US Olympian with Roots in Haneji, Okinawa

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Yoshinobu (Yoshi) Oyakawa represented the United States at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helinski, Finland. There, he won the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke setting a new record in the process. Yoshi is considered the last of the great “straight-arm-pull” backstrokers.

A Japanese American Nisei, Yoshi is the youngest of three children of Reverend Edward Kenichi Oyakawa, who immigrated to Hawaii from Kawakami village located in Haneji, Okinawa, in 1913; and Yaeko Arashiro Oyakawa, who immigrated to Hawaii with her family from Oyakawa village in Haneji, Okinawa, in 1920.

The map shows where Oyakawa and Kawakami villages are located in Haneji, which is in the northern part of Okinawa island. Note how close Kawakami and Oyakawa villages are. Haneji River separates the two villages.

The map shows where Oyakawa and Kawakami villages are located in Haneji which is located in the northern part of Okinawa island.  Note how close Kawakami and Oyakawa villages are.  Haneji river is what separates the two villages.

The map shows where Oyakawa and Kawakami villages are located in Haneji, which is in the northern part of Okinawa island. Note how close Kawakami and Oyakawa villages are. Haneji River separates the two villages.

Yoshi was born on August 9, 1933, on the east side of the Big Island in Holualoa, Kona. He grew up in Papaikou, where his father was a minister. Yoshi’s talent for swimming was discovered when he was a teenager. In the ninth grade, he participated in the American Red Cross swimming program at the Naval Air Station pool in Hilo.

Standing on the podium at the Helinski Olympics in 1952.

Standing on the podium at the Helinski Olympics in 1952.

He joined the Hilo Aquatic Team and began competing. When he was a junior, he joined Hilo High School’s first swimming team and was coached by Charles “Sparky” Kawamoto. In 1950, Yoshi swam in the Senior Nationals in Seattle, Washington. In 1951, he established a new Hawaiian record in the 100-yard backstroke with the second best time in the nation. 

Before a race. You can tell -- his hair is still nicely combed.

Before a race. You can tell — his hair is still nicely combed.

That summer, Yoshi swam the fastest 100-meter backstroke worldwide and later placed fourth in the Senior Nationals. He graduated from Hilo High School in 1951. From there, Yoshi went to Ohio State University. While there, from 1952 – 56, Yoshi dominated the backstroke events at the Big Ten, NCAA, and the National A.A.U. He was so dominating that he held American, Olympic and World Records in the backstroke events. He was an All-American in swimming all four years at Ohio State. In 1976, he was inducted into the Ohio State University Hall of Fame.

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At the Natatorium in Waikiki.

In 1955, Yoshi graduated from Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education and a minor in Biological Sciences. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1956 to 1958 as a first lieutenant.

Yoshi married Mariko Yamane and settled in Ohio. Originally from Montebello, California, Mariko’s family came to live in Ohio after leaving a WWII relocation camp. After high school, Mariko went to Ohio State where she met Yoshi. Yoshi and Mariko have five children. Yoshi taught at Oak Hill High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, for 25 years. When he retired from teaching high school, he taught at North Kentucky University.

At 81 years - last year 2014, relaxing in Hawaii Kai at his nephew’s house.

At 81 years – last year 2014, relaxing in Hawaii Kai at his nephew’s house.

Yoshi was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1973 and the Hawaii Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998.

Since 1972, Yoshi has continued to compete in swimming in the Master’s Swimming program. In 1998, he set national records in both the 50 and 100 yard Short Course Backstroke. After that, he set another national record in the 100 meter Long Course Backstroke.

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Additional Resources:
Yoshinobu Oyakawa.” Hawaii Swimming Legacy. Swimming and Diving Legacy Project. Hawaii State House of Representatives, n.d.
Swimming 1952 Olympic Highlights,” added to YouTube by MrSwimmer1992 on 12 Apr. 2010.

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