Duke Kahanamoku is considered the “father of modern day surfing”. He was an Olympian, an actor, and most notably a surfer. He was the first president of the Outrigger Canoe Club, a sailor, a body surfer - the quintessential waterman.
It was in the year 1890 when a newborn child was born to the Kahanamoku family of Oahu. “Duke” grew up in a traditional Hawaiian family, where the daily activities revolve around the Hawaiian waters. From fishing, to recreation - The ocean was integral to Hawaiian lifestyle.
As Hawaii became an emerging location for tourism, Duke and other local watermen took to Honolulu and became known as the “Beach Boys”, giving surf lessons and outrigger canoe rides. His good nature and positive disposition exemplified the "spirit of aloha" giving rise to state's popularity, and his showing of goodwill to island visitors.
Duke was graced with an athletes body, tall and lean standing at 6’1”. He also had the tenacity to excel above his peers as one of the great swimmers of his time. In 1911 at the age of 21, Duke set an American record for the 50 Yard Freestyle, and a world record for the 100 yard, beating the previous record by 4 seconds.
In 1912, Duke qualified and participated in the Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He gold medaled in in the 100 M freestyle, and placed second in the US team 4/200 M freestyle. He participated in the 1020 Olympic Games in Antwerp where he gold medaled in the 100M freestyle and the team relay. He participated in his final Olympics in 1924 at the age of 34 in Paris where he finished with a silver medal in the 100m freestyle bested by future film actor Johnny Weissmuller. Kahanamoku earned the nicknames “The Human Fish” and “Bronzed Duke”
In 1925, his legend grew as he made a superhuman act of heroism by pulling 8 fishermen away from an overturned boat in stormy seas at Newport Beach, California.
Prejudice against people of color, unfortunately cast an ugly shadow on Duke’s life. Being dark skinned, he was denied services at restaurants and hotels while traveling across America and was given small roles in Hollywood films as an island chief, or native.
As he grew older, and his physical abilities faded from the limelight, he found himself taking basic jobs to survive. He was a 9th grade dropout with few skills outside water related activities. For a time he worked as a janitor and a gas station attendant on Kalakaua Blvd.
As Hawaii tourism continued to grow, he became a sheriff in Honolulu and was recognized as an "official greeter" to visitors of Hawaii. Duke partnered with businessmen to create Duke's Waikiki, which later became a chain of restaurants. And as surfing became more popular, his name and signature provided a source income to him events such as the Invitational Surfing Championships and other merchandise.
Duke died of a heart attack at the age of 77 in 1968. He was married, but never had any children. He was the first inductee into the International Surfing Magazine Hall of fame. He is honored at many other surf spots throughout the world for his achievements in modern surfing. The Duke Kahanamoku Award is given each year to the best all around surfer at the US Surfing Championships.
He was also inducted in the International Swimming Hall Of Fame and US Olympic Hall Of Fame. In Waikiki, the Duke Kahanamoku Statue, a large 17’6” bronze statue, stands of him at Kuhio Beach Park. Another bronze statue stands at Sydney's Freshwater Beach in his honor as the centerpiece of Duke Kahanamoku Commemorative Park. The U.S Postal Service issued a stamp with his images as well. Even a man made lagoon, the Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, is named after him and located outside of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort.
Duke embodied the "spirit of aloha" and helped spread it throughout the world. His legend stands tall and surfers still pay homage to the champion that introduced surfing into the modern era.
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