Duke Kahanamoku was a legendary Hawaiian waterman and Olympic Champion born in 1890 in Honolulu. Having come from a long line of watermen, he grew up as a skilled swimmer and surfer. His skill and charismatic personality contributed significantly to popularizing surfing globally and he is referred to as the Father of Modern Surfing. However surfing isn’t the only thing he is known for. He was also a competitive swimmer and served as an ambassador for Hawaiian culture.
In August 1911, Duke won first place in Hawaii’s first American Athletic Union swimming competitions, breaking the 100-yard freestyle world record by 4.6 seconds and the 50-yard by 1.6 seconds! In fact, the AAU found this to be so unrealistic and didn’t allow the record setting times attributing it to the currents of Honolulu Harbor and timekeeping errors. Hawaii rallied around him and raised money so he could travel to the mainland and compete to prove his swimming prowess. During these competitions he was noticed by George Kistler who coached at the University of Pennsylvania and he offered to help Duke train his diving, breathing and turning. Within a month, Duke made the U.S. Olympic swim team.
He first gained prominence at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, winning gold in the 100-meter freestyle and a silver in the 4x200-meter relay. It was here that Duke first advocated for surfing to be an Olympic sport. Known for his speed and innovative technique, the “Kahanamoku Kick”, Duke went on to compete in two more Olympics in both Antwerp and Paris. During his Olympic career, Duke set multiple world records in the 100-yard freestyle and won a total of three gold medals and two silver medals.
Duke Kahanamoku’s fame in athletics allowed him to travel and spread the spirit of aloha abroad. This philosophy rooted in kindness, harmony and respect defined his character in and out of the water and enabled him to connect people all over the world with Hawaiian culture. Over a century after Duke first advocated for surfing as an Olympic sport, the International Olympic Committee voted to include surfing as one of five new sports in the Tokyo 2020 Games. Duke’s dream came true and his legacy continues to shape the world of water sports.