"Mahape a ale wala'ua," Duke would say.
"Don't talk -- keep it in your heart."
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Under the Hau Tree | Surfing's Ambassador | Duke Surfs Freshwater, January 15, 1915 | Duke's Mile+ Ride of 1917 | Olympic Gold and Silver | Corona del Mar Save, June 14, 1925 | The Father of Modern Surfing | Twilight Years, 1962-68 | Sources
When Duke surfed, he made surfboards slide across wave faces without the -- as yet to be invented -- skeg. When he swam, his "Kahanamoku kick" was so powerful that his body actually rose up out of the water, "like a speed boat with its prow up," boasted his brother Sargent. The first time he had really watched his brother swim for speed was at the Waikiki Natatorium, a salt-water swimming pool located on Diamond Head's flank. The old timers told Sargent to watch his brother, that when he swam he created waves. When Duke swam there, Sargent saw the waves spread out and hit the sides of the pool. "And I mean they were big," he said, so big that it seemed like they could be ridden with a surfboard."
During the summer of 1911, Duke Kahanamoku was on, "one of his daily swims off Sans Souci Beach 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," wrote Grady Timmons, adding it was Rawlins who 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. These were held on August 11, 1911, where, in "the still, glassy waters of Honolulu Harbor, at age twenty-one," Duke Kahanamoku, "swam the 100-yard freestyle 4.6 seconds faster than anyone had before him." Duke did the 100-yard freestyle in 55.4 seconds, "shattering the world record held by [two time] U.S. Olympic champion Charles M. Daniels." In the 50-yard freestyle, he equaled Daniels' world record, coming in at 24.2 seconds. For extra measure, Duke outswam all competitors with a respectable 2:42:4 second finish in the 220-yard freestyle event. Hui Nalu swept eleven events.
Results of the meet were telegraphed to the amateur Athletic Union headquarters in New York. The official reaction was one of disbelief. An unknown 21 year-old Hawaiian shattering the world's most important swimming record? Even more unbelievable was that Duke had not only shattered the record, he had done it in Honolulu harbor salt water, "on a straightaway course," wrote Leonard Lueras in his book Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure, "that stretched from a barnacled old barge into what was called the Alakea Slip, a moorage between Piers 6 and 7. A thick rope was stretched taut over the water to mark the finish line. A 55.4 seconds showing in the 100-yard sprint? In a murky, flotsam-filled harbor? Between two ships' piers? I mean, really folks?" The AAU officials sent back their reply: "What are you using for stop watches? Alarm clocks?!"
Next day, The Honolulu Advertiser proclaimed: "Duke Kahanamoku Broke Two Swimming Records. Hawaiian Youth Astounds People By The Way He Tore Through The Water." Duke was referred to as the expert natatorial member of the Hui Nalu club. "Kahanamoku," the article went on to predict, "is a wonder, and he would astonish the mainland aquatic spots if he made a trip to the coast." Later, Honolulu sports columnists would joke that Duke's "luau feet" were so big (size 13), it was their size that propelled him through the water. Despite the fact that the swim had been clocked by five certified judges and the course measured four times, once by a professional surveyor, Duke's accomplishment was not officially recognized by the Amateur Athletic Union. AAU officials argued that Duke's record-breaking swims must have been aided by a current in the harbor. Although the AAU would retract their original decision years later, the original decision delayed Duke's rightful recognition.
Even though officials and fans in Hawaii`i were bummed, the decision against him didn't phase the Duke. He just went back into training. Years later, he told a reporter that he was able to swim so fast in Honolulu Harbor because, "Our water is so full of life, it's the fastest water in the world. That's all there is to it." With money raised by the Hui Nalu, Duke went to the mainland the next year. He delighted sports fans with his swimming technique learned from Australian swimmers who had visited Hawaii in 1910. What sportswriters would refer to as "the Kahanamoku Kick," was actually Duke's adaptation of the Australian Crawl. It was a crawl stroke with scissoring feet and the addition of a "flutter kick."
Once Duke got used to the colder water of the mainland, he began to astound audiences. Sports fans began to call him "The Human Fish" and "The Bronze Duke of Waikiki." After warm-up meets in Chicago and Pittsburgh, among other places, Duke competed in an Olympic trials swimming meet held in May 1912, in Philadelphia. 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. More importantly, during his 200 meter test heat, he bettered the existing world record in the 200 meter freestyle held by Daniels. Although Duke wasn't considered a middle distance swimmer, he bettered Daniels' 200 meter record by six-tenths of a second. His time: 2:40:0. A New York World reporter wrote that Duke began with an "unconcerned" start, "and it was fully two seconds before he went after the field. Once in the water, he quickly overhauled his opponents."
On his way to the 1912 Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden, Duke met native American Jim Thorpe, celebrated as the greatest all-around athlete of his time. "When Jimmy and I were on the boat to the Olympics in Sweden," Duke remembered, "we had a talk. I said, 'Jimmy, I've seen you run, jump, throw things and carry the ball. You do everything so why don't you swim too?' "Jimmy just grinned at me with that big grin he had for everyone, and said, 'Duke, I saved that for you to take care of. I saved that for you.'"
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-yard freestyle, winning the gold medal. Another legendary surfer, George Freeth, had been disqualified from the Olympic trials, back in the States, because his job as lifeguard was considered a professional position. Kahanamoku and Thorpe so impressed their Swedish hosts and the world that both were personally called to the Royal Victory Stand where they received their gold medals and Olympic wreaths directly from Sweden's King Gustaf. Years later, in 1965 at age 75, Duke reminisced about the triumphant moment 53 years earlier. "Come here. Come here a minute. Let me show you something," Duke said. His interviewer wrote that his "now cloudy eyes became clear and his halting speech fluent as he fondly handled a framed wreath on his bedroom wall. "'I was just a big dumb kid when King Gustaf of Sweden gave me this. I didn't even what it was really and almost threw it away. But now it is my most prized trophy,' he said proudly."
When he returned to the United States, "The Swimming Duke" was respectfully besieged by adoring fans and reporters wherever he went. "In the course of the next twenty years," wrote Grady Timmons, "he continued to defy time, competing in four Olympic Games and winning five medals. When he finally retired, at age forty-two, he could still swim as fast as when he was twenty-one." Duke returned to Hawaii a conquering hero. Inside, however, was a growing insecurity, the kind every aging surfer gets sooner or later. "Here he was, twenty-two years old, and the only thing he knew was the ocean. After the celebration came to an end, he had to ask himself: what am I returning home to?" Duke tried getting "a real job," like reading water meters, working in the drafting office of the Territorial government and surveying. In none of them could he find his place. "On and off for many years," wrote Grady Timmons, "he even tried being a beachboy, only to find there was not much money or dignity in it for a man of his stature." Accepting invitations to compete abroad in exhibition swimming meets, Duke found a place and a role as the unofficial ambassador for Hawaii and surfing. Travel was something Duke liked; it kept him active and in the water. Whenever he could, he combined his swimming with surfing demonstrations.