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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 monthlong celebration of its native son that culminated in the unveiling of a statue on Waikiki Beach on Aug. 24, which would have been Duke's 100th birthday.
Kahanamoku's emergence as a world swimming champion and renowned surfer in the first half of this century coincided with Hawaii's maturation, first as an American Territory in 1900 and then as a state in 1959. From the first time he traveled to the mainland, in 1912, until his death in 1968, the handsome, soft-spoken man was the symbol of Polynesian vitality.
Kahanamoku dominated international sprint swimming for nearly a dozen years, beginning with the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, where he and his U.S. teammate, pentathlon and decathlon champion Jim Thorpe, became overnight sensations. Kahanamoku was also the father of modern surfing, introducing what had once been the private sport of Hawaiian kings to such locales as Coney Island, Atlantic City, Southern California and Sydney, Australia.
Kahanamoku "has been to both sports 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."
A full-blooded Hawaiian who could trace his lineage to the early-19th-century King Kamehameha, Duke was born on Aug. 24, 1890, to Julia Paakonia Lonokahikini and Duke Kahanamoku Sr. The given names of father and son came from the Duke of Edinburgh, whose 1869 visit to the islands coincided with the birth of Kahanamoku Sr. He passed it along to his first-born son, whose full name was Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku.
Young Duke grew up with his five brothers and three sisters near the Pacific Ocean in a section of Waikiki now occupied by the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort, and local lore has it that his house sat precisely on the spot where the resort's nightclub now features another famous native son, Don Ho. The ocean was an early and powerful draw for the Kahanamoku brothers, and the teenage Duke left school after the 11th grade to pursue a life in the water.
"Duke was the last of what I call the old Hawaiians," says Grady Timmons, a Honolulu author who wrote about the Kahanamoku brothers in a history of Waikiki's heyday called Waikiki Beach-boy. "They were fabulous watermen who made their own canoes and surfboards and were great fishermen and swimmers. Duke wasn't a professional beachboy, but he was a beachboy in the truest sense of the word, as a guy who lived for the ocean and the ocean life-style."
In August 1911, at the first AAU meet ever held in Hawaii, Duke swam 100 yards of ocean water in 55.4 seconds, breaking Charles M. Daniels's freestyle world record by an astounding 4.6 seconds. He also tied Daniels's world mark of 24.2 in the 50-yard freestyle. AAU officials on the mainland were stunned and refused to believe that the times were accurate, first asking if the Hawaiian timekeepers had been using alarm clocks for stopwatches and then claiming that the currents had aided the swimmer. This was shortly before the Olympic trials were scheduled to be held in Philadelphia. Eager to prove that Kahanamoku's performance was no fluke, local officials raised money to send the young swimmer to the mainland. At a meet in Chicago, where he swam for the first time in a pool, Duke dominated his events, the 50- and the 100-yard freestyle.
The New York Times heralded his arrival in this way: "Duke Kahanamoku of Honolulu is described as a wonder at 100 yards." The article went on to give a vivid description of the 21-year-old Hawaiian: "[Jamison Handy of Chicago] describes Kahanamoku as a giant, ebony-skinned native about 20 years old, standing over six feet in stockings, weighing about 190 pounds, and a magnificent specimen of manhood, straight, well-muscled and perfectly formed. He...goes through the water with shoulders high above the surface, moving at fast speed."
The young Hawaiian won the 100-meter freestyle at the trials in Philadelphia, and a few weeks later was the top qualifier for the 4 X 200-meter relay team.