David Davis is the author of Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze; Play by Play: Los Angeles Sports Photography, 1889–1989; and Marathon Crasher: The Life and Times of Merry Lepper, the First American Woman to Run a Marathon. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and in three anthologies, including The Best American Sports Writing. His new book, Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, is now available. He lives in Los Angeles.
This week, relatives, friends, and devotees of Duke Kahanamoku will gather to commemorate the 125th anniversary of his birth. They’ll assemble by the enormous bronze statue of him that stands sentry on Waikiki beach and, in the Hawaiian tradition, talk story about his life and his love affair with the Pacific Ocean. They’ll wander through the halls of the stately Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu to view a new exhibition featuring rare photographs, ancient surfboards, and wondrous ephemera. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Museum will display one of the behemoth wooden boards that Kahanamoku himself carved and shaped by hand and surfed with. And, on far-flung beaches from Southern California to Australia to South Africa, surfers will paddle out with the Duke’s ideals embedded in their soul.
These public and private celebrations are testament to an epochal life in and out of the water. Kahanamoku was Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps before chlorine; he was Laird Hamilton and Kelly Slater before foam boards and leashes. He was Joe Louis and Jesse Owens before integration; he was Michael Jordan before “branding.”
Consider his singular, extraordinary resume. He was born on Oahu in 1890, when Hawai’i was an independent kingdom. He became an American citizen a decade later after Hawai’i was engulfed by the United States in an imperialist land grab that also enfolded Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. A high-school dropout, Duke’s ascendancy to global fame was made possible by his abruptly new, stars-and-stripes citizenship, leading to his victory in the 100 meters at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
Perhaps what was most impressive about Kahanamoku’s competitive swimming career is that, after he was unable to defend his 100-meter crown in 1916, when he was in his physical prime, due to the cancellation of the Olympic Games because of World War I, he returned to capture the title in 1920. He then took the silver medal in 1924, at age 34, yielding only to the youthful and well-coached Johnny Weissmuller.
Kahanamoku brought excitement to swimming, not to mention world records, and his rivalry with Weissmuller positioned the sport as a headlining Olympic event. But his influence on surfing exceeded his impact on swimming. Surfing was virtually extinct in Hawai’i, its birthplace, at the turn of the century, a victim of the new world order. Duke and his buddies started the first surf club, on Waikiki, using solid wooden boards that weighed as much as 150 pounds. They helped return the stoke to surfing, first among the sons and grandsons of the haole missionaries who had settled in Hawai’i, then among the tourists who visited and the servicemen stationed there, and finally exported and promoted by Kahanamoku on his travels around the globe.
As the acknowledged godfather of modern surfing, it follows that Kahanamoku is the godfather of skateboarding and snowboarding—the “sidewalk” and mountainous versions of surfing. His image is so attached to swimming and surfing that few people realize the pioneering role he played in other action sports. He was among the first to participate in activities that didn’t yet have names: beach volleyball, standup paddling (SUP), and wakeboarding. Duke himself brought beach volleyball from Hawaii to the sands of Southern California, where it spread and generated its own following.
Kahanamoku was among a tiny handful of non-white athletes to succeed in an era when, for instance, African-Americans were barred from the major leagues and most collegiate programs. He faced prejudice at every turn. In 1911, after he shattered two world records at a swim meet in Honolulu, sports powerbrokers in New York refused to accept that a “kanaka” (a pejorative term for Hawaiian) could swim faster than a white man. Once Kahanamoku proved himself by winning the gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics, their reasoning changed: Duke was fast because he was a pure-blood Hawaiian.
On the mainland, Kahanamoku was denied service at restaurants because of his skin color. When he moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s to pursue a movie career, he was offered only extra roles portraying “ethnics” (Arabs, Native Indians, Mexicans) because Hollywood studios weren’t prepared to have someone of his ilk play the hero and get the girl. Of course, when a champion swimmer came along who was white, he was turned into an icon: Johnny Weissmuller, Duke’s archrival in the pool, who played Tarzan for a decade.
Kahanamoku was not a firebrand. He was a humble man who preferred to let his actions to speak for him. He confronted racism by forging his own path: he competed in restricted private clubs and whipped their white hopes. When he traveled to California and discovered that the “public” beaches were reserved for whites, he grabbed his board, caught waves up and down the coast, and dared the authorities to stop him. (They didn’t.)
Duke Kahanamoku died in 1968 at age 77, having saved surfing from extinction and watched it morph from an activity into a lifestyle. His homeland, too, underwent radical changed during this span, from an independent monarchy to an American-controlled territory to the 50th state; from an Edenic paradise of natural wonders to an American military hub on the Pacific Rim; from a dot on the map to a glittering tourist destination.
Several years ago, when I first began to research Kahanamoku’s life in preparation for writing his biography, I reviewed a series of polls published in 1999. With the millennium fast approaching, media organizations were assembling panels of experts and rating the greatest athletes of the 20th century. ESPN, which restricted its choices to Americans and Canadians, tabbed Michael Jordan number one and Babe Ruth number two. The Associated Press, which included foreign athletes, reversed the order by placing Ruth first and Jordan second. The Independent newspaper in London had Muhammad Ali and Pele one-two, while Sports Illustrated gave the top spot to Ali.
I assumed that Kahanamoku would rank among the top 50 athletes of all time—maybe even among the top 25—in each survey. What I discovered was disheartening. Every poll ignored him. ESPN’s pundits, who appeared to take their task the most seriously (probably because their effort coincided with a TV special and a book), named three horses among their Top 100 athletes and included the likes of Bob Beamon, who enjoyed one amazing moment in a fine but ultimately limited career as a long jumper.
It’s folly to dissect these sorts of lists, of course. They’re arbitrary exercises designed to provoke argument, sell ads, and attract clicks. But, really, three horses and a one-trick pony rated mention, but Kahanamoku—the most famous Hawaiian-born citizen of modern times until one Barack Obama came along—didn’t? Was it because they didn’t comprehend Kahanamoku’s myriad contributions or was it because they didn’t value action sports? We’ll never know.
Happy 125th Birthday, Duke. Mahalo.