“Duke” was merely his name. Still, mention “Duke Kahanamoku” and images of royalty come to mind. And why not? Even today, more than 35 years after his death, the legendary surfer and swimmer is considered to be the greatest athlete in the history of the Hawaiian islands.
Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890 in Honolulu. He was named after his father, Halapu Kahanamoku, who was christened “Duke” by Princess Bernice Pauahi in 1869. Growing up on the outskirts of Waikiki (near the present site of the Hilton Hawaiian Village), Kahanamoku spent his youth as a bronzed beach boy. It was at Waikiki Beach where he developed his surfing and swimming skills.
One day in July 1911, a lawyer named William T. Rawlins went to Waikiki Beach and met Kahanamoku. The two men went to Honolulu Harbor, where Rawlins measured out 100 meters. With his new friend timing him, Kahanamoku jumped in the water and swam the length. He ended up breaking the world’s freestyle swim record—by 4.6 seconds!
The word quickly got out to Amateur Athletic Union officials in New York: “The world’s fastest swimmer is here in Waikiki. His name is Duke Kahanamoku, and here is his time.” The AAU sent back this message: “Unacceptable. No one swims this fast. Hawaiian judges alerted to use stopwatches, not alarm clocks!”
In time, Kahanamoku turned the skeptics into believers. The very next year, at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, the Duke captured gold medals in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events, cementing his reputation as the world’s fastest swimmer. He went on to win two more gold medals in the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. He also made the U.S. swimming team in 1924 and the 1932 U.S. water polo team in 1932.
Kahanamoku’s popularity soared. He traveled from country to country, captivating world leaders with his athletic skills and natural charisma. He also delighted crowds with exhibitions of his swimming and surfing prowess.
Later in Life
In 1934, Kahanamoku returned to Honolulu and entered the race for county sheriff. (Not only did he win, he went on to serve 13 consecutive terms.) In 1940, he married the love of his life, Nadine Alexander.
The Duke also became a fixture in Hollywood, playing a variety of character roles. In the 1948 film Wake of the Red Witch, Kahanamoku shared the screen with another notable “Duke,” the legendary John Wayne.
Kahanamoku died on January 22, 1968 at the age of 77. For his burial at sea, a long motorcade of mourners, accompanied by a 30-man police escort, moved solemnly across town to Waikiki Beach. Reverend Abraham Akaka, the pastor of Kawaiahao Church performed the service. A group of beach boys began singing Hawaiian songs, including “Aloha Oe.” The Duke’s ashes were then scattered into the ocean he loved so dearly.
Remarked Reverend Akaka, “Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was a man of aloha. God gave him to us as a gift from the sea, and now we give him back from whence he came.”