Surfing History – Duke Kahanamoku

In 1912, Duke Kahanamoku wrote history for the Hawaiian flag. He won the 100-meter freestyle gold medal, and the 4x200 relay silver medal at the Stockholm Olympic Games. The sports world had a new hero. And he was an accomplished ukulele player.

Surfing history Duke

Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku

One of the most important people in surfing history was born on August 24, 1890, in Honolulu, Hawaii, just a few months prior to King David Kalakaua’s death, when political tension was taking over the country’s capital.

Kahanamoku, nicknamed “The Duke” and “The Big Kahuna,” is considered to be the father of modern surfing. The Hawaiian won five Olympic medals as a swimmer, but he also showed off in the movie industry, politics, and business life.

Duke had five brothers and three sisters. His father was a policeman, and his mother was a religious woman. In his first years, Duke impressed with his swimming skills and rapidly started winning competitions to become the ultimate Hawaiian waterman.

By the end of the 19th century, foreign missionaries had almost “erased” surfing – or the act of riding waves – from the Hawaiian Islands. Only a handful of locals would hit the Waikiki rollers for a few rides.

However, Duke was in constant contact with the water. He was swimming, surfing, diving and exploring the multiple underwater spots of the island. The young Kahanamoku finished elementary school, entered the Kamehameha Industrial School, but never graduated because his family needed money.

Duke had to work to help pay the bills. He sold newspapers, transported ice and shone shoes. At 21, his swimming performances paid off. He beat the 100 yards freestyle world record by 4.6 seconds, but judges considered that race floats drifted, and the measurement was incorrect.

First medals

In 1912, Duke Kahanamoku wrote history for the Hawaiian flag. He won the 100-meter freestyle gold medal, and the 4×200 relay silver medal at the Stockholm Olympic Games. The sports world had a new hero. And he was an accomplished ukulele player.

Duke started touring the world to teach his famous “Kahanamoku Kick” swimming technique. But he would change one country in particular. Forever. On December 23, 1914, the dark-skinned athlete was the star of the first-ever surfing exhibition in Freshwater Beach, Sydney, Australia.

Today, Kahanamoku’s original pine surfboard is carefully kept at the Freshwater Surf Club. Duke and Australian surfers sealed an eternal alliance.

The star of the swimming world kept collecting Olympic medals (Antwerp, 1920, and Paris, 1924), and surfing was starting to become a global sport. During his 30s and 40s, the Hawaiian waterman appeared in Hollywood movies, worked as a mechanic and lifeguard, and shared his swimming knowledge.

In 1925, Duke saved the lives of eight men, when 40-foot yacht “Thelma” was hit by a giant swell, at Corona del Mar. The waterman made three trips to and from the beach to rescue a group of fishermen.

Hall of fame

Duke Kahanamoku was the first person to be inducted into both the Surfing Hall of Fame and the Swimming Hall of Fame. He met and worked with Tom Blake, married Nadine Alexander, and served as sheriff of Honolulu (1932-1961).

In 1959, when Hawaii becomes the 50th US State, Kahanamoku is officially named State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha. In the following years, he survived a brain surgery, and even danced the hula with England’s Queen Mother, Elizabeth.

He lived 77 years and passed away on January 22, 1968. Duke embodies the spirit of Aloha. His ashes were thrown into the Waikiki surf. Bronze statue was erected in his memory at Kuhio Beach, in Honolulu and forever engraved in surfing history.

The Duke Kahanamoku statue welcomes everyone with open arms and it is one of the most popular attractions in Hawaii. But there’s more. The Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon is a small man-made pool built in the 1950s, and it is often considered one of the best beaches in the Unites States.

“The Big Kahuna” lived through monarchy, provisional republic, republic, territory, martial law, and statehood. He gave his life to surfing and touched the hearts and souls of millions of people around the world. What a splendid way to enjoy life and live it to the fullest.


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