Excerpts from “Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku”

Posted 4/19/20

The good news is that surfing finally made it into the Olympics as a competitive event, but the bad

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Excerpts from “Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku”


The good news is that surfing finally made it into the Olympics as a competitive event, but the bad news is that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been pushed back to the summer of 2021. That gives sports history enthusiasts ample time to catch up with award-winning journalist David Davis’ biography of Duke Kahanamoku, surfing’s first global ambassador. A 3-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming (1912, 1920), “The Big Kahuna” was born in Hawaii in 1890 when the island was still a kingdom. He emerged from the backwaters of Waikiki to become America’s first superstar Olympic swimmer and then used his aquatic fame to promote surfing around the world. Critically acclaimed by publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and Surfer Today, “Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku” captures the Olympic legend and surfing pioneer in an engaging historical context. Below are various excerpts from the book, which is available for sale through our website.

Prologue  His life was one epic ride. In 1890, when Kahanamoku was born, Hawaii was an independent nation. He was just a youngster when Hawaii’s queen was overthrown in a hostile takeover that remains controversial to this day. He first gained fame while swimming for the United State at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, at a time when nonwhite athletes were barred from competing at the elite professional and amateur levels (with the exception of a few boxers, jockeys, and collegiate athletes).

A dark-skinned man who represented the hopes and dreams of a predominantly white nation, Kahanamoku encountered and traversed racism and ignorance well before the likes of other pioneers (including Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson). As his swimming success continued into the 1920s, he integrated private and public pools as well as surfing spots at exclusively white beaches. Photographs of Duke holding white women in his arms while they swam, or bearing them aloft on his powerful shoulders while they surfed at tandem, appeared in newspapers around the country. He became the living embodiment of Hawaii and its “exotic” culture- and what a symbol! He was seen as the distillation of everything that was believed to be good about Hawaiian people; humble yet powerful, sensual and healthy, gracious and noble.

Chapter 2  Long before Kahanamoku was born, Waikiki Beach earned a reputation as the sweetest spot for surfing off the south shore of Oahu. Waikiki enjoyed every natural advantage for surfing, beginning with the prevailing northeast trade winds. The long, silver of a beach formed a cozy amphitheater, sheltered by the promontory of Diamond Head at one end and stretching west toward the harbor. The ocean floor sloped gradually out to seas, where a large coral reef about a half-mile from shore protected the cove. Summertime was especially magical, when swells generated by storms from the Southern Hemisphere created set of long breakers that rolled in and broke as steadily and rhythmically as a heartfelt- a cradle for surfers, with waves that were good for novices and experts alike.

As a boy, Kahanamoku learned to recite the original names of the surf breaks off Waikiki like his counterparts on the mainland memorized the batting order of baseball lineups. “Ai-wohi, Ka-lehua-wehe, Ka-pua, Ka-puni, and Mai-hiwa.” Each of these, he said, “seems to have a ring of excitement to it.” Every type of wave, or nalu, was given its own description: nalu halehale was a “large, towering wave,” while nalu haki poku was a “quick-breaking wave.”

Chapter 4  Up until about 1910, Kahanamoku focused primarily on surfing and rowing. Surfing was fun; it was social, but it was also deeply personal. Rowing was about competition. The local clubs involved “barge racing” in Honolulu harbor and throughout Hawaii competed for bragging rights and gleaming trophies, with Regatta Day, held every September, celebrated as a public holiday.

Swimming, on the other hand was something Kahanamoku did every day at Waikiki, sort of like breathing. He told one interviewer that his goal was “to become the world’s champion single sculler. I did not think much about becoming a swimming champion back in 1908 and 1909, although I knew I was pretty fast then. However, I could not afford a scull.”

Being a consummate waterman benefitted his swimming. Rowing built up strength in his arms, chest, legs, and lungs. Surfing offered a full-body workout: muscling his one-hundred-plus-pound board in and out of the water, paddling out in different conditions, and balancing on a board in his ocean. Even retrieving wayward surfboards improved his swimming. “It was in steering these boards to shore that [we] discovered the tremendous drive that we might get from our legs by thrashing them up and down, stiff-kneed, with a short, vigorous kick,” he said. “This is the origin of the Hawaiian kick.”

Chapter 7  On the night before they sailed to Stockholm, members of the U.S. Olympic team assembled at the New York Athletic Club to receive their dress uniforms and listen to a pep talk from Colonel Robert Thompson, the president of the American Olympic Committee. On the following morning, June 14, they met at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue and then marched west toward the Hudson River, where Duke Kahanamoku and some 160 athletes boarded the SS Finland of the Red Star line.

The ship was awash in flowers and red-white-and-blue bunting, from masthead to deck, as approximately 5,000 well-wishers converged on the Hudson River pier at 21st Street to wave American flags and ribbons reading “Bring Home the Bacon.” As the Finland pushed off, every ship, ferry, and tugboat in the vicinity sounded its foghorn at full blast.

David Davis is an author whose work appeared in Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian Magazine, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He is also the author of ‘Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze’, and ‘Marathon Crasher: The Life and Times of Mary Lepper, the First American Woman to Run a Marathon’.


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