The bright blue waters of Sydney’s Northern Beaches hold stories of many legends, but one name left an extra special footprint on our sands: Duke Kahanamoku. The Hawaiian swimming and surfing legend made waves not only in the water as a six-time Olympic medalist, but in the history of culture as a movie star, ocean hero and Ambassador of Aloha. On his birthday, August 24, here’s a little more on this legendary figure who still watches over our surfers…

Image: Simon Pratley of Simon Pratley Photography W: F: Instagram: @simonpratleyphotography

Born in Honolulu in 1890, Kahanamoku was destined for greatness. The young swimmer’s journey to international fame began in 1911 when he broke three freestyle world records by 4.6 seconds in his first swimming races in Honolulu Harbor. He then rose to international fame, winning two medals at the Swedish Olympic Games, including gold in the 100-meter freestyle.

Kahanamoku’s passion for water extended beyond the pool and over the next decade, he introduced surfing to the US Atlantic Coast, Australia and New Zealand. He even recommended it as an Olympic event after winning two further gold medals for swimming in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.

Image: The Libarary of Congress Facebook page

Kahanamoku wasn’t just a sports star and dipped his toes into the Hollywood movie scene, making appearances in over 30 films including Mister Roberts, Wake of the Red Witch and Where East is East. He was also loved as a hero, singlehandedly rescuing eight drowning men using his surfboard in 1925 – a feat that caused US lifeguards to start using surfboards in their water rescues.

The Duke and the Duke. Image John Wayne Facebook page

Beyond the waves, Kahanamoku served his community as the Sheriff of Honolulu for 25 years and was appointed the new state of Hawaii’s Official Ambassador of Aloha in 1960. Kahanamoku’s influence reached its pinnacle when he became the first person to be inducted into both the Swimming and Surfing Hall of Fame in 1966. Even after his passing in 1968, Kahanamoku’s legacy persisted and he was posthumously inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984.

Kahanamoku’s mark on the shores of Australia remains indelible. In 1914, the world sprint swimming champion was invited Down Under to provide swimming exhibitions. During his stay on the Northern Beaches, he constructed a solid surfboard from sugar pine and using this Hawaiian-style surfing technique, he became the first person to surf clean waves beyond the break in Australian waters.

As legend has it, Kahanamoku invited local 15-year-old Isabel Letham to join him for an attempt at tandem surfing, marking her as one of the first Australian women to attempt board riding. The original board that Kahanamoku built, and rode has been kept on display at the Freshwater SLSC since 1952.

Kahanamoku’s legacy is celebrated on ‘Duke’s Day’ in January, inaugurated by Freshwater Surf Lifesaving Club in 2011. He is also honoured with a statue sculpted by Barry Donohoo, commissioned by Harbord Diggers and Warringah Council in 1994, which forms part of the Australian Surfers Walk of Fame.

Duke’s Creed

In Hawai’i we greet friends, loved ones and strangers with Aloha, which means with love.
Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawai’i renowned as the world’s centre of understanding and fellowship.
Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha.
You’ll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it and it is my creed.
Aloha to you.

– Duke Paoa Kahanamoku


Main image: Port Macquarie Surfing Museum Facebook page


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