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Jonathan Noah Levy Media Center: Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku

Asian American and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month

Wall Of Excellence



Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968), today considered a father of modern surfing, was also an Olympic medalist in swimming. Winning gold in the 1912 Olympics, he had to wait for the next edition of the games in 1920 (due to WWI), to repeat his triumph. In the games of 1924, when he was already 34, he got beaten by then 20 year old Johnny Weissmuller, who would subsequently make a big career in Hollywood (one of his famous roles was Tarzan). "It took Tarzan to finally beat me" was Kahanamoku's reaction.


Coming from a noble Hawaiian family, Duke showed his sporting talents early and started traveling to swimming competitions. The initial results he achieved in Hawaii were so good that the mainland US officials doubted Hawaiian timekeepers. However, Kahanamoku's results-- and his multiple subsequent world records-- have proven early timekeepers right. Furthermore, he innovated swimming technique by developing the "flutter kick", which subsequently replaced the "scissor kick".


As his swimming career was winding down, Duke became increasingly active in popularizing surfing, as well as starring in a variety of Hollywood productions. In the 1930s, he settled down in Hawaii, where he was active in several functions-- one being sheriff of Honolulu. 

Kahanamoku in interview - 1965


Hawaii has shown gratitude to this great son by erecting a famous bronze statue to honor "The father of modern surfing" at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. It depicts him with outstretched arms, standing in front of a 12 foot surfboard. In 2002, the US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp with Kahanamoku's picture.



Encyclopedia Britannica

Asian American Reference Library(2nd ed.)

Gale In Context, The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: Sports Figures 






[1] Library of Congress, Washington, D.C

[2] IOC

[3] Granger, NYC / The Granger Collection

[4] Jeffrey Greenberg / Photo Researchers / Universal Images Group