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Friday, March 20, 2015

Waikiki Natatorium Fits The Bill

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Bill Smith [shown on left] was one of Hawaii's greatest pool and open water swimmers. One of the inaugural inductees in the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame in 2002, his career began when he placed second in a 1-mile swim at the American national championships in California at the age of 16.

After returning home to Hawaii, he moved to Maui to train with the legendary Soichi Sakamoto where the training regimen included swimming against the currents in Maui's irrigation ditches and later at the Waikiki Natatorium on Oahu.

Smith attended Ohio State University for a year before joining the Navy. After World War II ended, he returned to Ohio State to complete his degree and return to swimming. He won a total of 36 individual and relay titles in the Amateur Athletic Union, Big Ten and NCAA championships. He set American records at 18 different distances and was generally considered one of the world's outstanding swimmer from 1941 to 1949 when he set 7 world records and 12 national records and won 2 gold medals at the 1948 London Olympic Games in the 400m freestyle and the 800m freestyle relay.

At one time, Smith held all of the world records in freestyle swimming events between the 200-meter and 1,000-meter distances.

John Weiser, a Stanford graduate and Molokai resident, recalls those times training in Hawaii as told to Bob Sigall* of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "I craved to train and swim with the best in the world at that time. Nothing else mattered. So when I learned that there was this guy named Soichi Sakamoto, who attracted swimmers from all over the globe to train at a 100-meter pool in Hawaii at the foot of Diamond Head, it was a calling I could not resist. Only swimming with Sakamoto mattered.

For $160, I arrived as a second-class passenger on the cruise ship Matsonia together with my Volkswagen and surfboard. Thank God school was over. Now I could swim at the Natatorium with the best swimmers and the best coach, Soichi Sakamoto

As you passed the entrance gate, on the left was the headquarters of the city and county lifeguards, run by Bill Smith. He was in charge of all the lifeguards on Oahu."

The Waikiki Natatorium was a special place to train.

Weiser continues, "With open circulation to the ocean, the Natatorium was home to its own population of fish. Frequently as swimmers would dive in, schools of small fish would leap out of the water ahead of them. And there were a few barracuda of 2 feet or more in length who would shadow swimmers using kick boards, drafting their wake back and forth.

In the 1950s the Waikiki Natatorium was the crown jewel of venues for international swimming competitions

America's modern system of training fast swimmers has its roots deeply embedded with Sochi Sakamoto at the Waikiki Natatorium. What he did at there completely changed the landscape of international swimming and my life."

*Bob Sigall is author of the Companies We Keep books.

Copyright © 2015 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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