The Three Year Swim Club

By A.J. Llewellyn

It’s not often that I am so moved by a play that I lose sleep over it but I’ve seen Three Year Swim Club twice this week and damn it, even on second viewing this powerful, resonant work still has a hold on me. It still manages to make me cry and laugh in equal doses. Written by Lee Tonouchi and directed by the mega-talented actor, writer, director and hula master, Keo Woolford, this is a stunning and yet deceptively simple piece.

Currently in a week of previews until its mainland premiere Wednesday at the East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo on the edge of LA’s downtown area, this is the one play you should see this year. If you are convinced life has become too harsh for dreams…too short on ideals and inspiration…if you want to feel invigorated and re-energized come see a show that will have you dancing hula in your sleep.

In a play filled with beautiful words, there is one clear message. Never short-change yourself on your dreams, even if you learn to swim in a humble irrigation ditch.

Based on the heart-breakingly true tale of an amazing man, Soichi Sakamoto, who, by most definitions was a saint, the story is set in Maui, Hawaii in 1937. Hawaii was still a US territory and Pearl Harbor was in the distance, but war loomed, its heavy shadow as solid as a boulder on the Japanese families living in the islands.

Three Year Swim Club follows Sakamoto’s attempts to carve a future for the children of sugar cane plantation workers on the island. Destined for lives of mind-numbing, back-breaking work, he dares them to dream, to work for and achieve success in something other than sugar cane.

This is the real Coach Sakamoto…

He gives them a goal: the 1940 Olympic Games set to take place in Tokyo, Japan.

His wife thinks he’s a lunatic, the four teens who are the play’s focus think he probably is too. His lessons are so profound however, that they quickly realize everything he teaches them is not just about swimming, but life. The start to grow, and thrive, like wild, sturdy sugar cane, absorbing his kind logic and steely discipline. Like sugar cane (which I never knew is very susceptible to disease) they miraculously survive crippling elemental enemies.

When Japan invades China launching the second Sino-Japanese War, the 1940 Olympics are moved from Tokyo to Helsinki. Hearing the news on the radio, a disappointed but undaunted Coach Sakamoto pushes his pupils on.

Kick, kick, reach, pull. Kick, kick. Inhale.

This wonderful play is astonishingly engrossing and thankfully the small cast of six is just amazing. Led by the quietly commanding Blake Kushi as the great Coach Sakamoto, he is aided and abetted by four of the finest young actors I have ever seen on the Los Angeles stage.

Kelsey Chock as the mouthy yet touching Halo is a part-time cut-up, full-time scene stealer. We all grew up with a kid just like Halo. Too distracted, too full of himself…too…human.

As Keo, the most accomplished swimmer of the four, Jared Asato captures the character’s dignity in the face of his initial reluctance to swim in the ditch  –  to his short-lived joy when he qualifies for the Olympics.

Chris Takemoto-Gentile is just adorable as Bill, AKA Honolulu, who puts up with a lot of rubbishing from Halo just trying to belong. His mannerisms and posture are pitch-perfect…which brings me to the uttlerly beguiling Mapuana Makia as Fudge, the only girl in the group.

She broke my heart in a million pieces in her very effective scenes with Keo as she told him how hard it was to be a girl…how hard it was to accept her parents not wanting to send her to college because it was a waste of time...for a girl.

This is the real Fudge.

Her story has affected me deeply. I don’t want to give away too much but we all know now that the 1940 Olympics did not happen because of World War II.

Neither the coach, nor his swim club ever gave up. They kept training. And never stopped believing.

Kick, kick, reach, pull. Kick, Kick, exhale.

The cast is rounded out by Kaliko Kauahi as Mrs. Sakamoto. She is thoroughly believable as the supportive wife whose anger turns to acceptance and then total support when she realizes the Olympics are not an empty wish. Kaliko is a terrific ipo gourd drummer as well as a wonderful actress. Her rhythm on the ipo helped make this theatrical experience a total, sensory revelation.

Ultimately, all of this is due to Tonouchi’s words but also most assuredly to the sublime direction and serene hand of the Hawaiian Powerhouse, Keo Woolford.

Keo continues to stun me with his brilliance and grace. It says a lot for a man who is really starting to come into his own as a bona fide Hawaiian movie and TV star (check out his work in the TVseries Hawaii Five-O!) that he continues his passionate commitment to stories that speak to his love for his islands and their often tragic history.

Just as Coach Sakamoto taught his students to swim using traditional hula movements, I recognize Keo’s guidance and endless knowledge in this sacred art.

The set design is very good and I especially love the hapa-hoale Hawaiian songs emerging from the 1930s era radio and the vintage photos of thatched roofs and cane fields superimposed on the walls to establish the scenes.

Most of all, I will quit pining over my own imagined setbacks and look for strength in the memory of this very great teacher, his four heroic students and…

I will never look at a spoonful of sugar quite the same way again.

Aloha oe,


For tickets and more info on Three Year Swim Club please visit:

One Response to “The Three Year Swim Club”

  1. Wow! I want to see this play now.. he kinda reminds me of you though.. you have an undying passion for the islands that truly inspires others to be just as passionate about them even if they have never seen them.


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