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Hawaii swim legend conquered Kaiwi first

Keo Nakama is going back to the place that turned him from swimming great to swimming legend.

Nakama’s storied career spanned world records in distance events, a hidden talent for baseball and even a 10-year stint in the Hawaii legislature. But he was best known for being the first verified person to swim the 27mile Kaiwi Channel from Molokai to Oahu in 1961.

Nakama, a forerunner of a golden age in Hawaii swimming, died Sept. 8 on Oahu after a steady decline in health. He was 91.

During the Na Wahine O Ke Kai paddling race on Sunday, a Nakama family friend will scatter some of his ashes in the channel that made him truly famous.

“She’ll say a prayer and scatter his ashes en route to Oahu,” said Kacy Kushiyama, one of Nakama’s six daughters. “That, I know he would have wanted.”

The Maui boy never wanted attention or fanfare, according to his friends. But at 41, something remained for him to prove. Nakama’s swimming peak had long passed, but not his resolve. It was quite the spectacle when an exhausted but unbowed Nakama emerged from the water at Hanauma Bay after more than 15 hours of battling the vicious current, Portuguese men of war and muscle fatigue. He was taken to a hospital overnight for observation.

Most of Nakama’s peers are gone, but a few remain who speak reverently of his numerous accomplishments.

“What he really did was make people aware that swimming the channel was possible,” said fellow Maui product and Ohio State teammate Bill Smith, who went on to become an AllAmerican and 1948 Olympic gold medalist. “I was there (at Hanauma). I thanked him; I thought he did a beautiful job.”

Hawaii swimming guru Al Minn was there, too.

“I think his big thing that I remember, for me, he swam the Molokai Channel and didn’t make a big deal out of it,” Minn said. “I was amazed at how quiet (he was) and how he responded to questions by people. He just a humble guy and not a bragger, you know.”

Minn laughed while he reflected on Nakama.

“We have to grab him and ask him questions to know what he did,” he said.

One of the first of several outstanding pupils of legendary coach Soichi Sakamoto, Nakama had a high-elbowed stroke that would take him far, especially in distance events. At age 22, he set the world record in the mile at 20:29.0.

He was slight (at 5-foot-6, he was much smaller than most swimming champs) but defied the odds to land at Ohio State, one of the top programs in the country. Buckeyes coach Mike Peppe built an NCAA championship team around Nakama, with Keo — formerly Kiyoshi — the team captain during his last two seasons.

The Maui High graduate even played second base for the Big Ten champion Buckeyes baseball team. A year later, in 1944, he was named captain of that team, too. Nakama was something of a celebrity on campus.

“I went to Ohio State because he was there,” Smith said. “He really did bring Hawaii back into the field of swimming.”

Sakamoto was renowned for training Nakama and others in an irrigation ditch in Pu‘unene, Maui, with the goal of making the Olympics. But cruel circumstance denied Nakama that opportunity during the peak of his prowess; the 1940 and ’44 games were canceled due to World War II. By the next Olympics, in 1948, he had his master’s degree and embraced teaching back in Hawaii. He would teach and coach at several Oahu public schools, most notably Farrington.

Nakama won 13 NCAA and AAU titles, eight in the Big Ten and five in the Pan American Games. To honor his protégé, Sakamoto established an annual, international swimming meet in Hawaii, the Keo Nakama Swimming Invitational, which still runs to this day.

In his later years, Nakama adhered to a regimen of daily swimming at the Central YMCA and played in the Makule baseball league.

Nakama was enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975, fresh off a decade as a representative in the Hawaii legislature from 1964 to ’74. He was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

Nakama is survived by his six daughters, Karen Kiki, Kacy, Teri, Joey, Lyn and Jamy; his sister, Joyce Pang; nine grandchildren; and five great grandchildren. His wife, Evelyn, died in 2008 at age 79.


>> Sept. 30 at Diamond Head Mortuary. Visitation 5-6 p.m., services to follow at 6.

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