He's the most famous name in surfing -- an Olympic champion, Hollywood actor and Hawaiian folk hero. He's also remembered for his grace in the water, his good humor, and his sportsmanship.
The "Duke", as Kahanamoku would be called, had been named not for Hawaiian royalty, but after his father who had been christened "Duke" following the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Hawaii in 1869. He was born on August 24, 1890 in Honolulu, in the same home (at King & Bishop Streets) where Duke senior had first made his appearance in 1869.
The junior Duke had chosen an interesting time to enter the world --- King David Kalakaua was not viewed favorably by many of his people, and certain segments, such as the Hawaiian sugar interests, sought drastic changes. The Hawaiian king's sudden death in January of 1891 proved to be the catalyst to change. Lili'uokalani, his sister, fell heir to the throne, but her reign was brief. By 1893 she had been forced to abdicate because of powerful commercial factions supported by the U.S. Navy. Sanford Dole, the pineapple king, became president of the islands' provisional government. On July 4, 1894 Hawaii became a Republic, presided over by President Dole. By July 7, 1898, when Duke was 8 years old, the American flag flew over the Hawaiian Islands. Two years later, on April 30, 1900, the Organic Act made young Duke an American citizen.
Throughout his youth, Duke strove to refine his water skills. Swimming, surfing and canoeing were his passion. When top Australian swimmers visited the islands in 1910, Duke inspected their every move. He would use what he had learned from them to perfect his swimming. Duke's aquatic skills improved to such an extent that those who saw him were astonished. Bill Rawlins, an island attorney from Yale tried to help Duke get the recognition he deserved. However, to obtain official sanction for any aquatic records, swimmers had to belong to a recognized club. So Duke and his friends organized their own club in 1911 and named it Hui Nalu (Club of the Waves).
Duke's astonishing swim times were sent to the Mainland, but they were so startling that officials refused to believe them. His supporters decided that the only thing they could do was raise money for Duke and another Hawaiian swimmer, Vincent Genoves, to travel to the Mainland to compete.
In March of 1912 Duke Kahanamoku and fellow Hawaiian Vincent Genoves were in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania to compete for places on the American Olympic team. The Olympic swim trials were being held at various athletic clubs throughout the United States. On March 13th Duke had been in Chicago where he had won the 100-yard race. Now, in Pittsburgh two days later, Kahanamoku would compete in the 220-yard indoor race and Genoves in the 500-yard indoor swimming event. Unfortunately, Duke's leg would cramp when he hit the water, and he lost the race. Neither Hawaiian would win in Pittsburgh and only Kahanamoku would make the Olympic team and travel to Stockholm.
Duke, who almost slept through the 100-meter dash, and who had to convince officials to delay the race long enough for him to put on a swim suit, broke the Olympic record in July of 1912. He had been clocked at sixty-three and two-fifths seconds. Pandemonium reigned and the Hawaiian swimmer became a hero. He was now the most famous Hawaiian alive, and he had done much to publicize the islands.
Much has been written about the "Duke" (you can link to several sites at the end of this section), but let me share with you what the media had to say about him in the early days of his career when he had already become a hero of the 1912 Olympics.
1913 January 29. Long Beach Press
HAWAIIAN SWIMMER BATTLES WITH BIG EEL
As a result of a battle to the death with a ten-foot eel, the largest ever seen here. Duke Kahanamoku, who won the world's championship at Stockholm, is today minus the index finger on his right hand and his swimming prowess may be permanently impaired.
The swimmer encountered the eel while practicing for the Australian swimming championships off here, and after a fight lasting several minutes, choked it to death. He was exhausted when he reached the shore, with the eel's body in tow.
1913 July 11. Long Beach Press
HAWAIIAN SWIMMER IS GUEST OF CITY
Duke Kahanamoku, the wonderful Hawaiian swimmer, who equaled the world's record for swimming fifty yards at the Los Angeles Athletic Club last night enjoyed luncheon at the Hotel Virginia, spent the day in Long Beach and was shown about the city by Lorne Middough and other members of the Poly High Water Polo team.
Kahanamoku is touring Southern California with a company of nine swimmers from the islands and expects to be in the Southland about a week longer. He is a remarkable athlete and called forth the admiration of a large audience when he tied the world's fifty-yard mark last night. The record is held by Alex Wickham, of New South Wales, who made it in 1910. Kahanamoku's time was 23 4-5 seconds.
