Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Duke Kahanamoku

May 20, 2022 / Mb Staffing

Duke Kahanamoku born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 24, 1890, is renowned for his international fame as an Olympic champion, swimmer, and surfer.

Duke Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu, Hawaii with his five brothers, raised by his father and uncle. He was named after his father, who had been born during a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh and had been named in his honor. Although his father was a policeman, Kahanamoku was raised in the Royal Palace.

He was taught to swim by his father and uncle, throwing him over the side of an outrigger canoe into the surf as his first swimming instructions. It was a practical way of learning to swim in Hawaii. He was a natural swimmer—learned to swim fearlessly the minute he was thrown in the water—and spent all his spare time training at the beach. In his early life, he dropped out of school to focus on his talent for swimming and surfing from an early age.

Kahanamoku stood at six feet and weight one-hundred-ninety pounds, which is the weight catch he needed to go professional. At Waikiki Beach, he developed a move which he used his foot as a propeller in the water in a flutter kick; this would become known as the “Kahanamoku Kick,” a version of the Australian crawl that he used in freestyle swimming events.

Kahanamoku gained notoriety for his display of freestyle swimming and surfing techniques in his local town. A few years later, his local fans raised the money for him to go to the United States and participate in the Olympic trials. He surpassed outstanding records in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard freestyle and was invited on the 1912 U.S. Olympic team. He was called “The Human Fish” and “The Swimming Duke,” which matched his reputation since, according to the New York Times, he would “at one time, hold every freestyle record up to a half-mile.”

Duke was a spotlight champion when he entered the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. At 21-years old, he won his first gold medal and set a world record twice in the 100-meter freestyle challenge. Kahanamoku was on the leader board and equaled his own world record in the semi-finals for the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

In between his professional career as an Olympian and picking up acting gigs, he found small roles in Hollywood featuring in more than 30 motion pictures, continued to win four gold medals, and break his own world record.

Duke Kahanamoku passed away on January 22, 1968. Today, he is recognized as not only an extraordinary Olympian, but a hero who rescued eight men from a capsized ship, an Official Ambassador of Aloha, and an inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. A replica of Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboard is installed at New Brighton Beach, Christchurch, New Zealand to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his visit.