The “father of modern surfing.” The Olympics gold medalist. One of the first athletes to break the color barrier in American sports. Native Hawaiian Duke Paoa Kahanamoku broke the world record in swimming and popularized surfing in mainland United States and Australia. He saved lives as a lifeguard and enforced safety in Honolulu as sheriff for 13 years. The celebrity starred in many television programs and films.
Duke did all of this with humility and grace. And newspapers in Hawaii and U.S. mainland covered him, especially in the sports section.
Mainland newspapers marveled at Duke's swimming. A Salt Lake City newspaper headline proclaims "Kanaka Swimmer Has No Equal in the Water: This Hawaiian a Human Fish."
The article says, as a boy, Duke would playfully approach sharks in the harbor and have them chase him, sometimes in front of horrified passengers in passing steamers. The passengers threw coins at Duke, who collected them in his mouth. The trans-Pacific travelers who leaned over the steamer rail and threw coins did not know that Duke would "be known the world over as the world's greatest swimmer."
The New York Tribune describes Duke's strokes as "perfection, with a conservation of energy in unimportant movements and a concentration of power in those strokes and kicks which make for speed." Here's how the newspaper describes Duke's swimming:
"The 'Dook' scarcely turns his head to one side at all when breathing, thus conserves muscle and swims straight as a crow flies."
"Nor does Kahanamoku tuck his head far under water when at the top of his spurt. He 'rides' high and his face is but partly submerged, his body offering therefore the least possible resistance."
"His foot strokes are poetry of motion, a steady, even tattoo that buoys his body well up until he is in the horizontal position that is essential to speed. With powerful arm sweeps that seem actually to hold much in reserve Kahanamoku propels himself through the water with the precision of our side-wheeling ferryboats."
On the same page is a a photo spread of Duke swimming and and standing on land:
"The centre picture (above) shows him at full speed with the 'crazed stroke,' while the three photographs below illustrate the use of the hands and legs in this method of swimming. On the left and right the Honoluan is posing for his picture and in the central oval his smile tells how fine is the water."
In an interview with The Evening World in New York, Duke said didn't remember if he learned walking or swimming first as a baby, having learned to swim by using a cracker box board as a surfboard. He said, in his first time, he self-taught himself the modern crawl kick.
For his training regiment, Duke swims all day in the sea, sometimes with a board or canoe.
Duke didn't follow a particular diet, eating whatever he felt like eating, including Hawaiian food: "Sometimes I eat fish raw, in our ancient way."
Duke also respected his ancestors' swimming: "I have no doubt the ancient Hawaiians used every stroke we know and perhaps had better swimming form than we'll ever have."
Duke won gold at the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm, breaking the world record for the 100-meter freestyle swim at 62 2-5 seconds. Afterwards, he came home to Hawaii Nei in October 1912, and thousands welcomed him home at the harbor.
As his steamer moved by the dock, Duke was hearing the Hawaiian Band play "Aloha Oe" and felt tears filling his eyes. When the band played "Hawaii Ponoi," Duke removed his hat in respect for Hawaii's anthem.
When the famous Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) landed on the crowded dock, he heard the crowd roared in cheers. Then, his fellow Hui Nalu surf club members carried him on his shoulders to his car. In his car, he shook hands with the swarming fans and was taken to his home in Waikiki.
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Newspaper Articles on Chronicling America:
"Duke, World-Champion, Welcomed Home"
Honolulu star-bulletin, October 01, 1912, 3:30 Edition, Image 1
"Thousands Out to Greet World's Champion Swimmer: Duke Kahanamoku Gets a Rousing Welcome Home: Honoluluans Gather to Honor the Lad Who Honored City."
The Hawaiian gazette., October 04, 1912, Page 2, Image 2
"Kanaka Swimmer Has No Equal in the Water: This Hawaiian a Human Fish"
The Salt Lake tribune, February 02, 1913, SPORTING SECTION, Image 34
"Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian Swimmer"
New-York tribune., August 11, 1918, Page 4, Image 20
"No Training Necessary for Duke Kahanamoku, America's Swimming Ace"
The evening world., July 17, 1920, Final Edition, Page 8, Image 8