The only place I didn't get to go to was Russia."

Nakama says he was the victim of racism only once when he was on the mainland during World War II. And that his coach, Mike Peppe, punched out the Army colonel who thought it wrong that a guy who looked like the enemy was the Buckeyes' star swimmer.

But there was a time he was scared.

"I'll never forget Dec. 7, 1941," Nakama says. "Peppe ordered me to report to his office. I thought I was done, that I'd have to go home or worse. But he just said, 'Just play it cool. We're in the same boat; I'm Italian and (assistant coach Carl) Wirthwein is German. We'll be OK.' "

Nakama served in the Army Reserve and also taught sailors how to swim as a volunteer. He tried to get to the front, but was rejected for having flat feet.

His pleasing personality and the support of his teammates and coaches saw him through his college years. "If there was one thing coach Sakamoto taught me, it was to be humble," he says.

Nakama was so popular he became the first member of Oriental descent in the Delta Upsilon fraternity.

His brothers included a future Ohio governor, Bill O'Neill; one of Nakama's roommates, Jim Campbell, later became general manager of the Detroit Tigers, and another, Russ Thomas, later held the same post with the Detroit Lions. (Another college roommate was fellow Hawaii swimming legend Bill Smith.)

Nakama remained close to Campbell and Thomas until they both passed away two years ago. He has a football signed by Barry Sanders and a bat autographed by the Tigers' 1984 World Series winners. But those items are merely symbols of something much deeper that has nothing to do with the athletes who signed them.

"I'll always remember the war being on and they would take me home to their families," he says. "I couldn't afford to go home for holidays."

After college, Nakama became a teacher and athletic director at several Oahu schools. He was also a state representative for 10 years -- something he didn't enjoy.

"I hated the deal-making," he says. "People would come up to me and say, 'I've got six votes in the House. Do you have a job for my daughter?' "

Star-Bulletin file photos
Keo Nakama, far left, was one of Hawaii's most
successful swimmers at a time when the territory
produced some of the world's finest.

The accomplishment Nakama is best known for -- swimming from Molokai to Oahu -- didn't happen until he was 40. After accumulating 180 soft pounds on his 5-foot-6 inch frame, he joined the YMCA to get back into shape.

"My weight came down, and some guys at the Y said 'Hey, why don't you swim the channel?' I said, 'Hey, sure.' I thought it was a joke. But then people started to put time and effort into it. I couldn't back out."

He battled nausea, Portuguese men of war, and, of course, fatigue for much of the 151/2 hours it took him to cross the 27-mile Kaiwi Channel. Thousands saw him come out of the water at Hanauma Bay on the evening of Sept. 29, 1961, the first verified to accomplish the feat.

Nakama was enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975.

He's lived a quiet retirement, playing ball and hanging out at the park and swimming a couple times a week. But only once a year does he become the living legend he is, to quietly inspire the young ones.

Last summer, right before the Olympics, Nakama's house was burglarized. Many mementos of his swimming and baseball careers were stolen. Nothing has been recovered.

Nakama and his wife, Evelyn, have six daughters.

The eldest, Karen, was the state high school champion in the 1500 meters. The next two swam a little, and "the others said it was too hard."

"I think kids are smarter now," he chuckles before going on. "Swimming is a hard sport. A lot of the good athletes would like to play team sports. But I still see some good swimmers. If they think they can get a scholarship to help their family, they go for it."

Sit with him and he'll tell you lots of stories.

But some, you have to look up yourself, like the one about the man at a meet in Missouri in 1941. He was so taken with the gutsy little swimmer from Hawaii that he named his son after him. After the son joined the Marines and was killed in action in Vietnam, Joe Keshner came to Hawaii and established the Keo Keshner Award at the meet also named for Keo Nakama.

A souvenir program from the 1946
Keo Nakama swimming meet.

On some days, he looks out his Waialae-Iki dining room window overlooking the ocean, and he says he can see mountains on another island. He's not sure if it's Molokai or Maui. It's the right direction for either, anyway.

"Sometimes I think about the channel crossing when I see whitecaps," he says.

A visitor asks him what he specifically thinks about when he sees the big waves.

Nakama pauses.

"Not much," he finally answers.

He then looks out the window, over the ocean, toward a Molokai beach 36 years ago and a Maui irrigation ditch 63 years ago.

He momentarily forgets his guest as five quiet seconds become 10.

And then he smiles the smile of the content.

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