The iconic Duke Kahanamoku statue stands at Waikiki beach as a memorial to the original "Big Kahuna", kahuna meaning important person in the Hawaiian language. Most people pass it by. Tourists will take a picture, and notice the tons of leis adorning his arms. But it is important to know the rich history and accomplishments Duke Kahanamoku achieved in his lifetime. This is a man that singlehandedly introduced the world to the sport of surfing while winning Olympic Gold Medals and serving in the U.S. Military. His larger-than-life presence helped America proclaim Hawaii as the 50th state, melding two cultures into one United States.
He is a man with a royal sounding name. But the name of Duke actually comes from his father, Duke Halapu Kahanamoku. A man who got the name after he was christened by Bernice Pauahi Bishop in honor of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Hawaii at the time. The royal title became a fitting name that was handed down to the man that would become the de facto Hawaiian ambassador for the world.
Greatness in the Water
Born in 1890, Duke grew up in Honolulu. More fittingly, he grew up on Hawaiian surf. He earned his trademark sun tan by swimming, boating and surfing at Waikiki Beach, now famous the world over. His training and living in the island waters made it easy for Kahanamoku to beat the 100-yard swimming freestyle record in Honolulu Bay on August 11, 1911 - a record he shattered by 4.6 seconds. Not only that, he also outswam the 200-meter record and tied the 50-yard record, all at the young age of 19 years old. This was a man that lived in the water. He was so good that the Amateur Athletic Union did not accept his times. The AAU thought that the judges clocks were off or that Duke benefited from bouyant Hawaiian surf, and they discredited Dukes early achievements. It was not until years later that the AAU and the rest of the world were forced to accept Dukes greatness in the water.
His upbringing came at a time when Hawaii was a territory of the United States, not a state itself. That did not stop him from identifying as an American and even though Hawaii was not a state, the Big Kahuna represented them at the Olympics. With his trademark sun tan, the Hawaiian native easily qualified for the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. At the ripe age of 20, he crushed the competition to win the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. But he wasn't done there. The youngster swam with the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay to help claim the silver medal.
He followed that performance in 1920, where he won the gold in both the 100 meters and the relay in Antwerp. In Paris during the 1924 Olympics, he took home the silver medal in the 100-meter race, placing right before his brother, who took home the bronze. Even at the age of 34, his swimming ability was so respected that he served as an alternate to the US water polo team at the 1932 Olympics - gracefully ending his career in international competitive swimming. But the end of his Olympic swimming career was just the beginning.
Sharing The Ancient Hawaiian Sport Of Surfing With The World
Surfing has been a part of Hawaiian culture for generations but the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated island chain in the world. This isolation has allowed the Hawaiian culture to grow rich in traditions without the influence of the outside world. But that isolation also kept the joys of surfing a secret from the world.
Duke, using his Olympic notoriety, launched a world tour swimming exhibition and took it upon himself to spread the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing around the world. Surfing became a part of the swimming exhibition, exposing the extreme sport to crowds of people who have never seen it before. It caught on like wildfire. These exhibitions took place all over the world such as the East Coast United States, Southern California, Australia, New Zealand and even England.
Imagine that. Imagine being introduced to a worldwide phenomenon for the first time; seeing it unveiled; the birth of a brand new sport. it electrified crowds and sent people in a scurry to figure out how to surf. Duke set the world abuzz.
What makes Dukes mastery of surfing even that much more impressive is his use of the ancient Hawaiian surfboard, carved from the Koa tree. This dense, Hawaiian wood made the 16-foot long traditional surfboard weigh 114 pounds, nearly as much as the Duke himself. The "olo" boards of ancient Hawaii also lacked a skeg, the small shark fin rudder that helps stabilize the board in the water. It takes a true master of the surfboard to tame this ancient beast and Duke did it with ease, adding to the spectacle that he brought to the rest of the world. It also made is world-famous water rescue that much more impressive.
The Surfing Savior
After his world tour was over, while living in Newport Beach, California, a fishing vessel began to capsize in white capped surf at the mouth of the city's harbor, sending twenty-nine fishermen into turbulent water. The Big Kahuna sprung into action. Using his surfboard, he made short-burst trips out to the imperiled fisherman, saving them one by one. The Duke saved eight fishermen while two other surfers nearby were able to save four, while 17 fishermen perished. His heroism did not go unnoticed, with the chief of police saying that what he witnessed was,
"The most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen."
This single act of heroism changed the way lifeguards perform rescues all of the world. The surfboard is now an integral part of saving lives at sea and it is something that you can notice at lifeguard stations the next time you visit the beach. But daring rescues were not the only thing that made Duke famous in Southern California. He was also an actor in the movies, performing in background roles as well as playing several characters. His notoriety in Hollywood further exposed the world to the ancient sport of surfing.