The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium is not only a memorial to Hawai’i history, but itself a part of that history.
The world premiere run of a new play, The Three-Year Swim Club, is a good occasion to remind ourselves that this commemoration of Hawai’i’s war dead was always meant as a living memorial, full of activity and emblematic of the way of life that our military men and women fought to preserve.
And as a living memorial, the Natatorium has had a unique role in Hawai’i’s history and the history of competitive swimming.
This show, written by Lee A. Tonouchi and set on Maui in the late 1930s, is the true story of a world swimming powerhouse created by a coach who trained his athletes in an irrigation ditch. Three of the play’s characters – Coach Soichi Sakamoto and swimmers Bill Smith and Keo Nakama – went on years after the times depicted in the play to become members of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Smith was a double Olympic gold medalist in 1948 and a seven-time world-record breaker. Nakama never got to the Olympics, because of World War II, but won 27 national titles. He set his first world record at age 22 and his last at 41.
Sakamoto and his swimmers were more than familiar with the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, for years an important venue for international swimming competitions. In fact, the Natatorium was the original site of Hawai’i’s annual international competition, the Keo Nakama Invitational, founded by Sakamoto in 1946. (The meet is still an annual tradition in Hawai’i; wouldn’t it be great to return it to its birthplace at the Natatorium?)
Here’s a Honolulu Star-Bulletin review of The Three-Year Swim Club. It plays on Saturdays through March 6 at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. Take your kids for a reminder of Hawai’i’s past, a past that – in a restored and renewed Natatorium – could also be our future.
Here’s an image of the Natatorium set up and ready for one of the early Keo Nakama Invitationals: