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Duke Kahanamoku: Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

By May 22, 2024May 23rd, 2024No Comments

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we continue to recognize the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of notable immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape America’s vibrant tapestry. Today, we spotlight Olympic Champion  and “father of surfing,” Duke Kahanamoku.

Duke Kahanamoku, born in 1890 in Hawaii, was a true product of his heritage. A native Hawaiian of Polynesian descent, he was a direct descendant of Alapa’i, a chief and ruler within the hierarchy established by the original Hawaiian settlers. His family, a large and prominent one, was deeply rooted in the culture of water sports, with all his three sisters and five brothers actively participating in competitive events. 

At  21, Kahanamoku entered an Amateur Athletic Union swim competition and set a new world record in the 100-yard freestyle. Although his time was doubted by outsiders, a year later, he solidified his ability by becoming Hawaii’s first Olympian and first Olympic champion, competing on Team USA at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. He was among the first non-white athletes to compete in the Olympic Games.  For a time, he was considered the greatest freestyle swimmer in the world; he is known for developing the flutter kick, which generally replaced the scissors kick in competition. 

Two years after the Stockholm games, he was invited to Australia, where he introduced his beloved sport of surfing. He would continue traveling the world, introducing and advocating for the then largely unknown sport. Considered the “Father of Surfing,” he’s since inspired generations of surfers and Olympic athletes who’ve followed his passion and ethos for the sport. During his career, he competed in three Olympic Games, winning three gold and two silver medals in swimming. In 1920, Duke also represented the United States in water polo. He was the first to be inducted into both the Swimming and Surfing Halls of Fame.

Following his retirement from competition, Kahanamoku acted in several motion pictures, playing minor parts in 28 Hollywood films. He also served as sheriff of the city of Honolulu for 29 years and as the official greeter for the state of Hawaii until his death.

Duke Kahanamoku died of a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 77.

Others we are celebrating in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month:

  • Miyoshi Umeki, trailblazing Japanese American and Academy Award-winning actress
  • Kristin Kish, Chef and television personality