Yoshi Oyakawa, 1973 ISHOF Honor Swimmer
Last of the winning straight-armed backstrokers
Hawaiian Yoshi Oyakawa won 23 major titles in his remarkable career as the last of the great straight-armed backstrokers. He won the 1952 Olympic backstroke crown at Helsinki in 1:05.4 finally breaking Adolph Kiefer's Olympic record of 1.05.9 set in 1936. Oyakawa won six Big Ten, 7 NCAA and 9 NAAU gold medals during his distinguished career under coaches Sparky Kawamoto, Hilo, Hawaii, and Mike Peppe, Ohio State.
Oyakawa started competitive swimming late (15), turned over on his back at 16, and was on his way to the Olympics at 18. Yoshi went to his second Olympics (1956 Melbourne) as an Air Force Second Lieutenant finishing eighth after breaking his 1952 Olympic record in the prelims. Neither time was as good as his 1:04.7 to win the U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit.
After 2 years active duty this great backstroker and his Ohio State sweetheart Mariko Yamane settled in Cincinnati where they have raised four daughters and a son and enough good swimmers at Oak Hills High School for Yoshi Oyakawa to be named Ohio High School Coach of the Year for 1972.
Others have bettered Oyakawa's 100-yard and 100-meter world records but none since Oyakawa have done it going straight. The newer bent arm techniques have left his records intact, as the fastest-ever straight-armed backstroker.
Oyakawa marked the ending of at least one other era, the domination of world swimming by the Hawaiian Islands. Their last Olympic champions were Oyakawa and Ford Konno in 1952. Not since the six Hawaiians (including Oyakawa) swam in the 1956 Games, has one of the islanders made a U.S. Olympic team.
from Swim magazine
1952 – HELSINKI, 1956 - MELBOURNE
Hawaiian-born Yoshi Oyakawa was America's top backstroker in 1952, but he was probably not the most confident going into the Olympic Trials. Having time-trialed a week before the meet, Oyakawa and Ohio State University teammate Gerald Holan swam much slower than they expected. "We were hearing reports of some fast times from Europe, and we were a little worried," recalls Oyakawa.
At the Trials, Holan, who made the Olympic team in breaststroke, had impressive early swims, which boosted Oyakawa's morale. He followed Holan's lead with a first in the 100 backstroke, just off Adolph Keifer's world record. His confidence never wavered at the Helsinki Olympics, where he led all qualifying heats en route to a gold medal and a winning time of 1:05.4.
The 1956 Olympics, held during the Australian summer in December, saw Oyakawa enter once again as the top American backstroker, even though he was in the Air Force at the time. The results, though, were not the same as four years earlier as Oyakawa finished in eighth place. "I slipped at the start," he recalls. "The favored Australians finished first and second and were a good second or two faster than everyone else."
Oddly enough, one of Oyakawa's most vivid recollections is a grueling water polo match in 1956 between two adversarial countries, Hungary and Russia. "Hungary was occupied by the Russians so there were some very strong feelings," he says. "The game was like a boxing match, and the water began to turn red."
SWIM magazine, July-August 1996
Yoshi Oyakawa lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and swims for Greater Ohio Swim Team.