Duke Kahanamoku achieved legendary status in two sports—swimming and surfing—and in the process became Hawaii's best-known citizen. More than a sports champion or media celebrity, however, Kahanamoku also represented a vital link with his native land's past. In popularizing surfing among new generations of athletes around the world, Kahanamoku helped to keep the ancient sport alive after it had almost perished along with other Hawaiian traditions in the nineteenth century. At the time of his death in 1968, Kahanamoku was celebrated not only as a superb athlete, but as a cultural icon as well.
A Hawaiian Childhood
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890 in the Kalia District of Honolulu to Duke Halapu and Julia Paakonia Lonokahikini Paoa Kahanamoku. His father, who worked as a police officer, was born during a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh to Hawaii in 1869, and had been given the first name Duke to commemorate the event. When his first-born son arrived, the elder Kahanamoku passed the name along. The Kahanamoku family eventually grew to include six sons and three daughters.
Kahanamoku grew up during one of the most turbulent periods in Hawaii's history, one that brought its people close to extinction. There is no written record of when Polynesian groups settled the islands, but the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 is well documented. After shooting some islanders, the British explorer was killed in February 1779—but not before he left an extensive written record of his travels in the South Pacific. European audiences were fascinated by his descriptions of native traditions, particularly the sport of surfing, in which men, women, and even children would sail out into the ocean on long, flat boards, to be carried back to shore by cresting waves.
Cook's misadventure in Hawaii did not dissuade other explorers and missionaries from coming to the islands throughout the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the effects of their settlements were far from benign on the Hawaiian people. Christian missionaries condemned many native traditions—including surfing—as uncivilized, and attempted to ban such practices. More threateningly, a slew of diseases cut the population of the islands from about 300,000 when Cook visited to just 40,000 in 1893. That year the islands were plunged into upheaval when pineapple grower Sanford Dole used American military forces to overthrow the governing Hawaiian monarchy under Queen Liliuokalani. Dole established a republic on the islands in 1894 and in 1900 all Hawaiians were made United States citizens.
As a son in a fairly privileged family, Kahanamoku's childhood was relatively untouched by the political controversies of the period. From his family's home near Waikiki Beach, he showed a talent for swimming and surfing from an early age. By the time he reached adulthood, Kahanamoku stood at six feet and weighed one-hundred-ninety pounds; his greatest asset in the water, however, was his size-thirteen feet, which he used as a propeller in the water in a flutter kick. Later in his career, the innovation would become known as the "Kahanamoku Kick," a variation of the Australian crawl that he used in freestyle swimming events.
After completing the eleventh grade, Kahanamoku devoted much of his time to a budding career as an athlete. Along with his surfing friends he founded the Hui Nalu Surf Club in 1911. The club often competed against the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club in sailing regattas and the events proved to be a great tourist attraction. Kahanamoku also made headlines during his participation in the first Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swimming event held in Hawaii, which took place in August 1911. The 100-yard freestyle event was held in between two piers in Honolulu Harbor on a temporary course set up just for the event. Consequently, when Kahanamoku won the race with a time of 55.4 seconds—the current record then stood at 60 seconds—AAU officials remeasured the course four times before declaring Kahanamoku the winner. In the 50-yard freestyle, Kahanamoku tied the world record of 24.2 seconds. The national AAU office refused to recognize his achievements, claiming that the course's irregularities must have helped Kahanamoku set the records.
Kahanamoku was unfazed by the controversy over his record-breaking performances in the 1911 AAU event. Instead, he focused on making the U.S. Olympic Men's Swimming Team, set to compete in Stockholm for the 1912 Games. In a May 1912 qualifying meet in Philadelphia for the 100-meter freestyle event, Kahanamoku swept the field with a time of 60 seconds. He also qualified for the U.S. 800-meter relay team at a trial held in New Jersey, where he set a record for his leg of the race with a 200-meter time of 2 minutes and 40 seconds. At the 1912 Olympic Games Kahanamoku became one of the event's most famous athletes. On July 6 he took the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle event and set a new Olympic record in the process of 63.4 seconds. Kahanamoku also helped the U.S. 800-meter freestyle team take the silver medal in that event. Perhaps the only other American athlete to emerge with a higher profile from the 1912 Olympic Games was Jim Thorpe , who, like Kahanamoku, was of aboriginal descent.