1913 July 12. Daily Telegram
LOCAL BOY RACES HAWAIIAN CHAMP
Pete Lenz, captain of the local Long Beach high school swimming team, proved a worthy opponent of Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian swimmer, last night in the 220-yard race at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the Hawaiian finished less than a half-tank length ahead of the Long Beach boy. The winner's time was 2 minutes, 41 seconds. The Hawaiian walked away with the 100-yard event, in which Crary and Howard, of L.A.A.C. were his only opponents, his time being 55 1/5.
The great Hawaiian swimmer and six members of the Hawaiian team spent several hours in Long Beach yesterday. They came upon the invitation of Pete Lenz. They couldn't resist the surf and the Duke gave a thrilling exhibition of surfboard riding. Thousands of people enjoyed watching him. Many people here have expressed a wish that the Bath House company would present frequent surfboard riding exhibitions such as was offered yesterday. It is believed they would prove a big card.
In 1920 Duke Kahanamoku again won Olympic fame in the swimming events. Through his public demonstrations, surfing was now a popular past time of local boys who were frequently bothered by bathers who refused to get out of their way. Southern California surfing was also taking on a persona of its own in the development of new surfboards, different than those used in Hawaii. Not all beaches responded well to the large, heavy, Hawaiian model boards. Beach breaks were different and affected by weather changes far out to sea, lighter and smaller boards were being developed to help meet the challenges of these varying wave shapes and sizes.
Duke Kahanamoku, sponsored by the Outrigger Club of Honolulu, arrived on the mainland in 1922 to give public exhibitions of his swimming skills. Having held every swimming honor in the world in his class, he was a hero to be emulated, not only in swimming but in his native Hawaiian sport of surfing as well.
Here are some edited excerpts from the press of the 1920's.
1922 March 12. Daily Telegram
Officials of the Hawaiian association of the Amateur Athletic union are considering the status of Duke Kahanamoku, world's champion sprint swimmer, to determine whether he shall be classed as a professional. Kahanamoku, whose home is in Honolulu, recently signed a contract to appear in the movies. Whether his entering the films will affect his standing, as an amateur is to be decided.
1922 July 31. Daily Telegram
DUKE KAHANAMOKU, FAMOUS SWIMMING CHAMPION, GIVES EXHIBITION ON SURF BOARD
Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic champion and in his prime the world's greatest swimmer, gave an exhibition of surf board riding in front of the Hotel Virginia yesterday before a crowd estimated at 5000 persons. Local boys held their own with the Duke when it came to riding the boards.
Owing to the lack of wind and heavy rollers, the surfers were obliged to wait long periods for waves that would carry them. Hawaiian surfboards, long, wide, heavy and pointed were used. They would make 10 of the ordinary surfboards seen along the beach here, and must be handled by an expert.
It was a pretty sight to see the men come in standing up on the boards and guiding them skillfully with their feet, the surf curling away from the boards in front and at the sides. There seemed to be just one point of advantage with the Hawaiian. He kept his board at a sharp angle, giving the stunt a more picturesque appearance. But he didn't catch as many rollers as the other boys.
Kahanamoku tried a double stunt with a young woman from San Pedro, but the breakers were not heavy enough to stand the double weight and the board foundered each time after an advance of less than 100 feet.
It was exciting to watch the surfers take a roller. Lying face down on the board with the legs protruding into the water, the swimmer would begin a thrash with the legs such as is used in swimming the crawl stroke. At the same time he would paddle with his hands furiously. This work was started just before the surf break. The rushing waters would lift the board and carry it along at a terrific pace. As soon as the board was going well, the surfer would pull himself up to a kneeling position and then gradually rise to his feet.
Duke Kahanamoku has been declared a professional because he recommended a certain brand of goods in an advertisement. He is being paid by the Outrigger Club of Honolulu to boost Honolulu and Hawaii. After a turn at the movies, the duke will begin a tour of the country next fall, giving exhibitions in various tanks of the country.
