Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, better known simply as “Duke Kahanamoku”, is one of the most important surfers in the history of the sport.
The native Hawaiian helped to popularize the sport around the world, taking it from its ancient Hawaiian origins to a sport that was practiced everywhere from the west coast of the United States to the shorelines of Australia.
Who Was Duke Kahanamoku?
Duke Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu in 1890 and his family moved to Waikiki when he was just a few years old. He was raised with five brothers, three sisters, and 31 cousins and he left school before he graduated so he could support his family.
As a resident of Waikiki, Kahanamoku had access to some of the best beaches and surf breaks on the islands and he spent much of his youth on the beaches and the waves.
What Board Did Duke Kahanamoku Ride?
Kahanamoku learned his craft on a traditional wooden surfboard known as a “papa niu”. It was a 16-foot board made from koa wood and weighed over 100 pounds. He would use other boards as his career developed, but he always leaned toward traditional wooden boards that would be considered too big and heavy for many modern surfers.
Kahanamoku’s Athletic Career
Duke Kahanamoku was a very strong swimmer and this is how he initially made a name for himself.
In 1911, he set a new world record in the 100-yard freestyle and followed this with another world record in the 220 yards. He was an amateur at the time, and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was so shocked that they refused to accept the times, insisting that the judges hadn’t recorded them properly.
In 1912, Duke Kahanamoku qualified for the US Olympic team and won both a gold and silver medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. 8 years later, he won two gold medals at the Antwerp Olympics, one in the 100 meters and the other in the relay. He followed this with a silver medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
Kahanamoku’s Surfing Career
Even before his swimming accomplishments, Duke Kahanamoku was a keen surfer. In between swimming competitions, he hosted surfing exhibitions and when his career was over, he devoted himself 100% to surfing.
In 1914, Duke Kahanamoku participated in a Sydney surfing event that has been credited as introducing the sport to Australia. He also helped to popularize the sport in California and there are statues of him in New Zealand, California, and Australia.
During the 1920s, Duke featured in several Hollywood films, appearing as a Native Chief in The Pony Express, a Pirate Captain in Old Ironsides, and a Guard in Woman Wise. In the same decade, he cemented his legendary status when he helped to save 8 men from a capsized fishing boat, using his surfboard to make several trips from the boat to the shore, taking the fishermen with him.
Why Was Duke Kahanamoku So Popular?
Duke Kahanamoku was popular for many reasons. He was an accomplished swimmer, a skilled surfer, and a hero. But he was also a great all-round guy and someone who embodied the Aloha spirit. He was the face of Hawaii for a long time and is still closely associated with the islands and the sport of surfing.
In many ways, he was the equivalent of modern-day stars like David Beckham, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James in that he combined philanthropic work with athletic accomplishments, acting, and business.
When Did Duke Kahanamoku Die?
Duke Kahanamoku survived heart attacks and brain surgery, but he eventually succumbed to a heart attack in 1968, aged 77.
Duke Kahanamoku’s ashes were buried at sea, with a service that included a 30-man police escort and a procession through his hometown.
FAQs About Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku introduced board surfing to millions of people and kick-started a trend that is still going strong to this day. He wasn’t the first person to ride a surfboard, far from it, but if not for his efforts in showcasing the sport to fans worldwide, we might not have seen the likes of Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Bethany Hamilton, and Layne Beachley.
Why Was He Called Duke?
Although Kahanamoku was known as “The Duke” in later life, “Duke” was not a nickname. The legendary surfer was born Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, and was named after his father, Duke Halapu Kahanamoku.
His father was named after the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred. Alfred was the second son of Queen Victoria and he visited Hawaii when he was in his 20s during the height of Victoria’s reign.
In Hawaii, Alfred spent time with the royal family and his visit clearly had an impact on Duke Kahanamoku’s ancestors, who were lower-ranking nobles.
Was Duke Kahanamoku in the Olympics?
Yes, Duke Kahanamoku appeared in several summer Olympic Games as a swimmer. He was one of the best swimmers that the US had to offer at the time.
How Many Medals Did Duke Win?
Duke Kahanamoku won 3 gold medals and 2 silver medals.
Is Duke Kahanamoku Still Alive?
Unfortunately, no. As noted above, he died in 1968 when he was 77 years old.
Where Did Duke Kahanamoku Live?
Duke Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, but he spent most of his life in Waikiki. He learned his skills on the Waikiki surf, becoming the accomplished swimmer and surfer that history remembers him for.
He also traveled a lot and spent time in Australia and Europe. That might not sound like much of an accomplishment today, but this was over 100 years ago!
Did Duke Kahanamoku Win Olympic Medals in Surfing?
Although Duke Kahanamoku is best-known for his skills on the surf and his impact on modern surfing, he made his name as a swimmer. We’re sure that he would have won gold medals in surfing if it was an Olympic sport, but it didn’t actually make its first appearance until the Tokyo 2020 games, which were held in 2021.
Did He Play Any Other Sports?
Along with swimming and surfing, Duke Kahanamoku played several other sports. At one point, he was an alternate on the US water polo team.