The First World War led to the cancellation of the 1916 Olympic Games, where Kahanamoku was a favorite to win at least one more gold medal. Forced to wait until the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, Kahanamoku once again made the U.S. Team in the 100-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle relay. The first run of the finals for the 100-meter freestyle was nullified after some countries protested the outcome, which had thirty-year-old Kahanamoku setting another world-record of 61.4 seconds. In the rescheduled finals, he again proved his mastery of the event with an even better time of 60.4 seconds. This time, there was no protest and Kahanamoku was awarded the gold medal. He also helped to set a record as part of the 800-meter freestyle relay team, which took the gold medal with a record-setting time of 10 minutes and 4.4 seconds.
Kahanamoku's final Olympic medal came at the 1924 Games in Paris, where he placed second to Johnny Weissmuller in the 100-meter freestyle event. Kahanamoku did not make the swim team for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, but he did attend the event as a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club Water Polo Team, which failed to make it into the final competition. In all, Kahanamoku won three individual and two team medals in his Olympic career.
|1890||Born August 24 in Honolulu, Hawaii to Duke Halapu and Julia Paakonia Lonokahikini Paoa Kahanamoku|
|1912||Wins gold medal in 100-meter freestyle swimming event at Stockholm Olympic Games|
|1914||Popularizes surfing in Australia during an exhibition tour|
|1920||Wins gold medal in 100-meter freestyle swimming event in Antwerp Olympic Games|
|1924||Wins silver medal in 100-meter freestyle swimming event in Paris Olympic Games|
|1925||Saves several swimmers from drowning off the coast of Corona del Mar, California|
|1936||Elected sheriff of Honolulu|
|1940||Marries Nadine Alexander|
|1948||Appears in John Wayne movie Wake of the Red Witch|
|1952||Suffers heart attack|
|1962||Suffers from cerebral blood clot|
|1968||Dies in Honolulu on January 22|
|1990||Statue is dedicated to Kahanamoku on Waikiki Beach|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1911||Gold medal, Amateur Athletic Union, 100-yard freestyle swimming|
|1912||Olympic gold medal, 100-meter freestyle swimming; silver medal, freestyle relay swimming|
|1920||Olympic gold medal, 100-meter freestyle swimming; gold medal, 800-meter freestyle relay swimming|
|1924||Olympic silver medal, 100-meter freestyle swimming|
|1965||Inducted into International Swimming Hall of Fame|
|1966||Inducted into Surfing Hall of Fame|
|1984||Inducted into U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame|
The Father of Surfing
After his appearance at the 1912 Olympics, Kahanamoku was an international celebrity. He toured the United States giving swimming and surfing exhibitions and even went to Australia at the invitation of the Australia Swimming Association in late 1914. Although some Australians had tried to surf before, Kahanamoku's appearance at the Freshwater Beach near Sydney in February 1915 caused a sensation in the country. Kahanamoku spent two-and-a-half hours giving a demonstration of surfing on a board that he had made himself, and even took a young woman out on the board for a ride. Surfing eventually became one of the Australia's most popular past-times, and many credited Kahanamoku with being the "Father of Modern Surfing" for increasing interest in the sport at home and abroad.
By now the most famous resident of Hawaii, Kahanamoku was sought out by numerous celebrities during their visits to the islands. One of his most notable acquaintances was the Prince of Wales, whom he taught to surf in 1920. Kahanamoku also rubbed shoulders with some of Hollywood's most famous stars, a by-product of his own career as a character actor—usually playing tribal chiefs—that began in the 1920s. Kahanmoku's most memorable appearances came at the end of his acting career in the 1948 John Wayne movie The Wake of the Red Witch and the 1955 Jack Lemmon movie Mister Roberts.
