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Kahanamoku, Duke Paoafree

(24 August 1890–22 January 1968)
  • Alan M. Yonan

Duke Kahanamoku.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115293).

Kahanamoku, Duke Paoa (24 August 1890–22 January 1968), Olympic swimming champion and world-recognized surfer, was born and raised in the old Kalia District of Honolulu near the present location of the Hawaiian Village Hotel, the son of Halapu Kahanamoku, a police officer, and Paakonia Lonokahikini Paoa, or Julia. He was named after his father, who had been christened “Duke” by Princess Bernice Pauahi in 1869 for Queen Victoria’s second son, the duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting the islands. Kahanamoku and his friends grew up as beach boys in Waikiki. They would gather under a big hau tree near the Moana Hotel, and there, in 1911, they formed Hui Nalu (Surf Club), which is still active today. At the beach Kahanamoku developed the skills that would lead him to prominence as both a swimmer and a surfer.

While swimming was a competitive sport at that time, surfing was not. Those who surfed did so just for the pleasure and thrill of riding the waves. Even in Hawaii, recognized as the birthplace of modern surfing, the sport did not enjoy a large following because existing surfboards were very heavy and unmaneuverable. Through Kahanamoku, however, surfing gained widespread popularity, and although he never intended to be known as a missionary of surfing, that is what he became. He wanted to be able to surf even when he was away from Hawaii, so he made a surfboard of redwood, which was much smaller and lighter than those currently in use, and took it with him wherever he traveled to participate in swimming events. During a trip to Australia in 1915 he introduced the sport there. As his travels continued, word of his skill spread. England’s prince of Wales heard of the young athlete’s surfing ability, and during a visit to Hawaii in 1920 he asked to meet with “the much-heralded Duke Paoa Kahanamoku … to witness some of his fabulous surfing” (Brennan, Father of Surfing, p. 14). A close friendship developed between the two men, and before the prince left the islands, he knew how to surf.

Kahanamoku rode his board on both coasts of the mainland United States, and during a visit to Corona Del Mar, California, in 1925 he won national acclaim for himself and his surfing skill. A fishing boat capsized in a raging surf, and Kahanamoku, using his surfboard as a rescue vehicle, paddled twelve people to safety in repeated trips between the wreckage and shore. J. A. Porter, chief of police of Newport Beach, called Kahanamoku’s feat “the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding ever seen in the World” (Luis, p. B3).

It was considered a fair exchange that Kahanamoku introduced surfing to Australia, because it was from studying the swimming style of Australians visiting Hawaii that he developed his famous flutter kick. This style, which was a flexible-knee version of the stiff-legged “Australian Crawl,” provided the extra speed needed to make him a champion. He called this modified Australian style the “Hawaiian Crawl,” and later, when Kahanamoku had gained world recognition, it became known as the “American Crawl.”

Kahanamoku’s competitive swimming career was launched in 1911 during the first swimming meet of the newly formed Honolulu Amateur Athletic Union. In the meet, which took place in Honolulu Harbor’s Alakea Slip, the 21-year-old Kahanamoku set a world record of 55.8 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle—although his time was not recognized by the AAU, possibly because the race was held on a temporary course rather than in the controlled setting of a regulation pool. He traveled to Chicago to try out for the U.S. Olympic team that would compete in the 1912 games in Sweden. He made the team on 14 March with an impressive 57-second record in the 100-yard freestyle event.

In July 1912 in Stockholm, Kahanamoku continued to excel, winning the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle with a world-record time of 63.4 seconds. His performance brought attention to his American Crawl, which was soon imitated by swimmers the world over. King Gustaf of Sweden was so impressed with Kahanamoku that he motioned the new record holder to the royal box, where he addressed him in English, saying, “My heartiest congratulations,” and presented him to the queen.

Eight years later, in 1920, Kahanamoku swam in his second Olympiad, in Antwerp, Belgium, and continued his mastery of the 100-meter freestyle. On 24 August he won the event in 61.4 seconds, another world-record time. The victory came under protest, however, so the race was rescheduled for six days later; he won again, in 60.4 seconds. Kahanamoku also swam on the four-man 800-meter relay team with Pua Kealoha, Perry McGillivray, and Norman Ross. They won the event in 10 minutes and 4.4 seconds, setting yet another world record.

