Joined OCC: 1917
Elected to Winged “O”: January 15, 1968
Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, first recipient of the Winged “O” award was born on Oahu on August 24, 1890 when Hawaii was still an island kingdom and Queen Liliuokalani was on the throne. The name Duke is not a nickname or title. He was named after his father, Halapu Kahanamoku, who was christened “Duke” by Bernice Pauahi Bishop in honor of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Hawaii at the time of the elder man’s birth in 1869. The younger “Duke,” as eldest son, inherited the name.
The Honolulu of Duke’s boyhood was a small island community, remote and isolated from the outside of the world. Waikiki where Duke’s early boyhood was spent was not really part of the seaport town of Honolulu. It was a separate district, an hour’s drive by horse and buggy over an unpaved road from Fort and King Streets, center of downtown activity.
A formal education which included high school was considered adequate for the youth who did not contemplate a professional career, and Duke’s formal schooling followed the pattern of the day. He is known to have attended the Old Waikiki School, Ka`ahumanu School, Kamehameha School for Boys and McKinley High School.
For Duke, however, education in Hawaii’s unique aquatic sports was more important than any formal classroom schooling; and in that wonderful outdoor school on Waikiki Beach, he went on to graduate cum laude before he had reached his majority.
When the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded in 1908, Duke was a husky young athlete of 18, a swimmer who could beat any boy of his age in Honolulu; a skilled surfer and canoeist, and a good man at the oar of a racing barge.
In his youth, Kahanamoku preferred an old-school (traditional) surf board, which he called his “Papa Nui”, constructed after the fashion of ancient Hawaiian “olo” boards. Made from the wood of a koa tree, it was 16 feet long and weighed 114 pounds. The board was without a skeg, which had yet to be invented. In his later career, he would often use smaller boards, but always preferred those made of wood.
Speed swimming, competitive swimming, was by way of becoming a major sport in the early part of this century, and in this sport the Australians were the fastest. While American swimmers were still swimming the comfortable but slow trudgen with its old style scissors kick, the Australians developed a new, much faster stroke which became known as the Australian crawl.
It employed a double overhand stroke like the trudgen, but the body was kept nearly at water level by straightening the leg and moving the feet up and down just enough to keep them on the surface. Using this new crawl stroke, Annette Kellerman and other Australian stars dominated every meet they entered and set many new records.
In 1911, Duke became affiliated with Hui Nalu, a club which Alexander Hume Ford, prime mover in the founding of our own Club, helped organize for the purpose, as he put it in his memoirs, of providing more competition in aquatic sports.
On August 11, 1911, in an amateur swim meet, Kahanamoku was timed at 55.4 seconds in the 100 yard freestyle, beating the existing world record by 4.6 seconds, in the salt water of Honolulu Harbor. He also broke the record in the 220 yard and equaled it in the 50 yard, but the Amateur Athletic Union, in disbelief, would not recognize these feats until many years later. They initially claimed that the judges must have been using alarm clocks rather than stopwatches, and later claimed that ocean currents aided Kahanamoku.
The stroke he used to accomplish this notable feat looked much like the Australian crawl, but it differed in one important respect: instead of using a flutter kick simply to keep his legs near the surface of the water, Duke used his feet in a powerful up and down kick which drove him ahead much like the stern paddle wheel of an old river steamer.
As news of Duke’s remarkable performance spread to the mainland United States and finally to Europe, he became the hero of the hour. His exciting new speed stroke was promptly dubbed the Hawaiian Crawl and swimming instructors literally fell over themselves to master its technique for their pupils. Duke was on his meteoric way to national and international fame and acclaim.
Duke’s first opportunity to perform before Mainland and European swimming enthusiasts came in 1912 when the Territorial government sent him to Stockholm to represent Hawaii in the 1912 Olympic Games. It was a gamble of sorts for Duke’s competitive swimming had all been done in the warm salt waters of the old Alakea Slip in Honolulu Harbor, Honolulu’s natatorium of that era.
Tank swimming in fresh water, where skill in making the turns at the end of each lap could at times offset superior speed in the straightaway, was something new for Duke. Fortunately, he was able to make stops at several cities on his way across the continent and in Philadelphia he got valuable coaching in the finer points of tank swimming from George Kistler, swimming coach at the University of Pennsylvania.
By the time Duke reached Stockholm in June 1912, he had received enough adulation from admiring fans to turn the head of an ordinary young man. But Duke was not an ordinary young man. He had become an outstanding star in his chosen sports, not with the modern professional athlete’s hope of becoming a millionaire in his 20s, but because of his love of the sports themselves. When he was sent to the Olympics, his love of Hawaii and desire to win for the honor of Hawaii added new incentive to his drive for victory.
Duke distinguished himself by breaking the world record for the 200 meter freestyle in his trial heat in the 4×200 relay. He went on to win a Gold Medal in the 100 meter freestyle and Silver with the relay team. While the authenticity of Duke’s records established in Honolulu had been questioned by some AAU officials, there could be no doubt about this record breaking performance at Stockholm. Duke was now recognized as the world’s great sprint swimmer.
