Coach Soichi Sakamoto (Blake Kushi, top) keeps time as he trains the youth of Maui (from left, Chris Takemoto-Gentile, Mapuana Makia, Kelsey Chock, Jared Asato) in the plantation's irrigation ditches, where hula becomes the metaphor for swimming. (Photos by Michael Lamont/EWP)

Rafu Staff Writer

If the spectrum of athletic drive among Americans were a bell curve, the middle of the bell would mostly be occupied by those of us who sweat at the thought of being stuck with a TV-less treadmill during our post-work gym sessions.

At the two ends of the bell? Those rare individuals who die having played video games for days straight without eating. And Soichi Sakamoto’s “Three Year Swim Club.”

Coach Sakamoto serenades his wife (Kaliko Kauahi, right) with his ukelele as they reminisce about their early days of courtship.

This month at East West Players, Lee Tonouchi’s play tells the unlikely tale of the real Coach Sakamoto who, without swim coaching experience or a proper swimming pool, decides to bring together a group of small-town Maui kids and, in three years, turn them into Olympians in time for the 1940 games. In lieu of a pool, the namesake Three Year Swim Club practices in a sugar cane plantation’s irrigation ditch, swimming up the stream of water to build strength.

Though in reality the club began with many more members, Tonouchi’s version of the story focuses on just four swimmers: the childish but lovable Halo (Kelsey Chock) and his earnest friend Keo (Jared Asato), well spoken Honoluluan Bill (Chris Takemoto-Gentile), and Fudge (Mapuana Makia), the no-nonsense only girl in a family of boys. Under Coach Sakamoto (Blake Kushi), the 3YSC trains diligently, using the wisdom of sugar cane farmers and animals in nature to find their rhythm, keep steady, and work ceaselessly.

On a small – and waterless – stage, director and choreographer Keo Woolford makes the inspired choice to convey swimming via hula, and the projection of sunlit water against a grass screen that lies across the top of the stage. As Kaliko Kauahi (Mrs. Sakamoto) beats a small gourd drum offstage, the swimmers move in graceful repetition, speaking their thoughts in turn.

Though bordering on an over-the-top caricaturization of experimental theater (the hackey sack scene of ’90s high school comedy “She’s All That” comes to mind), the beauty of hula and the sweetly vulnerable thoughts of the characters keep these scenes in balance.

As the club gains traction, news of rising tension in Europe and Asia plays itself over Sakamoto’s radio, threatening not only to derail the dreams of the young Olympic hopefuls but to dramatically alter their world.

Written entirely in Pidgin and colored with a mellow soundtrack, “Three Year Swim Club” evokes a 1930s Hawaii of plantation farms, class distinction, and hopeful teenagers eager for the opportunity to see more of the world than their corner of the archipelago. Lively and full of personality, this one is well worth seeing.

For tickets or information, visit or call (213) 625-7000

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