Following his return home from the 1920 Olympics, Kahanamoku was approached with a $50,000 offer to turn professional. He did not accept, however, because he was planning to participate in the 1924 Paris games, and his acceptance of the offer would have conflicted with the Olympic policy regarding the amateur standing of athletes. Kahanamoku made the 1924 team but did not win a gold medal. Johnny Weissmuller, another member of the American team, edged Kahanamoku in Indianapolis during the trials and again at the games in Paris. After his victory in the 100-meter event, Weismuller demonstrated his respect for Kahanamoku when he commented, “I beat a better man than I’ll ever be.” Kahanamoku won the silver medal with a time of 61.4 seconds, just 2.4 seconds short of Weismuller’s new record.

Although he had been beaten by Weismuller, Kahanamoku was not ready to quit. In 1932 at the Olympiad in Los Angeles he participated once again. He failed to qualify for the swimming team, however, but competed as a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club Water Polo team; they did not win. Thus ended a nearly impossible-to-equal Olympic swimming career.

When he was not participating in Olympic games and furthering his skills in water sports, Kahanamoku found a place in Hollywood following a path in acting similar to that of Buster Crabbe, another noted swimmer from Hawaii. Although he never became a star, he earned recognition as an accomplished character actor playing a variety of roles, among them a Hindu thief, a Sioux Indian chief, and even a native-born Hawaiian. His films included Lord Jim (1925) and Wake of the Red Witch (1948), in which he shared the screen with another “Duke,” John Wayne.

In 1934 Kahanamoku came home to stay and entered the race for sheriff of Honolulu. The people of Honolulu elected him to this post for thirteen consecutive terms. While Kahanamoku was sheriff, the position took on a ceremonial focus, with his principal role becoming that of a promotional emissary for Hawaii. He left office in 1960 because the position of sheriff had been discontinued. In 1940 Kahanamoku married Nadine Alexander; the couple had no children.

Throughout his life as a four-time Olympic competitor, a surfer, an actor, and later the sheriff of Honolulu, Kahanamoku’s warm personality, his courage, and his sense of fair play made him one of Hawaii’s most beloved citizens. From the moment he left his native shores to become a swimming champion, he served as the islands’ unofficial ambassador of goodwill. After his tenure as sheriff, that role took on a new meaning when he was appointed Hawaii’s official “greeter,” a post he held until his death in Honolulu. In 1965 Kahanamoku was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, along with Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe, and in 1969 a bust of him was placed in the International Surfing Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach, California. A statue on Kuhio Beach, Waikiki, also commemorates this famed Hawaiian.


The best biographical sources are Joe Brennan, Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaii’s Golden Man (1974); Brennan, Duke of Hawaii (1968); Brennan, The Father of Surfing: The Duke of Hawaii (1968); Duke Kahanamoku, with Brennan, Duke Kahanamoku’s World of Surfing (1968); and Sandra Kimberley Hall and Greg Ambrose, Memories of Duke: The Legend Comes to Life (1975). Robert W. Wheeler, Jim Thorpe, World’s Greatest Athlete (1979), offers insight as to why Kahanamoku would not turn professional. Lord Killanin and John Rodda, eds., The Olympic Games (1976), pp. 210, 246, provides the record times achieved by Kahanamoku. Leevan Dasig, “The Bronze Duke of Waikiki” (unpublished paper, Univ. of Hawaii, 1992), and “Hawaii’s Duke,” Paradise of the Pacific, Sept. 1961, p. 12, provide overviews of his career. Charles Hogue, “A Day with Duke Kahanamoku,” Paradise of the Pacific, Dec. 1950, pp. 16–17; Don Mayo, “Royal Hawaiian Champ of Champs: The Great Duke Kahanamoku,” Paradise of the Pacific, June 1956, p. 27; “Mr. Ambassador,” Paradise of the Pacific, May 1960, pp. 10–11; and Ann L. Moore, “The Living Waters of Oha,” Ka Wai Ola O Oha, Aug. 1990, pp. 12–13, give magazine reviews of his life. Earl Albert Selle, The Story of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (1959), written under the auspices of the Golden Man Foundation, is a commemorative tribute. The Hawaiian Annual (1913) records his early feats. “Duke’s Own Story of Life,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, 22 Jan. 1968, is an obituary. Cindy Luis, “Duke: A Century of Aloha,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, 22 Aug. 1990, offers an adoring tribute.