Kahanamoku also earned praise for his heroism during a daring rescue of passengers from a capsized boat off the coast of Corona del Mar, California on June 14, 1925. Twenty-nine passengers on the pleasure boat the Thelma had been pitched into the Pacific Ocean after the craft had capsized. Upon hearing the news, Kahanamoku jumped onto his surfboard and paddled out to the scene. He managed to drag eight people out of the ocean and ferry them back to shore; only four others survived the wreck. As Leonard Leuras later quoted a story from the Los Angeles Times on Kahanamoku's life in his Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure, "His role on the beach that day was more dramatic than the scores he played in four decades of intermittent bit-part acting in Hollywood films. For one thing, that day he was the star."
Hawaii's Official Greeter
In 1934 Kahanamoku gained office as Sheriff of Honolulu; he also owned and operated two gas stations in the city. In 1940 he married Nadine Alexander; the couple did not have any children. While serving as sheriff, a post he held until it was abolished in 1960, Kahanamoku continued to make film appearances and attended numerous international surfing events as the sport's elder statesman. In his retirement Kahanamoku was appointed Hawaii's official greeter, a ceremonial post that recognized his contribution to promoting the state's culture and traditions. In 1965 Kahanamoku was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame; the following year, he was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame.
Although Kahanamoku still cut an impressive figure as he reached his seventies, a heart attack in 1955 and cerebral blood clot in 1962 limited his physical activities. One of his last major appearances was as guest of honor at the U.S. Surfing Championships in Huntington Beach, California in September 1965. In December 1965 he attended the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championships in Hawaii; when the event was telecast the following year on CBS, it attracted the largest audience ever to watch a surfing competition, estimated at up to fifty million viewers. He also made headlines for showing the Queen Mother how to dance the hula during her visit to Hawaii in May 1966.
The Duke's Legacy
Duke Kahanamoku suffered a fatal heart attack at the Waikiki Yacht Club and died on January 22, 1968. His death marked the passing of a world-class athlete in swimming and surfing who also served as a vital link to Hawaii's past.
In 1984 Kahanamoku was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame. In 1990 his widow led efforts to have a statue of Kahanamoku dedicated on Waikiki Beach. The figure showed a nine-foot Kahanamoku with a surfboard facing away from the ocean with his arms outstretched in a welcoming embrace. Nadine Alexander Kahanamoku also supported efforts to set up the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, a public trust devoted to funding youth athletic activities and traditional Hawaiian sports. These activities continue to promote the ideals expressed in Kahanamoku's life while preserving his culture's heritage for future generations.
The Beloved Duke of Waikiki
The newspapers called him "the Bronze Duke of Waikiki," and his biography was subtitled Hawaii's Golden Man. Twenty-two years after his death, Duke Kahanamoku remains Hawaii's greatest athlete. The state has just concluded a month long celebration of its native son that culminated in the unveiling of a statue on Waikiki Beach….
Kahanamoku "has been to [surfing and swimming] exactly what Babe Ruth was to baseball, Joe Louis to boxing, Bill Tilden to tennis, Red Grange to football, and Bobby Jones to golf," wrote Red McQueen in The Honolulu Advertiser shortly before Kahanamoku's death at the age of 77. "He has been Mister Surfer and Mister Swimming rolled into one incredible giant of a man."
Source: Gullo, Jim. Sports Illustrated, September 17, 1990.
Kahanamoku is still regarded a generation after his death as Hawaii's best-ever athletic champion. His five Olympic medals also rank Kahanamoku as one of the greatest athletes in the history of the modern Summer Olympic Games. If not for his efforts to promote surfing, it could well have become a cultural relic of Hawaii's past. Instead, Kahanamoku popularized the sport around the world and in doing so, helped to preserve a part of his culture's history.
