I previously overlooked a Native American who competed in the 1912 Olympics because he was not an American Indian. Duke Kahanamoku (real name Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku) of Hawaii was, not surprisingly, America’s best swimmer. Also not surprising is that the AAU did not recognize his records until much later. They initially claimed that the judges must have been using alarm clocks rather than stopwatches, and later conjectured that he had been aided by ocean currents. Fortunately, the AAU did not operate the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.
In the Olympic trials, Duke broke the 200-meter freestyle record when swimming his leg in a heat for the 4×200 relay. At Stockholm, he won the gold medal for the 100-meter freestyle and silver as a member of the relay team. The 1916 Berlin Games were postponed until 1936 due to the outbreak of World War I. Antwerp, Belgium was awarded the honor of hosting the 1920 games because of the devastation Belgium experienced in The Great War. Duke crossed the Atlantic to compete again. This time he brought home two golds; one for the 100-meter freestyle and one for the relay. Fellow Hawaiian Pua Kele Kealoha came in second to Duke in the 100-meter freestyle and was a member of the gold-medal-winning relay team. Warren Paola Kealoha, Pua’s brother, won the gold in the 100-meter backstroke and repeated the feat in the 1924 games.
Duke crossed the Atlantic yet again in 1924 for the Paris Games where he came in second in the 100-meter freestyle, losing to Windber, PA’s own future Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller. His younger brother, Samuel Kahanamoku, took home the bronze medal. Duke did not medal in the 1928 games but participated in the Olympics again in 1932, this time as an alternate on the bronze-medal-winning water polo team.
But swimming was just a means to an end for Kahanamoku – to his surfboard, that is. Growing up on the outskirts of Waikiki (near the present site of the Hilton Hawaiian Village), it was natural that Duke would take up surfing, but how he became the father of surfing is a story for another time.