1922 September 3. Daily Telegram
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SHAKES DUST OF HAWAII FROM HIS FEET AND MAKES LOS ANGELES HIS HOME
Duke Kahanamoku, famous Hawaiian swimmer, who came to Los Angeles from Waikiki to enter the movies, has decided to make Southern California his home, he announced at Los Angeles the other day. The Honolulu Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Tourist bureau have always considered Duke as part of the natural attractions of the Islands. Many a tourist has gone back to Loomis Center, Ill., well satisfied with the money spent in transportation to the Islands because the genial Duke had allowed said tourist to pose with him in front of the famous surf board while cameras clicked out in front.
The natural attraction that Duke afforded to the tourist traffic was all right and fine business as long as it didn't cost anything. The Territorial government fixed up a job for Duke and figured that it had done its part to take care of the most famous citizen of Hawaii. But along came a manager with a movie proposition. Duke tried to convince the moviemaker to make the film in the islands, but the Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce refused to give any financial backing. They told Duke that if he wanted to enter the movies he had better do so on the Mainland where finances could be more easily arranged. So Duke has packed up his Cadillac car and his manager and sailed for Los Angeles and a career in the movies.
1923 February 5. Daily Telegram
DUKE TRAINING FOR RECORD SEASON: HAWAIIAN VETERAN WILLING TO MEET WIESSMULLER, CHICAGO WONDER
Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic champion swimmer of the world, who lost most of his records last year because of the marvelous achievements of Johnny Weissmuller, is not to be outdone in the season of 1923. The Duke is training for a long and strenuous year of swimming. In the first place he is out to regain his records, and in the second place he is not any longer averse to meeting the Illinois Athletic Club wonder.
Duke smiles his golden smile when people suggest that he is through. His thirty-two years weigh lightly on his powerful shoulders. He has seen swimmers almost as sensational and far more rugged than Wiessmuller rise and fall. Duke remembers well the time when Ludy Langer challenged his swimming laurels, and for a time seemed to displace him as the greatest swimmer of the world. But Ludy, though still a powerful swimmer has passed on from the ranks of present-day competitors.
Harry Hebner looked as if he would defeat the Duke, but Harry has long since hung up his racing suit for all time. Perry McGillivray defeated the Duke in a warm pool in the East many seasons ago, and the world acclaimed him as the coming champion. But Perry has passed on like the rest.
Wild Bill Harris and Norman Ross, Pua Kealoha and Warren Kealoha, all these have been rated above the Duke at one time or another, but the Duke still can smile his golden smile and take to the water with his old-time speed. Olympic champion in 1912; Olympic champion in 1920. The only difference between the two performances, eight years apart, was a new world record in 1920.
Kahanamoku is training, and if Johnny Wiessmuller proves as great a swimmer this season as last, then be sure the two will tangle. The man from Waikiki is still speedy enough to surprise the aquatic fans of the world.
1923 July 25. Long Beach Press.
DUKE KAHANOMOKU, WATER SPRINT CHAMPION, COMES SATURDAY FOR TITLE MEET
Duke Kahanomoku, famous Hawaiian water sprint champion, is one of the aquatic stars that will be seen in action at Alamitos Bay this coming Saturday (7/28) in the A.A.U. open water swimming championships. The meet will be held on the Belmont Shore Athletic Club course, and is the first of a series that will be held on the same course during the next few months.
Duke will come to Long Beach as a member of the crack swimming team from the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The noted swimmer is now in his thirty-second year, but still is in record-breaking form.
In 1925 Duke Kahanomoku would rescue twelve men from a boating tragedy off of Newport Beach (see section on Newport to read more). He would remain the king of aquatic sports until he was uncrowned in the 1924 Paris Olympics by 20-year-old Johnny Wiessmuller. He would continue to tour and act as ambassador-at-large for Hawaii, showing the world his swimming and surfing acumen. He would serve as sheriff of Honolulu for 26 years, continue his movie career, run a gas station, have his own line of surf clothing and finally marry at the age of 50.
On January 22, 1968 the world would bid "Aloha" to Hawaii's most famous citizen. He would be remembered as a great swimmer, surfer and all-around good guy. More than 20-years after his death memories of his achievements and affecting personable style still linger.
Brennan, Joseph L. Duke: the life story of Hawaii's Duke Kahanamoku. Honolulu, Ku Pa'a Publishing, 1994.
Hall, Sandra Kimberley. Memories of Duke: the legend comes to life. Honolulu, Bess Press, 1995.
Young, Nat. The History of Surfing. Palm Beach, N.S.W., Palm Beach Press, 1987.