Duke Kahanamoku (USA)

Honor Swimmer (1965)

The information on this page was written the year of their induction.

FOR THE RECORD:  OLYMPIC GAMES: 1912 gold (100m freestyle), silver (4x200m freestyle relay); 1920 gold (100m freestyle; 4x200m freestyle relay), 4th (water polo); 1924 silver (100m freestyle); 1932 team member (water polo); WORLD RECORDS: freestyle.

The history of modern swimming started with the English in 1838.  It was the breaststroke, and still the breaststroke, when Matthew Webb swam the Channel in 1875; yet, bas-reliefs dating to 880 B.C. taken from the palace of Nimroud (now in the British Nimroud Gallery) show a fugitive escaping from soldiers by swimming a river using a head high overarm crawl.  This stroke was evolving painfully in the western world until a bronzed Duke Kahanamoku swam out of the Hawaiian Islands with it in 1911.  His world record times no one would believe.

Jam Handy describes The Duke as a superbly conditioned athlete planing and crawling over the top of the water as no one his size and only one smaller man, Perry McGillivry, seemed able to do.  Only after ten years in Hollywood did a 42 year old Duke Kahanamoku in 1932 finally fail to make an Olympic team in swimming.  He made it in water polo.  He made his first Olympic team in 1912.  “He still swam well,” says Handy, “but in the water like other mortals, he was no longer in that superb condition needed to get his body planing up on top of the water.”  Kahanamoku, the perennial Sheriff of Honolulu, and island king in so many movies, was and is a real Duke by christened surname, as well as in deference to his royal Hawaiian blood. His father, Captain Kahanamoku, born in Princess Ruth’s palace during a visit of the Duke of Edinborough, named him Duke in honor of that occasion.

In swimming, he rates his dukedom by Olympic titles as well as his ambassadorship in first introducing surfing around the world, including Australia where it has become a national sport.  Duke’s royal position in swimming took time to be recognized.  He first startled the swimming world by shattering both the 50 and 100 yard world records on the anniversary of Hawaiian annexation day, August 2, 1911, just 12 days before his 21st birthday–doing 24 1/5 in the 40 or 1 3/5 seconds better than the record, and 55 2/5 in the 100, 4 3/5 seconds better than the record.  Unfortunately the cast was all Hawaiian and the times were so unbelievable that the Amateur Athletic Union, headquartered in New York, refused to recognize them in spite of the careful reports that were compiled showing that the course in Honolulu Harbor had been measured before the race and 3 times after; had been surveyed by a registered surveyor, that the swimmers were swimming against the tide; and that his nearest competitor, Lawrence Cunha, was 30 feet behind.

After considerable correspondence back and forth, President Wahle of the AAU wrote:

“According to my mind, this matter should be treated very carefully and with extreme caution before the 100 yard record is to be accepted as an AAU record.  If his 55 2/5 seconds were accepted and he should afterwards compete in the U.S. or Europe and be beaten by swimmers, the correctness of his 55 2/5 seconds would be seriously questioned as well as the good faith of the AAU.

For this reason, I would like to see Kahanamoku beat the fast men first and have the record accepted afterward.”

In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Longworth of Australia was the favorite but Duke won the Olympic championship in 63 2/5 seconds.  Eight years later at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, on his 30th birthday, the Duke had to win his gold medal twice.  The Australians protested his first win saying their man had been boxed, so the Duke had to win it again.  Australia was fourth with Hawaiians first, second and third.

From the time the King of Sweden presented him with his Olympic gold medal and wreath of olive branches in 1912, the Duke has been an international idol, the first and foremost in a long line of Hawaiian world record holders, national and Olympic champions.  These tiny islands dominated world swimming from 1912 until 1956 when the six Hawaiians on the U.S. Olympic team were no match for the Australians.  Swimming had gone full cycle for it was the Australians who had been dominant in swimming when Duke swam past them in 1912.