Duke Kahanamoku

To me, Duke Kahanamoku will always reign as the consummate Hawaiian.  His name and fame were known to me during my childhood, and as I look back on Duke’s achievements I still consider him to be the quintessential Hawaiian.

“Duke” was not a nickname; it was his given name.  His full name was Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku and he was born on August 24, 1890.   He was named for his father, who, interestingly, had himself been named “Duke” in honor of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Hawai’i at the time of his birth.

Duke grew up on the south shore of O’ahu, near what is now the Hilton Hawaiian Village complex in Waikiki.  It was during his younger years that he developed his affinity for the water and for water sports.  As we all know, Duke was an early pioneer of surfing and was instrumental in bringing it to the world’s attention.  During this period, the “long boards” were popular with surfers.  He called his board his “papa nui” and it was made from koa wood, a relativlely heavy, dense wood.  It was 16 feet long, weighed 114 lbs (!) and did not have a skeg, as they had not yet been invented.  You can see how the sport of surfing was not for the small, the weak or the timid!

Athletic career

Duke Kahanamoku was certainly the finest natural athlete ever to come out of Hawai’i.  In August of 1911 at the age of 21, he is said to have swum the 100 yard freestyle event in 55.4 secs, a full 4.6 seconds faster than the existing world record.  He also broke or tied records in the 220 yard and 50 yard events, but the Amateur Athletic Union would not recognize his time until many years later,  convinced the judges had used “alarm clocks instead of stop watches” when timing him.  They also claimed that he had been assisted by ocean currents.

Duke’s Olympic career is the stuff of legend and Hollywood movies.

His successes includes:

1912 Olympic Games, Stockholm, Sweden:

Gold medal, 100m freestyle
Silver medal, team relay

1920 Olympic Games, Antwerp, Belgium:

Gold medal, 100m freestyle
Gold medal, team relay

1924 Olympic Games, Paris, France:

Silver medal, 100m freestyle*

1932 Olympic Games, Los Angeles, CA:

Member, U.S. Water Polo team

*Interestingly, in this race he was beaten by future Hollywood Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller for the gold medal, and in turn beat his own brother Samuel for the silver (Sam got the bronze.)

After retiring from competitive athletics, Duke toured the world giving surfing demonstrations.  He was particularly fond of the west coast and Australia, two places where he is credited with providing the impetus that established the sport in those locations.

He also went to Hollywood, where his good looks and magnificent physique suited him (and the viewers!) well for action roles.  He made more than 30 motion pictures, both silent films and “talkies.” The films he appeared in included Adventure and Lord Jim (1925), Old Ironsides (1926), Isle of Sunken Gold (1927), Woman Wise (1928), The Rescue (1929), Girl of the Port and Isle of Escape (1930), Gone With the Wind (1939), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), and Mr. Roberts (1955).

At the age of 50 Duke married Nadine Alexander, who accompanied him for the rest of his life on his world-wide travels.  He went on to serve 13 terms as the sheriff on Honolulu, from 1932 to 1961.

Duke Kahamoku died of a heart attack on January 22, 1968, in Honolulu and his ashes were scattered at sea after his funeral ceremony.

Duke was the first person ever to be inducted into both the Swimming and Surfing Halls of Fame, and a beautiful statue of him stands to this day on Kalakaua Avenue, in Waikiki.  He was a remarkable man, an incredibly gifted athlete and a true Hawaiian treasure.  I wish I could have met him.

Some Quotes Attributed to Duke Kahanamoku

“Don’t talk – keep it in your heart.”

“Every day of the year where the water is 76, day and night, and the waves roll high, I take my sled, without runners, and coast down the face of the big waves that roll in at Waikiki.”

“I have never seen snow and do not know what winter means.”

And perhaps most sadly and poignantly

“Out of the water, I am nothing.”

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