Duke Kahanamoku, the Superman of Surfing

He was the super-fast swimmer who brought surfing to the world. In 1914 a Hawaiian swimming legend travelled to Australia. With him was a long wooden board that no one in this part of the world had ever seen. A group of curious onlookers gathered at the boardwalk. Duke Kahanamoku ran his board into the water, lay flat on the board, and waited for a swell to carry him to surfing stardom.

Duke Kahanamoku came from what was then a little-known island in the Pacific where swimming was a way of life; proud fathers watched their sons withstand the tests of the sea. Duke was a particular good swimmer. His hands were huge and his feet were said to be like paddles. When he broke the world record 100-metre sprint by four seconds in 1911, no one outside of Hawaii believed his feat possible. Family, friends and other islanders raised money and sent him to Stockholm to compete in the 1912 Olympics. The super-fast swimmer won gold and put Hawaii on the map as a nation of watersports superstars. Duke went on to win two more gold medals at the 1920 Olympics following World War I.

The US swimming team were thrown a hero’s parade in New York City. It was said that Duke always remained humble; he loved the sport and didn’t care much for the attention. In those days, most athletes didn’t go pro. There were no marketing managers, or big sportswear sponsors. The grand Duke of surfing sought work outside of water. He moved to Hollywood where he became an actor and performed in such roles as ‘The Devil-ape’ in the 1927 movie, Isle of Sunken Gold.

While acting was not his strong suit, Duke continued to give swimming demonstrations around the world during and after his Olympic feats. In his performances he would present surfing to eager young crowds. In 1914, Duke was giving one such exhibit at Freshwater Bay in Sydney. A group of wide-eyed onlookers gathered. So inspired were Australians that day that this single event is seen as the birth of surfing and surfing culture in Australia.