5 Things You Didn’t Know About Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku poses in a swimming pool in Los Angeles, Aug. 11, 1933.
Duke Kahanamoku poses in a swimming pool in Los Angeles, Aug. 11, 1933.  AP

It's Duke Kahanamoku's 125th birthday today. Widely considered the father of modern surfing, the tall Hawaiian with a mellow smile and graceful style was the first to expose the world to Hawaii's once-unique sport. While his surf legacy endures, it's easy to miss that he was also an Olympic medalist, a town sheriff, appeared in nearly 20 films, and, in our opinion, was an early contender for Most Interesting Man in the World. So to celebrate the rich and influential life of Kahanamoku, here are five things you may not have known about him.

He Was One of the World's Fastest Swimmers.
In 1911, Kahanamoku smashed the American record for the 100-yard freestyle. Swimming in the open water at Honolulu Harbor rather than in an enclosed swimming pool, Kahanamoku beat the record by four seconds. American swimming officials could not believe it and refused to certify the record. To prove his talent, Kahanamoku travelled to New York and qualified for the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. There, he beat the world record in the 100-meter freestyle in a preliminary heat. Kahanamoku came home from Stockholm with a gold medal in the 100 freestyle and a silver medal in the 4×200 relay. 

Kahanamoku was born to swim. He stood 6'1" and weighed 190 pounds. Famed for his "Kahanamoku kick," Kahanamoku had size 13 feet. After his 1912 Olympic triumph, Kahanamoku became an ambassador for the sport, traveling the U.S., and eventually Australia, to give swimming exhibitions. That he was photogenic and charming didn't hurt. World War I meant no Olympics in 1916, but Kahanamoku returned in 1920 to win two more Olympic golds in Antwerp, and later a silver medal in Paris in 1924.

He Rode a Wave for More Than a Mile in Waikiki.
Until the late 19th century, a temple stood on the slopes of Diamond Head, overlooking the outer reefs of Waikiki Beach. When the summer swells rolled up from the south and hit the outer reefs, the priests flew their kites to signal that the surf was up. At the time, the wave at Waikiki could be ridden from the reefs at Kalehuawehe to the entrance of Honolulu Bay, nearly two miles distance.

In 1917, Duke Kahanamoku came close to replicating the feats of his Hawaiian ancestors with a legendary ride from Kalehuawehe, known as Castles, to the beach at Waikiki. That May, a storm off New Zealand generated a large swell that hit Oahu from the south. Legend has it that the wave Kahanamoku paddled into at Castles peaked at 30 feet. As was his custom, Kahanamoku rode a finless board made from Koa wood, likely nine to 12 feet in length and weighing around 100 pounds. Turning his massive board, Kahanamoku slid along the famous Waikiki coastline until he reached the beach more than a mile from where he started. That the wave at Waikiki no longer breaks the way it did in Kahanamoku's time makes his famous ride all the more legendary.

He Rescued Eight Fishermen From a Capsized Boat
In 1925, Kahanamoku was living in California, performing swim exhibitions at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and working in Hollywood movies. At the time, Corona del Mar, just south of the Newport harbor entrance, was one of the West Coast's great surf breaks. The long left-breaking wave resembled Waikiki and was one of the few spots where the heavy wood boards that Kahanamoku favored could be ridden. But the wave, and the sandbar that created it, made the harbor entrance tricky to navigate. 

On June 14, a freak storm blew up and capsized the Thelma, a 40-foot fishing boat with 17 passengers, in the harbor entrance. Kahanamoku and his friends were on the beach that day, hoping to score some surf. As they realized the danger, the surfers paddled out into the massive swell on their boards and rescued 12 of the drowning men. "Neither I, or my pals, were thinking heroics," said Kahanamoku at the time. "I hit the water very hard, and with all the forward thrust I could generate, I paddled until my arms begged for mercy." The Thelma incident led lifeguards on the mainland to begin using surfboards for rescues and eventually, sped efforts to tame the wild waters off Newport Harbor.

He Served as the Honolulu Sheriff for 20 years.
Despite his fame as a swimmer and surfer, Kahanamoku often struggled financially. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade, and business negotiations were not his strong suit. He pieced together a living from endorsements, acting in small roles in movies (typically as an exotic foreigner), and putting on surfing and swimming shows. After his trip to the Olympics in 1912, he worked as a meter reader in Honolulu. At one point, he also worked as a janitor at city hall.

In 1932, after his final attempt to make the Olympics, Kahanamoku returned to Hawaii and worked as a gas station attendant. Two years later, though, his fame and elite connections helped Kahanamoku secure the position of sheriff for Honolulu, which he held for the next 20 years. A savvy agent subsequently helped him negotiate endorsement agreements with a restaurant chain, Hawaiian-style shirts, and the Duke Kahanamoku lounge in Waikiki, where Don Ho played his early gigs.

He Was Named After Prince Alfred.
Kahanamoku was often mistaken for Hawaiian royalty, thanks to his given name, Duke. But the name was neither a title nor a nickname. The name came into his family after Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, visited Hawaii. Kahanamoku's father, a policeman, was named Duke Halapu in honor of the prince, and as the eldest son, Kahanamoku received his father's name. 

By the end of his life, Kahanamoku had become royalty of a different kind. He was the first inductee into the International Surfing Magazine Hall of Fame in 1966, and in 1994 he was honored at the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. He's considered by many to be the father of modern surfing, the good-humored, mellow ambassador who brought Hawaii's sport of kings to the rest of the world.