Date: July 10, 1912
Place: Stockholm, Sweden
The Moment: Duke Kahanamoku wins swimming gold in the 100 meters freestyle at the Summer Olympics, introducing Hawaiian culture and, ultimately, surfing to the world.
Take your time — wave come. Let the other guys go; catch another one. – Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku is the Father of Modern Surfing, though he should be more generally regarded as Father of Modern Stoke, because in many ways that’s exactly what he is. From the fanciful beaches in Europe to the Gold Coast of Australia, the Honolulu-born waterman was not only a champion in the medal sense, but revered on his home islands as a global representative and celebrated in his travels as a wave riding ambassador of aloha.
The name “Duke” was not a title or a nickname, but a given name, passed down from his policeman father who was christened “Duke” by then Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop in honor of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, on a visit by the Brit. But, nonetheless, it was a deserved and appropriate name as Duke was true Hawaiian and surf royalty, a strong representative for both communities. He was immensely proud of his roots, a predecessor and mentor to the similarly spirited Eddie Aikau, among others. In a time when those very roots were often at odds with the infrastructural growth and development of his Hawaiʻi, Duke saw past the differences and hoped to respectfully bridge the gap by sharing the stoke. And following a two-medal showing at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, he was given the platform to do so.
On July 10, 1912, Duke won the first of five Olympic medals, standing atop the platform twice, receiving an individual gold in the 100 meter freestyle and a team silver in the 200 meter relay. He then took this newfound celebrity to tour the world, encouraged by the international acknowledgement and intrigue of his water prowess. Over the next decade, Duke visited New Jersey in 1912 (on his return trip from Stockholm), Australia and New Zealand in 1914, and Southern California in 1915. And it was during these travels that he met the legendary Tom Blake, inspiring the Wisconsin-born swimmer to move to Hawaiʻi to take up surfing. This is the same Tom Blake that would go on to invent the fin and hollow board, as well as influence surf photography. Duke’s stoke was infectious, and he touched lives in the furthest reaches of the increasingly interconnected world.
However, his lore is not without adversity. He was discriminated against for his darker skin on his mainland United States tours, restaurants occasionally refusing to serve him. In Hollywood, he appeared in John Wayne films, but his roles were limited to background characters, ethnic caricatures really. But to no matter — Duke’s stoke was bigger than the racism he encountered. By sharing this stoke, he truly was a harbinger of change, most emphatically in the coastal regions that would embrace surf in an almost hysteria.
Duke died on January 22, 1968 at the age of 77. As his burial at sea was carried out, a group of beach boys (of which he was the quintessential Waikiki beachboy) sang “Aloha Oe,” a farewell song written by Queen Liliʻuokalani. The song was about an embrace given by Colonel James Harbottle Boyd of the Kingdom of Hawaii to Liliʻuokalani’s sister Princess Likelike Cleghorn, a tender farewell ripe with aloha.