His swimming skills led the way to Olympic glory
By Corky Mau
At age 91, Tak Iseri is an unlikely celebrity. But there he goes, making public appearances and talking about his accomplishments from eight decades ago, when he was a champion swimmer and an early practitioner of a new stroke called the butterfly.
The Pocket resident’s move from retirement into the spotlight comes from his prominence in a new book about a remarkable piece of Sacramento history.
In “Victory in the Pool,” author Bill George examines the unmatched Olympic success by area swimmers from 1968 to 1984, under the leadership of coach Sherm Chavoor, who died in 1992 at age 73.
Iseri never reached the Olympics. But he was a pioneer in the program that carried swimmers such as Debbie Meyer, Mark Spitz, Mike Burton and Jeff Float to fame and gold medals in Mexico City, Munich and Los Angeles.
These days, Iseri joins George, Meyer and Float as they visit local libraries and service organizations to promote the book and reminisce about an era when Sacramento was the center of the competitive swimming world.
Despite his lack of Olympic success, Iseri was among the best swimmers on the West Coast. He won the 1948 Pacific Amateur Association title in the 100-yard breaststroke when he was 15.
Competing for UC Berkeley a few years later, he switched to the 100-yard butterfly and won the Pacific Coast Conference. Cal named him co-captain. “One of the highest honors of my life,” he says.
As a teenager, Iseri joined local kids swimming at the old Downtown YMCA pool at Fifth and J streets. The recreation supervisor was Chavoor, a gruff Army veteran who prowled the deck with a stopwatch and hollered at kids who didn’t kick hard enough.
“Sherm worked me hard during training, but I respected him,” Iseri says, recalling a regimen that ran two hours daily, six days a week. “When I needed money, Sherm helped me get a job as a lifeguard at Mather Field. He was like my big brother.”
By then, Iseri was accustomed to tough conditions. He began swimming at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a Wyoming internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Iseri was 10 when his family and friends were ordered to leave their Sacramento homes.
His father Kaizo Iseri closed his business—a flower shop—and boarded a northbound train with young Tak. “It was my first train ride. I thought we were going on vacation,” Iseri says.
Their first stop was Tule Lake Relocation Center in Siskiyou County. Months later, the family was moved to Heart Mountain, an unlikely place for a future champion swimmer.
“A giant pit near the irrigation canal became the camp swimming pool. In the winter, the pool became an ice-skating rink,” Iseri says.
In 1945, Iseri and his dad returned to Sacramento. But Japantown, centered around Fourth and M streets, wasn’t the same. Iseri’s flower shop was gone, burned down. To support the family, Kaizo became a gardener.
Young Tak barely knew how to swim, but he enjoyed it. The YMCA was the only area pool that welcomed Asian and Black swimmers. By 1949, coached by Chavoor, Tak was nationally ranked.
After starting college at Cal’s agricultural extension in Davis, Iseri transferred to the Berkeley campus. He studied pharmacy and often rode a bus back to Sacramento. One day, he met fellow passenger, Kathy Osaki.
“I knew he was this famous swimmer on campus,” she says. “I saved the seat next to me for him. When Tak got on the bus, I told him he could sit by me.”
With three sons, the couple celebrates 65 years of marriage this year. It’s an athletic family. Kathy and Tak ran several marathons. The boys are cyclists. Iseri took up alpine skiing at an advanced age. He still holds All-America records for the 100-meter breaststroke, age group 60–64.
Tak Iseri and Bill George will hold book events Aug. 19 at Pocket Library and Aug. 29 at Asian Community Center.
For background on Sherm Chavoor, see R.E. Graswich’s “Sports Authority” column in this issue.
Corky Mau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.