During an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swim meet, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku broke the world record in the 100-yard freestyle swim by 4.6 seconds in Honolulu Harbor on August 11, 1911. Officials were so incredulous at his time that the AAU would not recognize his feat until many years later. Duke Kahanamoku swam using a unique combination of an Australian crawl stroke with a flutter kick to add speed.
Known as Duke, or “The Duke,” Kahanamoku was a three-time Olympic gold medal winner. He broke another record and won a gold medal for the 100-meter freestyle swim at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, where he also won a silver medal in the 200-meter relay event. (The 1916 Olympics were not held because of World War I.) Kahanamoku broke his own record at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, winning gold in both the 100-meter freestyle and as a member of the U.S. 800-meter-relay team. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he won a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle. His brother, Samuel Kahanamoku, won the bronze medal, and Johnny Weismuller captured the gold. Kahanamoku also was an alternate member of the U.S. water polo team that won a bronze medal in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Called the “the father of surfing,” Duke was born on August 24, 1890. Papa he`e nalu, or surfboards, were invented in Hawai‘i hundreds of years ago and were once the province of royalty. Duke rode a sixteen-foot, 114-pound “olo” surfboard made of koa wood, modeled on those of the ancient Hawaiian kings. Then termed wave sliding, the sport is known today as surfing. Although Thomas Edison filmed Hawaiian surfers in 1898, surfing was a dying art when men such as George Freeth, Alexander Hume Ford, and Duke Kahanamoku brought it back to life in the early 1900s. The Duke served as an unofficial ambassador for the sport and taught eager surfers from around the world.
Duke was the first person inducted into both the International Swimming Hall of Fame (1965) and the Surfers’ Hall of Fame (1994)—as its first surf pioneer.
Duke was more than a world-class athlete. From 1934 to 1960, he was elected sheriff of the city and county of Honolulu and served as Hawaii’s ambassador of aloha from 1960 to 1968. In the latter role he was a goodwill ambassador for surfing and Hawai’i. He also acted in several films, primarily in the 1920s, but also as himself a few times in the 1950s and 1960s.
Duke Paoa Kahanamoku died on January 22, 1968. A long motorcade of mourners lined Waikiki beach where, after an English- and Hawaiian-language ceremony, fourteen canoes paddled out single file to scatter his ashes at sea.
- A search across the Library’s digital collections on the word surf reveals images such as the Surf Club in Atlantic Beach on Long Island, New York, and notated music for the 1876 song “Surf”.
- Search Library of Congress films and videos on the term surf to find early silent films such as Surf at Monterey.
- Learn more about the Hawaiian islands by searching on the terms Hawaii and Honolulu in the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey Collection.
- Find out more about surfing royalty, Duke Kahanamoku, and the state of Hawaii through America’s Story from America’s Library.
- Find a number of references to the islands through a search on the term Hawaii in “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. Read, for example, Golden Dreams and Waking Realities, written by Englishman William Shaw, which depicts a fast-changing Hawaii immediately following the 1849 California gold rush.
- Search on Olympic games, surfing, and Duke Kahanamoku in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog for more images.