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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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It was during this period that Duke began his unofficial career as Hawaii's greeter. He was there to welcome nearly every well-known person who visited the islands. "When celebrities and royalty came to town, it was automatic that they'd go to Waikiki and Duke would take them on an outrigger canoe ride," said Timmons.

Through the years, in photos, we see Kahanamoku in a boat with Babe Ruth: on the beach with a young Shirley Temple; holding a clean-shaven Groucho Marx on his shoulders; comparing canoe paddles with Joe DiMaggio; chatting with President John F. Kennedy; and giving an impromptu hula lesson to Queen Mother Elizabeth of Great Britain.

Kahanamoku trained for the 1924 Paris Games at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and it was in the trials for those games that he was first beaten in the 100 meters by a 19-year-old upstart from Illinois named Johnny Weissmuller. Weissmuller broke an Olympic record to beat Kahanamoku again in the final of the 100 meters in Paris, leaving Duke with a silver medal. Brother Sam Kahanamoku came in third—and reportedly slowed down out of respect for his older brother. Years later, Duke would joke, "It look Tarzan to finally beat me."

Kahanamoku's finest moment came not in an official arena, but on a Southern California beach in 1925. During one of his Hollywood stints he and some pals decided to go surfing at Corona del Mar, about 50 miles south of L.A. As they waited out some nasty weather that sent huge waves crashing down on the beach, Kahanamoku and his friends spotted a boat in trouble just beyond the surf line. While they watched, the Thelma lost power, and within minutes she was drifting helplessly into the crashing breakers. A few moments later, the boat capsized, throwing all 29 passengers overboard.

Kahanamoku quickly grabbed his surfboard and began to paddle into the stormy ocean. The waves were pounding so furiously that when a breaker came in, he had to scramble beneath the board and hold on with all fours as the waves broke over him. Fighting his way out, he came upon the havoc of the sinking boat and began grabbing its occupants and shoving them onto the board, begging them to hold on. On the first trip he put three on the board and paddled back through the waves to shallow water. While his friends pulled them to shore, Kahanamoku turned around and paddled out again, this time putting two more on the board and kicking through the waves to safety. He returned a third time and rescued three more before he was exhausted and gave way to others who joined the rescue effort. In all, he personally saved the lives of eight people in a disaster that claimed the lives of 17.

Later, the Newport Beach, Calif., chief of police was quoted in the newspapers as saying, "Kahanamoku's performance was the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding that has ever been seen in the world."

Kahanamoku returned to Hawaii in 1927 to officially open the Waikiki Natatorium, and it was then that his brother Sargent first saw his famous sibling in action. "The place was just packed," recalls Sargent. "When Duke jumped into the water in the middle lane, the waves he made spread out and splashed over the sides of the natatorium. I could have taken a surfboard and ridden in his wake."

Illness kept Duke from qualifying for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, in which Weissmuller won two more gold medals. In 1932, at the age of 42, Kahanamoku surprised everyone by trying out one last time for the swimming team for the Los Angeles Games. Despite swimming 100 meters in 59.8 seconds, which was faster than his times from 21 years earlier, he didn't make the team. Instead, he earned a spot as an alternate (although he did not play) on the bronze-winning water polo team. In all, Kahanamoku won three gold and two silver Olympic medals in swimming.

Kahanamoku returned to Hawaii and settled down, first operating a pair of gas stations (a derisive song at the time was titled Duke Kahanamoku, Former Olympic Champion, Now Pumping Gas) and then starting a 26-year career as Honolulu's sheriff. In his later years, he lent his name to everything from a line of Hawaiian shirts to the nationally televised Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championships. He continued to compete locally well into his 50s, over one span guiding Hawaii's Outrigger Canoe Club to seven straight championships.

Last month, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kahanamoku's birth, a nine-foot bronze statue was dedicated on Waikiki Beach. It depicts Duke standing with his back to the ocean, a 12-foot surfboard at his side, and his arms outstretched to welcome visitors. The "Bronze Duke of Waikiki" is again by the waves he loved so well.

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