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"The Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation." Planet Hawaii. http://planet-hawaii.com/duke/ (August 28, 2001).
Sketch by Timothy Borden
Considered the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968) developed the skills that would gain him international fame as an Olympic champion, swimmer, and surfer.
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born into an old Hawaiian family and was one of the last full-blooded Hawaiians. His grandfather was a Hawaiian high chief. As the eldest of six sons, he was named Duke after his father, who had been born during a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh and had been named in his honor. Kahanamoku was raised in the Royal Palace, although his father was a policeman.
Kahanamoku's father and uncle taught him how to swim when he was a small boy in the traditional Hawaiian way—by throwing him over the side of an outrigger canoe into the surf. He learned quickly and was fearless in the water. Growing up, Kahanamoku spent all his free time on the beach. As noted in Great Athletes, "he could swim as easily as walk." In his teens, he dropped out of high school to swim, surf, canoe, shape surfboards, and live on the beach. He and his friends were among the first to be called "beach boys." A tall, trim man, Kahanamoku was a leader among his peers. He never drank or smoked, rarely fought, and trained consistently. Particularly interested in surfing, he had the biggest board of anyone. His 16-foot board weighed 114 pounds and was patterned after ancient Hawaiian designs. Around 1910, he persuaded others to try using longer surfboards; theirs were around eight or nine feet, while his was now a much shorter ten feet. To propel his long board smoothly through the surf required power. A scissor kick followed with a flutter kick gave him that power. His "Kahanamoku kick" would later be adopted by freestyle swimmers after he began shattering world swimming records.
The "Human Fish"
Kahanamoku developed a swimming style along with his famous kick that made him nearly unbeatable in the water, especially at long distances. He swam with his head out of the water and achieved maximum push with each stroke. His brother boasted to Malcolm Gault-Williams, writing for Legendary Surfers, that "when he swam, his Kahanamoku kick was so powerful that his body actually rose up out of the water, like a speed boat with its prow up." His large hands and feet probably helped him too. It was also noted in Legendary Surfers that Kahanamoku "had fins for feet."
In 1911, William T. Rawlins, who would later become Kahanamoku's first coach, timed him in a 100-yard sprint at the beach off Diamond Head. Impressed, Rawlins encouraged him to enter the first sanctioned Hawaiian Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swimming and diving championship. In his first race, on a course across Honolulu Harbor, he shaved 4.6 seconds off the 100-yard freestyle world record.
Despite the race being officiated by five certified judges and the course being measured four times, including once by a professional surveyor, AAU officials questioned the unbelievable result and would not recognize it. They even asked if an alarm clock had been used as the stopwatch. Later they would retract that position.
Local fans knew that if Kahanamoku went to the mainland and swam competitively, he would prove the judges wrong. His friends raised the money for him to go to the United States and compete in the Olympic trials. He beat records in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard freestyle and won a spot on the 1912 U.S. Olympic team. New fans called him "The Human Fish" and "The Swimming Duke," labels that were especially appropriate since, according to the New York Times, he would "at one time [hold] every freestyle record up to a half-mile."
Kahanamoku was 21-years-old when he participated in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. He won his first gold medal and set a world record twice in the 100-meter freestyle race. He also brought home a silver medal as a participant in the 200-meter relay. The accomplishments of Kahanamoku and outstanding all-around athlete Jim Thorpe caught the attention of King Gustaf, who presented them their medals and Olympic wreaths on the Royal Victory Stand.
There was no Olympiad in 1916 because of World War I. During this time, Kahanamoku trained American Red Cross volunteers in water lifesaving techniques and toured the nation with other American aquatic champions to raise funds for the Red Cross.
At the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, Kahanamoku equaled his own world record in the semifinals, then set a new record in the final of the 100-meter freestyle on his 30th birthday. He had to swim twice to win the gold medal, because the Australian swimmer claimed he had been fouled. The outcome of the second race was the same, a victory for Kahanamoku.
