Kalani Simpson


By Kalani Simpson

Natatorium, once mighty,
lies dormant

THE Natatorium is cracked and empty, lonely, baking in the Waikiki sun. Leaves gather in its corners, dry puffs of weeds eke out here and there. It is a ghost town now, its days of glory long past. Its echoes faded into whispers on the surf.

Tilt your head into the breeze and you can almost hear the cheers.

But no, that's only imagination now. The gates are locked by iron chains. The water sits dark and still. The giant sleeps. The legends have left, and they haven't been back in a long, long time.

This is swimming in Hawaii.

Like a great volcano it lies dormant, once spectacular but silent for so long we have all but forgotten just how brightly that fire once raged.

And yet, if you look just right, you can almost see it. History whispers in your ear, and looking up at that grandstand, you can see every seat filled. The crowd overflowing, those eyes dancing. The people shouting, stomping.

Hawaii's champions splashing home to victory once again.

It was like this once.

Peer through the rusty chained link fence and you can almost see the glorious past.

THE GREATEST SWIMMERS in the world came from Hawaii once. The greatest, the best. National and Olympic champions and world record holders, and everybody knew it. The world knew it.

Hawaii knew it.

They filled this place, this cracked and empty dump. It's a health hazard now, they say, and perhaps it always was. But in Hawaii's swimming glory days the Natatorium was a cathedral. It was magic. There was standing room only. They were hanging off trees.

This was swimming in Hawaii.

"I did not believe that I could ever get a thrill out of a swimming meet after all I had seen and had competed in," Duke Kahanamoku once said, legend has it, after a particularly stirring contest at the Natatorium. "But last night, I certainly had the thrill of my life -- the crowd. I will never forget it. The intense interest shown by everybody, the color, that wonderful Waikiki pool. I had to rub my eyes and pinch myself to see if it were not all a dream."

These days, with the locks and the cracks and the weeds, you might wonder if it all was.

But no. Kahanamoku led the first wave of greatness in the early decades of this century. Then, a short lull. But Keo Nakama and the rest of coach Soichi Sakamoto's charges brought the fire back. An Olympic renaissance. Hawaii's swimmers ruled the water. Hawaii's swimmers ruled the world.

There were national and international meets here. There were exhibitions and parades. John Wayne, the other Duke, was among the celebrities that made long trips across the Pacific to be in the crowd at Hawaii's biggest swimming events.

Hawaii was the swimming capital of the world.

Today, the fence is rusty and the seats are empty and the Natatorium is crumbling and locked.

The volcano is long dormant.

The giant sleeps.

TODAY, THE LEGENDS have faded, their once famous names no longer even familiar to most. The legends are leaving us. Dick Cleveland and Halo Hirose died in these past two months. They were two of the fastest in the world, two of the greats.

The echoes are merely whispers on the surf.

But close your eyes and you can almost imagine what it must have been like, the excitement, the crowds, the thunderous cheers. This was magic, once.

Outside the Natatorium, toddling keikis learn to swim. Beyond the other end of the old relic, a papio hunts in the shallows. The blue and green flashes in the light, shooting through the water the way Hawaii's champions must have, so very long ago.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at

E-mail to Sports Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --