Over 100 years after his birth, Duke Kahanamoku is having something of a resurgence. The gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer, who died in 1968, is the subject of sports writer David Davis's new book Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku (University of Nebraska Press). He explained why, nearly 50 years after Kahanamoku's death, the Hawaiian native continues to capture the popular imagination.
Kahanamoku suddenly seems to be everywhere. On August 14, a Google Doodle marked the 125th anniversary of his birth. He was included in last year’s “American Cool” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and then there's your book, which came out last month. What's up?
I think there’s always been interest in Duke Kahanamoku. But it’s been sequestered within disparate groups: surfers, Olympic devotees, authors of books about Hawaiian culture and the Pacific Rim, even historians of Hollywood’s Silent Era. That said, on the 125th anniversary of his birth I believe a consensus of sorts was reached: the legacy of Duke Kahanamoku is unmatched. He is an American, Hawaiian, and Polynesian hero who is, at once, the father of modern surfing, the first great Olympic swimming star, a pioneer in race and sports, and the Ambassador of Aloha. Not to mention, he helped discover Don Ho!
You've written about elite athletes before--your last book, Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, was about marathon runners--but what drew you to Kahanamoku?
Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush concerned three marathon runners who competed at the 1908 Olympics. One of them—Johnny Hayes, the gold medalist from U.S.A.—was also involved in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics [which Kahanamoku competed in], and so I researched those Olympics thoroughly as well.
Much has been written about Jim Thorpe, the most celebrated athlete in Stockholm. But I could find precious little material about Duke Kahanamoku that was not hagiography. Once I started traveling to Hawaii to research archives and libraries and to interview his friends and relatives, I discovered a compelling force of nature in Duke.
You’ve said that Kahanmoku’s life paralleled the saga of Hawaii in the 20th century. How so?
Duke Kahanamoku’s life and career were inextricably tied to the transformative changes experienced by Hawaii in the modern era. He was born in 1890, when the Hawaiian Islands were an independent nation. He was ten years old when Hawaii became a territorial possession of the United States (which made Duke eligible to compete for America in the Olympics). He was the Sheriff of Honolulu in 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, leading to the entrance of the United States in World War II. As the so-called Ambassador of Aloha, he was a key figure in the “selling” of Hawaii as a tourist haven and, later, in the campaign for statehood (attained in 1959). He was, it’s safe to say, the most notable Hawaiian-born figure until the emergence of one Barack Obama.
When most of us think about athletes who broke the color barrier we think of Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson. Where does Kahanamoku fit in?
Kahanamoku was a dark-skinned Pacific Islander, and he was among a tiny handful of non-white athletes who were able to forge successful sports careers before and after World War I. On the mainland, Duke was actually mistaken for being an African-American and was refused service at restaurants. But he grabbed a surfboard and quietly integrated beaches up and down the West Coast. He swam in the indoor pools of private clubs across the country and defeated the world’s best. That he handled himself with a regal graciousness endeared him to opponents and teammates alike.