As the 34-year-old defending champion, Kahanamoku came in second in the 100-meter freestyle after Johnny Weissmuller (the first Hollywood Tarzan) at the 1924 Paris Olympiad. According to Legendary Surfers, he would joke in later life that "it took Tarzan to beat me." Though he was on the 1928 Olympic team, he did not win a medal. He participated in the Olympics for the last time in 1932 in Los Angeles. He won a bronze medal as an alternate on the water polo team. As reported in the New York Times, Kahanamoku commented, "I was 42 then. You begin to slow down a little when you get around 40. That's why I switched to water polo." Kahanamoku continued to swim and enjoy water sports. He never formally trained anyone, but he often gave advice to young swimmers on how to improve their style.
Father of Surfing
Following the Olympics, Kahanamoku cast about for something to do. He read water meters, worked in a drafting office, and did surveying. None of these occupations measured up to his stature as an Olympic gold medalist. He began accepting invitations to exhibitions and swimming meets throughout the United States and Europe, and eventually New Zealand and Australia. Wherever he went, he would demonstrate surfing as well as swimming. Thereby, he became an unofficial ambassador for Hawaii and for surfing. According to Kings of the Surf, Kahanamoku was "the first to exhibit tandem surfing and the first to demonstrate wake surfing." His long board surfing was recorded on newsreels.
In 1915, Kahanamoku introduced board surfing to Australia. He had brought no board with him from Hawaii, so he constructed one there from sugar pine. The concave design of this board gave it greater stability in the rough surf. On January 15, he rode the board for three hours at Freshwater beach, while demonstrating various tricks. Before the demonstration, the lifeguards had tried to convince him not to surf in the shark-infested waters. Afterward they asked him if he had seen any sharks. As related in Legendary Surfers, Duke said, "Yeah, I saw plenty." When asked if the sharks had bothered him, his response was "No, and I didn't bother them." He showed the Australians how to build boards before he left.
Some of the surf rides Kahanamoku took are legendary. Perhaps his most famous occurred in 1917, on a monster wave generated by the aftermath of an earthquake in Japan. The sight of the wave caused many people to run for shelter. Kahanamoku propelled his surfboard to catch the wave, despite its apparent danger. According to Legendary Surfers, he later related: "Sliding left along the watery monster's face, I didn't know I was at the beginning of a ride that would become a celebrated and memoried thing. All I knew was that I had come to grips with the tallest, bulkiest, fastest wave I had ever seen." Though legend has lengthened the ride to many more miles, he rode the wave for more than a mile as it cut across several beaches.
In 1925, Kahanamoku demonstrated another use for the surfboard—as a lifesaving device. He and a party of actors and actresses were camped on a beach when a yacht capsized off Newport Beach, California. Grabbing his surfboard, Kahanamoku took off into the wild surf. Of the 12 passengers rescued from the yacht, he was able to rescue eight. Kahanamoku was instrumental in the development and manufacture of the giant hollow surfboards of the 1920s and 1930s and their adaptation to lifesaving work. His book, World of Surfing, written with Joe Brennan, was published in 1968.
Hollywood took notice of Kahanamoku when he gave surfing demonstrations in southern California after the 1912 Olympics. Soon afterward, he began a career as a Hollywood extra and supporting actor. 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). He played opposite John Wayne and many other stars.
Of his movie roles, Kahanamoku once said: "I played chiefs—Polynesian chiefs, Aztec chiefs, Indian chiefs, all kinds of chiefs." He also was cast as a Hindu thief and an Arab prince. Rodney D. Keller noted in Great Athletes that Kahanamoku "was physically well qualified for these chief roles because he was 6 feet 3 inches tall and had a majestic bearing and posture."
Ambassador of Hawaii
For a short time, after his early years in Hollywood, Kahanamoku operated two Union Oil Company gas stations. In 1932, he ran unopposed for sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu as a Democrat. Several years later, he switched to the Republican Party, but his political popularity remained undiminished. As sheriff, he acted as an unofficial greeter for the island.
