Duke Strikes Olympic Gold

The Hawaiian Historical Society


Duke Kahanamoku

It was at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912 that the sports spotlight of the world was first focused on Hawai‘i—and on a tall, bronzed swimmer named Duke Kahanamoku. It was also the start of one of the most amazing careers in Olympic Games history.

Duke Kahanamoku burst on the sports scene with a world record winning time in the 100-meters free style at Stockholm, and also anchored the U.S. free style relay team which won the silver medal.

There was no Olympics in 1916, because of World War I, but Duke was back at Antwerp in 1920, this time with Hawaiian teammate Pua K. Kealoha. The Hawaiians finished first and second in the 100-meters free style swim, and also swam on the gold medal winning relay team.

Four years later, Duke, now thirty, a ripe age for a swimmer, took the silver medal at the Paris Games in the free style behind Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to become the most famous of the movie Tarzans. In Third place in that race was Duke’s brother, Sam Kahanamoku.

But the Duke wasn't finished yet. He made the U.S. squad for the 1928 games in Amsterdam—as a member of the water polo team! In all, Duke appeared in four Olympic Games, spread over sixteen years. He won three gold medals and two silvers, and set five individual Olympic records in the process.

Duke, who died in 1967, also was instrumental in the revival of surfing in Hawai‘i. Surfing was invented in Hawai‘i, but had nearly died out when Duke took it up and made it popular again. He is also known as the “father of windsurfing,” another sport invented in Hawai‘i.