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Jim Gullo
September 17, 1990
Duke Kahanamoku starred in two Olympics and made surfing popular worldwide
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September 17, 1990

The Beloved Duke Of Waikiki

Duke Kahanamoku starred in two Olympics and made surfing popular worldwide

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At the Games in Stockholm, Kahanamoku tied the world record in a qualifying heat for the 100-meter freestyle, but when it was time for the final he was nowhere to be found.

The story is a favorite of Sargent Kahanamoku, Duke's 80-year-old brother, who still lives near Honolulu. Cheerful and spry, Sargent wears a new KAHANAMOKU BROTHERS T-shirt with a late-'20s photo of the six brothers standing in front of their surfboards on Waikiki Beach.

"Brother Duke slept 99 percent of his time," Sargent says, joking. "He could sleep while he was sitting there talking to you. And I always thought that was what made him a great swimmer. He was clear in the head. So at the Olympic finals, they found him asleep under a bridge, snoring. He got up, said sorry, got in the water to loosen up, and then won the race. His mind was clear."

The laurel wreath that King Gustav of Sweden placed on Duke's head at the conclusion of those Games can be seen in the Duke Kahanamoku Memorial Room of the Parker Ranch museum on the island of Hawaii. Kahanamoku's surfboards and photos are scattered throughout the Hawaiian Islands in places like Duke's Canoe Club restaurant on Kauai and in the Hawaii Maritime Center in Honolulu, but the Parker Ranch museum has the most extensive collection of his Olympic medals, trophies and personal items, including a money clip from his pal Jack Dempsey.

The Stockholm Games made Kahanamoku an international celebrity, and for the next eight years he traveled widely, defending his titles at AAU meets (the 1916 Games were canceled because of World War I) and demonstrating the powerful "Kahanamoku kick," a flutter kick that he used with the overhead arm movement of the Australian crawl. A typical Kahanamoku schedule was reported in a 1916 article in The New York Times: In the space of a month, he was to compete in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, St. Louis, Chicago again, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit. During that tour, a victory in a 100-meter exhibition was chalked up to "strains of Hawaiian music, furnished by a native orchestra, [which] fired the Duke with enthusiasm just before he answered the starter's call, and probably had something to do with his victory."

It was during those years that Kahanamoku began to teach the world how to surf, often bringing with him on his trips the massive longboards that were made of Hawaiian koa wood. The boards were up to 16 feet long and weighed more than 100 pounds.

Today's surfing Australians look upon Kahanamoku's 1915 visit as the appearance of a prophet. Aussies had been intrigued by reports of surf riding before then, but had never been able to master the construction of an adequate board. When Kahanamoku arrived for swimming demonstrations in February of that year, he quickly fashioned a board of sugar pine and gave exhibitions on the waves off the foreshores of Sydney's harbor. That board is still the prized possession of a Sydney surf club.

In 1916, during a Red Cross fund-raising tour of the East Coast, Kahanamoku gave surfing exhibitions at Atlantic City and Coney Island. He was well known in New York City, having been feted along with the rest of the U.S. Olympians on his way home from Stockholm in 1912. In honor of his 1916 appearance, the city fathers named a Brighton Beach thoroughfare after him. The street itself is long gone, but people in the neighborhood recall that it ended at the ocean, at a spot that is said to have the best surf in the area.

Duke was 30 years old and at his prime when he led a team that included 11 Hawaiian swimmers to the 1920 Antwerp Games. In the semifinals he equaled his own world record for the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 1:01.04 and then set a new record of 1:00.4 in the final. He also anchored a world-record-setting 800-meter relay team.

How does a young, handsome swimming star capitalize on his fame? He goes to Hollywood, and in the '20s, Kahanamoku split his time between Honolulu and Los Angeles, where he began a movie career that lasted 28 years and included dozens of films. Publicity photos show him in a variety of bare-chested roles, including a ridiculous pirate get-up in the 1926 silent film Old Ironsides, starring Wallace Beery. He also appeared with John Wayne in the 1948 adventure Wake of the Red Witch, in which Kahanamoku played a Polynesian chief.

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