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Olympic History



Duke Kahanamoku

USOC Media Services // November 27, 2006

Olympic Sports: Swimming & Water Polo
Olympic Games Attended: Stockholm 1912, Antwerp 1920, Paris 1924, Los Angeles 1932
Olympic Medals: 100-meter freestyle (gold) , 200-meter relay (silver)—Stockholm; 100-meter freestyle (gold), 800-meter relay (gold)—Antwerp; 100-meter freestyle (silver)—Paris
Additional Accomplishments: Inducted into the Swimming and Surfing Halls of Fame (1965) and U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame 1984
During the first half of the 20th century, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku “emerged as the world’s consummate waterman, its fastest swimmer and foremost surfer, the first truly famous beach boy,” wrote biographer Grady Timmons. Duke Kahanamoku is best known to surfers as, “the father of modern surfing,” and a statue in his honor is located on Waikiki Beach.
Born on August 24, 1890, “he was among the last of the old Hawaiians, raised next to the ocean at Waikiki,” wrote Timmons. After school, the only logical thing for Duke and six siblings to do was hit the water. His brother Louis said, “My family believes we come from the ocean. And that’s where we’re going back.”
During the summer of 1911, Duke Kahanamoku was swimming at Diamond Head when he was clocked in the 100-yard sprint by attorney William T. Rawlins, the man who was to become his first coach. Rawlins encouraged Duke and his beach boy friends to form the Hui Nalu and to enter the first sanctioned Hawaiian Amateur Athletic Union swimming and diving championships in August 1911, where Duke’s prowess as a swimmer awed the fans.
Sports fans began to call him “The Human Fish” and “The Bronze Duke of Waikiki.” Duke competed in an Olympic
trials swimming meet held in May 1912 in Philadelphia, and he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team by winning the 100-meter freestyle event in exactly 60 seconds. Less than a month later, at Verona Lake, N.J., Duke qualified for the U.S. Olympic 800-meter relay team.
Sports history was made in Stockholm. Jim Thorpe won almost everything on land, and Duke Paoa Kahanamoku won almost everything in the water. Duke broke the record for the 100-meter freestyle, winning the gold medal. Following World War I at the next Olympic Games held in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium, Duke reestablished himself as the world’s fastest swimmer. He broke his previous world record in the 100-meter with a time of 60.4 seconds. He also swam on the winning 800-meter relay team.
In 1924, Duke was dethroned by one of his best friends. “It was not until the 1924 Paris Olympics,” wrote biographer
Timmons, “that he was defeated by Johnny Weismuller, who later went on to become Hollywood’s first Tarzan. Duke would joke in later life that ‘it took Tarzan to beat me.'” Hawaii still had cause to celebrate, however, because Duke, now age 34, brought home a silver medal in the 100-meter sprint and his younger brother Sam won the event’s third place bronze.
Duke is remembered not just as a swimmer for his remarkable speed, but also for his grace in the water, good humor and sportsmanship. In his later life, Duke remained active and traveled throughout the United States as a “symbol of Hawaii.” He was the “human fish” and the “father of surfing.” His name became synonymous with Waikiki and the term “beach boy.” He died in 1968.

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