Between Olympic competitions, and after retiring from the Olympics, Kahanamoku traveled internationally, particularly Australia and the United States, to give swimming exhibitions. It was during this period that he popularized the sport of surfing, previously known only in Hawaii, by incorporating surfing exhibitions into these visits as well. His surfing exhibition at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach on December 23, 1914 is widely regarded as the most significant day in the development of surfing in Australia. The board Kahanamoku used is retained by the Freshwater Surf Club and can be viewed if the caretaker is approached respectfully. There is a statue of Kahanamoku on the headland at Freshwater. He also made surfing popular in mainland America first in Santa Cruz, California. This is where surfing first started in California.
The 1916 Olympics were called off because of conditions in war-torn Europe, so Duke at 26 was denied what many thought might be his last chance to win new laurels as a competitive swimmer. But in 1920 Duke and some other Hawaiian athletes joined the American Olympic team to compete in the Antwerp Olympics.
Duke joined the OCC in 1917 but he did not enter the 1920 Olympics to represent the Club, partly because the Club had no funds at the time to help defray his travel expenses. At the Games Duke performed in championship style, first breaking his own world record time in the 100-meter trials, then going on to win the event in the finals bettering fellow Hawaiian Pua Kealoha. He was also a member of the American Olympic relay team which set a new record in that event.
During his time living in Southern California, Kahanamoku also performed in Hollywood as an extra and a character actor in several films. In this way, he made connections with people who could further publicity for the sport of surfing. Kahanamoku was also involved with the Los Angeles Athletic Club, acting as lifeguard and competing on both swimming and water polo teams.
In 1922, Duke signed a five-year contract to star in several upcoming movies. It was Duke’s first opportunity to capitalize on his fame and popularity without in any way jeopardizing his standing as an amateur athlete, and he accepted. But Hollywood, with its tinsel and posturing was not Duke’s cup of tea. He was a great athlete in the Hawaiian tradition but in his daily life he was still the friendly Hawaiian boy who was liked for himself, not for his fame, and who liked people for themselves, not for the fame or power they might have won. He was still kama`aina, a true Hawaiian child of the land.
In the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Duke finished the 100 meters with a Silver Medal, the Gold going to Johnny Weissmuller and the Bronze to Duke’s brother, Samuel Kahanamoku.
While living in Newport Beach, California on June 14, 1925, Kahanamoku rescued eight men from a fishing vessel that capsized in heavy surf while attempting to enter the city’s harbor. Twenty-nine fishermen went into the water and seventeen perished. Using his surfboard, he was able to make quick trips back and forth to shore to increase the number of sailors rescued. Two other surfers saved four more fishermen. Newport’s police chief at the time called Duke’s efforts “the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen.” Thus was born the tradition of lifeguards having rescue surfboards at the ready.
In 1931 Duke became Superintendent of Honolulu Hale (City Hall), an appointive post under Mayor Fred Wright. When the Los Angeles Olympics came along in 1932, Duke was granted a leave of absence to help coach swimmers on the American Olympic team. He was then 42, but decided to try out for the American team in the hope of being of some help. He failed to qualify in the trials but made the water polo team. It was his last appearance in big-time competition.
In 1940, he married the love of his life, Nadine Alexander. She accompanied him when he traveled all over the world. Back in Honolulu, Duke was more than ready to return to the life that he loved, swimming and surfing and at the same time, helping aspiring youngsters around the Outrigger Canoe Club to improve their skills in surfing, swimming and canoe paddling.
In 1943 when the Outrigger Canoe Club started the Walter J. Macfarlane Memorial Canoe Regatta on the 4th of July, Duke steered his crew to victory in the Senior Men’s 6 event. This crew went undefeated for a number of years. Long after Duke passed away, the crew would meet annually on his birthday for an early morning paddle and breakfast to remininsce about their steersman and captain. This continued until the last member of that crew passed away.
Duke also played volleyball on the Club’s teams, and won the Club championship in 1945 with his six-man team.
He was elected Sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu in 1935 and served until 1962. He was a popular sheriff but the office was later discontinued. Mayor Neal Blaisdell appointed Duke Official Greeter in recognition of his services to Hawaii and he held that office until his death in 1968 at the age of 78.
Duke Kahanamoku was the first person to be inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame and the Surfing Hall of Fame. The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championships were named in his honor. He is a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
A bronze statue at Waikiki beach also honors his memory. It shows Duke Kahanamoku standing in front of his surfboard with his arms outstretched. Many honor him by placing lei on his statue.
In 2002, Kahanamoku was featured on a first class letter rate postage stamp of the United States Postal Service.
Kahanamoku died of a heart attack on January 22, 1968 at the age of 77. For his burial at sea, a long motorcade of mourners, accompanied by a 30-man police escort, moved solemnly across town to Outrigger Canoe Club at Waikiki Beach. Reverend Abraham Akaka, the pastor of Kawaiahao Church performed the service. A group of beach boys began singing Hawaiian songs, including Aloha Oe. The Duke’s ashes were then scattered into the ocean he loved so dearly.
Duke was a great athlete in his youth and his achievements as a champion and world record holder in his chosen sport helped put Hawaii on the map in those days when few people knew what Hawaii was or even where it was located.
But those who knew Duke in his home and at the Outrigger Canoe Club where he spent much of his spare time in his later years, remember him best for his qualities as a man and a proud member of the Hawaiian race.
Duke was elected to the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame in 2010 in honor of all his contributions to water sports and in recognition of the Olympic champion who shared his love of surfing with the world.