Surfer Inspiration: Duke Kahanamoku

If you’ve ever stepped onto a surfboard, you have Duke Kahanamoku to thank. Known colloquially as “The Duke,” Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu Hawaii in 1890. The first of nine children, Duke is responsible for spreading the love and compassion concomitant with the surfer lifestyle.

At age 20, the Duke broke the American short-distance swimming record for the 50-yard sprint, then beat the 100-yard world record by close to five seconds. In 1912, he set another world record, winning gold in both the 100 and 400-meter freestyle relay at the Stockholm Olympics. From a young age, Duke was a menace in the water. The popularity and global acclaim later brought him to the front of the public’s perception of surfing.

Between Olympic competitions, as well as after his Olympic retirement, the Duke began to travel internationally to give swimming exhibitions. This widespread travel and teaching experience allowed him to popularize the sport of surfing; previously, it had only been known in Hawaii. He incorporated surfing exhibitions into these visits, and his Australian show in 1914 is regarded as a seminal event in the development of surfing in the country.

Later in life, Kahanamoku lived in Southern California, performing in Hollywood as a background actor and character actor in several films. Though this may have been for personal interest, the connections resulted in his knowing and befriending people who could further publicize the sport of surfing.

Kahanamoku died of a heart attack in January of 1968 at the age of 77. The City of Honolulu commemorated his Waikiki Beach burial site with a 9-foot cast bronze statue of the Duke.


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