When he left his sheriff's post in 1961, Kahanamoku was paid to greet film stars, politicians, and royalty. As noted on the "Planet-Hawaii" website, the Duke Kahanamoku Foundation was founded in 1963 "to assist young people in [Duke's] areas of interest—water sports, police work, and international relations." In his last years, he also was involved in water sports endorsements, contests, and a restaurant.
In the 19th century, King Kamehameha prophesized that Hawaii would one day be overrun by white men. Before that happened, one Hawaiian man would bring fame to the islands. To many in his generation, Kahanamoku was that man. He died of a heart attack in Honolulu on January 22, 1968. His ashes were placed in the sea, from which he believed he had come.
The Big Book of Halls of Fame in the United States and Canada, edited by Paul Soderberg and Helen Washington, Bowker, 1977.
Great Athletes, Salem Press, 1992.
Olney, Ross R. and Richard W. Graham, Kings of the Surf, G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1969.
Truitt, Evelyn Mack, Who Was Who on Screen, Bowker, 1983.
Wallechinsky, David, The Complete Book of the Olympics, Penguin, 1984.
New York Times, January 23, 1968.
"Duke Kahanamoku, Father of Surfing," Watermen, Surf Culture website, http://www.surfart.com/duke-kahanamoku/Duke.html (October 27, 1999).
"Legendary Surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku," Legendary Surfers, Volume 1, Chapter 5,http://www.best.com/malcolm/surf/legends/duke.shtml(October 27, 1999).
"Memories of Duke," Planet Hawaii … websitehttp://planethawaii.com/duke/memories.htm (October 17, 1999).
"The Outrigger Duke Kahanmoku Foundation," Planet Hawaii … websitehttp://planet-hawaii.com/duke/ (October 17, 1999). □
(b. 24 August 1890 in Honolulu, Hawaii; d. 22 January 1968 in Honolulu, Hawaii), five-time Olympic medalist in swimming who also popularized the sport of surfing on his way to his becoming one of Hawaii's greatest athletes.
A descendent of Hawaii's royal family, Kahanamoku was born Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, Jr., one of six sons and three daughters of Duke Kahanamoku and Julia Paakonia Lonokahikini. The elder Kahanamoku worked as a police captain in Honolulu, where the family made its home near Waikiki Beach, later the site of many resort hotels. In 1893 business interests led by pineapple grower Sanford Dole overthrew the royal government. With the support of U.S. troops, Dole established a republic on the island in 1894 as an American protectorate, and in 1900 all native Hawaiians were granted U.S. citizenship.
Leaving school after the eleventh grade (around 1907), the six-foot, 190-pound Kahanamoku gained recognition for his natural abilities as an athlete as he grew into adulthood. An avid canoeist, surfer, and swimmer, Kahanamoku first made his mark as a freestyle swimmer. Aided by his size thirteen feet—which he used for a flutter kick in his freestyle adaptation of the Australian crawl—Kahanamoku astounded swimming officials of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) at the first tournament held in Hawaii in August 1911. Kahanamoku's 55.4-second performance in the 100-yard freestyle event broke the existing world record by 4.6 seconds, but AAU officials measured the course several times before declaring Kahanamoku the winner.
Despite his victory, Kahanamoku still faced skepticism in the AAU over the validity of his performance. Determined to prove his critics wrong, Kahanamoku entered the trials for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. In a series of competitions held in Philadelphia and New Jersey, he qualified in the 100-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle relay events, setting a new world record for his leg in the latter attempt. Kahanamoku set another record in a preliminary heat for the 100-meter finals in Stockholm, Sweden. He almost missed out on the finals, however; U.S. team officials had to scramble to find him just before the event because he had fallen asleep under a bridge. Quickly putting on his suit and diving into the water, Kahanamoku took the gold medal in the event with a time of 1:03.4. The new champion also left the games with a silver medal for his part on the relay team, which placed second to the Australians.
