Duke Kahanamoku won three Olympic gold medals and introduced a new style of swimming to the world, with a flutter kick and powerful strokes. He broke a world record in the 100-yard freestyle in his first competition; AAU officials on the mainland were in disbelief and questioned whether it was a legitimate time. Indeed it was, as they soon would see.
But the broad man who grew to be a Hawaiian legend is best known as the surfing ambassador to the world, having traveled to California, Australia, New Zealand and beyond to demonstrate his prowess on homemade wooden surfboards (his favorite was 16 feet long and weighed 114 pounds), popularizing that sport.
While in Southern California, Kahanamoku also spent time in Hollywood as an actor. It during this time, in 1925, that Kahanamoku sped to the rescue after a boat capsized in Laguna Beach. Kahanamoku made three trips out into the waters and used his surfboard to ferry eight passengers safely to shore.
Later in life, after serving as the Honolulu sheriff for nearly 30 years, Kahanamoku served as the city’s official greeter for visitors, welcoming them to island and teaching its customs.
The Duke was a larger than life figure. A high school dropout who went to work to help support his family, he first made sports headlines in 1911, when the first AAU competition was held in Hawaii. Competing in Honolulu Harbor, Kahanamoku swam the 100-yard freestyle in 55.4 seconds. He then traveled to the mainland, swimming in a pool for the first time, and went to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Philadelphia, where he won the 100-meter freestyle. Kahanamoku then made a splash at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games, winning a gold medal in the same event and silver in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay.
That was the start of a stretch in which Kahanamoku dominated the sprint events. The Berlin 1916 Olympic Games were canceled because of World War I, but Kahanamoku picked right back up at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, where he won gold in both the 100-meter freestyle and 4×200-meter freestyle relay.
At the Paris 1924 Olympic Games, Kahanamoku took silver in the 100-meter freestyle and eight years later, at age 42, he was an alternate for the U.S. water polo team at the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games.
Kahanamoku died in 1968 of a heart attack. He was 77.