Duke Kahanamoku: Olympic Swimming and Surfing legend

 

A much needed study of a legendary Hawaiian Olympic Athlete and surf pioneer, Waterman: The life and times of Duke Kahanamoku (2015), is the first biography of Duke Kahanamoku (DK). The author, David Davis, expertly reconstructs the life of DK (1890-1968) using primary historical sources from the times to create a readable account of an extraordinary character in sports history.

The fame of DK is as the forefather of surfing and aloha culture from his home in Oahu. Also he was a gold medal winning Olympic swimmer and innovator in water sports, acted in early Hollywood cinema, and was the Sheriff of Honolulu. The many themes of the book offer in depth of treatment much more than just a surfing biography, but also a history of Hawaiian adjustment from independent nation to statehood, racial tensions in the United States, and the Olympic Movement’s many ups and downs during DK’s time.

Davis organizes his work chronologically recording the phases of DK’s life including early experiences with colonial Hawaii and the blissful relationship DK had with the Pacific, athletic glory days featuring competition in the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, the growing awareness of the new role of the United States in Hawaii, Duke’s movie ambitions, the World Wars, surfing development, and the final recognition of his place in history as the major, early influence on the wide adoption of surfing around the world.

One of the strengths of the book is the interesting reconstruction of DK’s partially successful attempt to become a star in Hollywood. His appearances in silent and very early talking movies makes it painfully clear that racial barriers existed for him there, particularly when contrasted with the experiences of the other Olympic swimming Champion of the day, Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to be Tarzan for many films. The famous figures DK encountered in the US were also described and woven into the text expertly so readers feel a heightened sense of the era.

Despite the author’s efforts, Waterman: The life and times of Duke Kahanamoku, still leaves many unknowns about DK. This year would be the 125th anniversary of DK’s birth and many of the people who knew him died and the primary sources about him are lost. DK kept his own thoughts private, even to his family, and so much of the inner dialogue that the reader craves in a biography is elusive. However, the book includes the downfalls of DK such as financial problems, affairs, and other frustrations so this is not just a book of hero worship but a description of a complex and likable man.

Dr. Robert Hudson is the Library Director and Archivist at the United States Sports Academy. He can be reached at rhudson@ussa.edu.

 

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