Along with Jim Thorpe, Kahanamoku emerged as one of the best-known athletes from the 1912 Olympics and embarked on a series of swimming exhibitions and AAU competitions around the United States over the next several years. Kahanamoku also gave numerous demonstrations of his surfing skills to oceanside audiences from Coney Island, New York, to Long Beach, California. It was his December 1914 appearance in Australia, however, that eventually gave rise to Kahanamoku's reputation as "the father of modern surfing."
Like other Polynesian groups, indigenous Hawaiians suffered many cultural changes since the arrival of European explorers in the eighteenth century. However, the traditional sport of surfing remained a popular pastime during Kahanamoku's youth. With boards of varying lengths and widths made out of native woods, many Hawaiians continued to fashion their own surfboards, which were prized personal possessions among the islands' surfers. Along with the handcrafted boards, traditional chants and folklore wove the sport into Hawaiian culture as a vital link with the past. Intrigued by the sport, some Australians had tried to make their own surfboards, but it was not until Kahanamoku's surfing exhibition during a visit for a swimming competition in Sydney that the sport had its true introduction. Constructing an eight-foot, six-inch-long board out of sugar pine, Kahanamoku took to Freshwater Beach in February 1915 and surfed the waves for a two-and-a-half hour exhibition. The demonstration kick-started a surfing craze in Australia that made it one of the country's most popular sports, and Kahanamoku was elevated to legendary status.
With the 1916 Olympics canceled by World War I, Kahanamoku had to wait until the 1920 Antwerp games in Belgium to defend his gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. Although he was now thirty years old, Kahanamoku reached his peak performance in the games, with a world-record 1:01.4 gold-medal final in the 100-meter freestyle and the anchor leg in the U.S. team's record-setting 800-meter freestyle relay. Kahanamoku's final Olympic appearance, at the 1924 Paris games, added another silver medal to his collection in the 100-meter freestyle; this time, he was beaten by Johnny Weismuller of the U.S. team. Kahanamoku won five Olympic medals during his amateur career and served as an alternate on the U.S. water polo team for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Kahanamoku also gained attention for his exploits outside of sports. In 1925 he dove three times into a pounding surf off Corona del Mar, California, to save the lives of eight passengers from a capsized boat; the tragedy took the lives of seventeen other passengers. Kahanamoku appeared in several movies from the 1920s onward, playing supporting roles that ranged from pirates to princes; his best-known movie is the John Wayne adventure picture Wake of the Red Witch (1948), in which he played Ua Nuke, a Polynesian chief. In 1955 he had a bit part in the film version of Mister Roberts, again playing a chief. Kahanamoku also made a living by operating two gas stations in Hawaii, an income that he supplemented by his post as Honolulu's sheriff. First elected in 1936, Kahanamoku held the position for twenty-six years.
Kahanamoku was recognized as the personification of Hawaii's warm and genial spirit, as well as a superior athletic competitor, and remained a celebrity long after his Olympic days. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965. After a series of illnesses that included a heart attack in 1955 and a cerebral blood clot in 1962, Kahanamoku died of a heart attack. His wife, Nadine Kahanamoku, whom he married on 2 August 1940, survived her husband by almost thirty years. Under her guidance, the surfing legend was commemorated with a landmark statue on Waikiki Beach. Dedicated in July 1990, the nine-foot statue shows Kahanamoku with a twelve-foot surf board and outstretched arms.
Biographies of Kahanamoku include Sandra K. Hall and Greg Ambrose, Memories of Duke: The Legend Comes to Life (1995), and Joe Brennan, Duke Kahanamoku: Hawaii's Golden Man (1974). Kahanamoku's life and career are also recounted in detail in Leonard Lueras, Surfing: The Ultimate (1984), and Drew Kampion, Stoked: A History of Surf Culture (1997). A tribute to Kahanamoku is in Sports Illustrated (17 Sept. 1990). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Jan. 1968).