He is still the most famous of all Hawaiians, a superb athlete revered today as the “Father of Modern Surfing.” Yet Duke P. Kahanamoku’s legacy goes well beyond Olympic Gold medals and the host of other honors heaped upon him in his decades as a world champion. A magnificently handsome man with a jet-black mane of hair, soulful eyes and dazzlingly white smile, Kahanamoku came to symbolize the very embodiment of the true spirit of Aloha to such a degree that in 1959, he was named Hawaii’s official “Ambassador of Aloha,” a role he had unofficially been fulfilling for decades ever since his first Olympic victories at Stockholm in 1912. Kahanamoku’s Olympic triumphs combined with his looks and winning personality made him an international celebrity, bringing sudden attention to the heretofore obscure Hawaiian Islands and a marked increase in island tourism was directly credited to the fame of their native son.
From almost the moment of his birth on August 24, 1890 in Honolulu, Kahanamoku’s life revolved around the warm Pacific waters surrounding the island. He learned to swim, in traditional fashion, by simply being tossed into the water by his father and uncle. “I had to swim or else,” he later remarked. From his sink or swim beginnings, Kahanamoku developed into an expert swimmer and diver. While that on its own might not have been a particularly unusual accomplishment for a Hawaiian Islander of the time, what was unusual was the speed by which Kahanamoku could propel himself through the water. By the time the first officially sanctioned Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swim meet took place in Hawaii, Kahanamoku was already something of a local legend. In that race, held on August 12, 1911, Kahanamoku performed so remarkably, shearing 4.6 seconds off the world record for the 100-yard open water, AAU officials stateside refused to believe the time and declared there must have been an error on the part of all four judges.
The following year, Kahanamoku and several other Hawaiians were sent to the States to compete in the AAU National Swimming Championships. Kahanamoku easily won his races, earning him a place on the United States Olympic team. At the summer games held in Stockholm, there was no mistaking Kahanamoku’s incredible speed and power this time, and he won the 100-meter freestyle, yet again breaking the world record and easily taking the Gold medal. He also earned a Silver as a member of the 200-meter relay.
Over the next few years, Kahanamoku’s reputation grew to new heights as he continued shattering world aquatic records in various competitions around the globe. At the same time, he was credited for single-handedly reintroducing to the world to the sport of surfing. Although it had been an integral part of Hawaiian life for generations, by the turn of the Twentieth Century surfriding had been largely forgotten. In a series of widely attended demonstrations around the world, Kahanamoku would ride the waves on his handmade long board to the delight of onlookers, and before long, the ancient sport was revitalized along the coasts of the world.
At the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, Kahanamoku continued his nonstop winning streak, taking two more Gold Medals, the first for the 100-meter freestyle and the second in the 200-meter relay. By the time of the 1924 Olympic Games, Kahanamoku was thirty-four, considered an advanced age for an Olympic athlete, yet, he had no trouble qualifying for the team as did his younger brother Sam. It was in Paris, however, that Kahanamoku suffered his first major defeat, coming in second behind a new swimming sensation, an athlete thirteen years his junior named Johnny Weissmuller. It was Weissmuller who would take the mantle from Kahanamoku, going on to become the winningest record holder in American history up to that point. Kahanamoku showed no anger or bitterness in defeat and he maintained a close friendship with Weissmuller that was to last the remainder of their lives. Years later, Weissmuller would honor his friend by declaring, “I learned it all from him.” Duke Kahanamoku continued swimming for the rest of his life, winning his last Olympic medal at the age of forty-two. His remarkable twenty-one year career as an Olympic champion remains today a record achievement.
As someone so identified with the Hawaiian Islands it is easy to forget that Duke Kahanamoku ever spent significant time anywhere else, yet he was a regular presence in Southern California throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s. Duke had become entranced by the wonders of Southern California ever since his first visit in 1912 and even imagined the possibility having a home here someday. The Southland was equally charmed with Duke making many friends and becoming a particular favorite of the movie colony. And, of course, his worldwide fame and good looks didn’t go unnoticed by the studios. In 1925, Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount) offered Duke a film contract. However, his promising film career was hobbled by an ironic twist – He couldn’t appear on-screen doing what the world best knew him for – swimming. AAU rules strictly prohibited Duke from accepting money for swimming, something studio lawyers might not have been fully aware of before offering him a contract. And Duke had no intention of giving up his amateur standing in athletics just for Hollywood film making, which he considered nothing more than a fun lark. As it was, Famous Players-Lasky found themselves with a non-swimming swimming star and were forced to come up with creative ways to use him in non-aquatic roles. They tried their best and over the next few years, Duke made appearances in a number of films including the epic production of Old Ironsides in 1926, but without being able to be seen as the aquatic champion he was his career in movies quickly fizzled. Interestingly, in later years, Duke would return to the screen on several notable occasions. In 1948 he played a native chieftain opposite another famous “Duke,” John Wayne, in The Wake of the Red Witch, and in 1955 he again played a native chief in the John Ford-directed Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda and James Cagney.
During his first visits to Los Angeles, Duke was usually put up at the Los Angeles Athletic Club where he enjoyed swimming in the club’s enormous swimming tank and palling around with the many well-known athletes and young Hollywood stars who resided there. During the 1920’s and into the 1930’s, Duke found more spacious quarters at the home of his good friend Leslie A. Henry in a large house on Rimpau Boulevard near 8th Street. Henry, known to his friends as L.A. Henry, was a prominent local bonds dealer also extremely active in athletics, serving as chairman of the board of governors of the LA Athletic Club, president of the AAU, as well as serving on the U.S. Olympic Committee. Ironically, Henry’s house lacked a swimming pool, but Duke had ready access to the large tank at the LAAC and the plunge at the Hollywood Athletic Club, which Duke was given the honor of inaugurating on January 12, 1924 . And, of course, he had the nearby waters of the Pacific.
By the early 1930’s, Kahanamoku left Hollywood to return to his native Hawaii, where he became its most revered citizen and goodwill ambassador. For more than twenty years he served as Sheriff of Honolulu and after Hawaii became the 50th State in 1959, he was made the State’s official “Ambassador of Aloha.” Kahanamoku died at the age of seventy-seven, just three weeks after greeting Hawaii’s one-millionth visitor.
Today, there are many memorials and monuments to Duke Kahanamoku on the Hawaiian Islands, but all too few stateside. Along with the historic and famous Los Angeles Athletic Club, the old house on Rimpau is one of the most significant sites in Los Angeles that can still be linked to the legendary swimmer and surf rider, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku.