This famous Hawaiian swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku was larger than life. Hawaiian Surfboard Champion of 1930, Thomas Edward Blake, wrote in 1931: 'Today, the Duke, (not a title, just his Christian name) at the age of forty, is a marvelous physical specimen, as enthusiastic a surfrider as ever. As a swimmer, a surfrider, and as a man, Duke, to me, is the greatest these islands ever produced.'

During the first half of the last century, Duke Kahanamoku -- known to most as Duke or The Duke -- emerged as the world's consummate waterman, its fastest swimmer and foremost surfer, and the first famous beach boy. Duke Kahanamoku is known to surfers as, ‘the father of modern surfing.’ As a sign of Duke's importance to the sport, one of his early surfboards, with his name across the bow, is preserved in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Born on August 24, 1890, Duke  was raised next to the ocean at Waikiki.   After school, the only logical thing for the kids to do was hit the water. In his teens, Duke dropped out of high school and took up the life of a beach boy, gathering daily with other beach boys by a hau tree at Waikiki. This is where the original expression ‘beach boy’ actually comes from. Together, Duke and his peers surfed, swam, repaired nets, shaped surfboards and sang. It has been reported that he developed his swimming style by adapting the straight leg kick used by some Australian swimmers in Waikiki around 1910.

Years of surfing, rough-water swimming and canoe paddling as a boy and then as a young man molded Duke into a superb athlete, with glistening white teeth, dark shining eyes, and a black mane of hair that he liked to toss about in the surf. He stood six feet one and weighed 190 pounds, had long sinewy arms and powerful legs, and a well-defined upper body that tapered down to a slim waist. His hands and feet were reported as ‘enormous’ and no doubt contributed to his speed in the water.

Duke favored traditional Hawaiian customs and manners. He spoke Hawaiian as much as he could, preferred Hawaiian foods like poi and lau-lau (fish).

Duke is credited with popularizing surfing world-wide during the 1920s. The record-breaking  swimming champion who won three gold, two silver, and one bronze metal in four Olympics between 1912 and 1922 often brought his 10' redwood plank with him in his many travels and drew crowds to his performances. He was renowned not only for his athletic prowess but also for his grace, humility and good sportsmanship. Much of his life he served as a living symbol of Hawaiian hospitality and goodwill to the rest of the world as the ‘Hawaiian Ambassador of Aloha.’ Duke died in 1968. During his lifetime, Duke was a movie actor, political figure, and true hero. His statue is located on Waikiki Beach where many honor him by placing leis on his statue. A stamp issued by the USPS in 2002 honors with an oil painting by Michael J. Deas, based on a 1918 photograph from the collection of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Today, Duke remains the patron saint to surfers and swimmers throughout the world.

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