SI Vault: The beloved Duke of Waikiki, from the Olympics to surfing stardom


Si Vault: The beloved Duke of Waikiki, from the Olympics to surfing stardom

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This story originally ran in the September 17, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine click here.

The newspapers called him "the Bronze Duke of Waikiki," and his biography was subtitled Hawaii's Golden Man. Twenty-two years after his death, Duke Kahanamoku remains Hawaii's greatest athlete. The state has just concluded a month long celebration of its native son that culminated in the unveiling of a statue on Waikiki Beach on Aug. 24, which would have been Duke's 100th birthday.

Kahanamoku's emergence as a world swimming champion and renowned surfer in the first half of this century coincided with Hawaii's maturation, first as an American Territory in 1900 and then as a state in 1959. From the first time he traveled to the mainland, in 1912, until his death in 1968, the handsome, soft-spoken man was the symbol of Polynesian vitality.

Kahanamoku dominated international sprint swimming for nearly a dozen years, beginning with the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, where he and his U.S. teammate, pentathlon and decathlon champion Jim Thorpe, became overnight sensations. Kahanamoku was also the father of modern surfing, introducing what had once been the private sport of Hawaiian kings to such locales as Coney Island, Atlantic City, Southern California and Sydney, Australia.

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