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Aug 24, 2016

The Duke

It's hard to imagine a better ambassador for the Aloha State than Duke Kahanamoku.

Five-time Olympic medalist, father of modern surfing, actor, lifeguard, sheriff of Honolulu, and ambassador of aloha. The list goes on. To be sure, there was truly no one quite like Duke. And today, on August 24, we celebrate the birth of this Hawaiian legend by reflecting on the myriad of ways Duke quite literally changed the world.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Duke, The Olympian

Since Duke was a young boy, he was a staple in the waters of Waikīkī, setting himself apart from his peers for his uncanny swimming and surfing ability. From all accounts, there was no one that could match Duke in a swim race. Tales of his exploits in the pool eventually caught the attention of the entire world. On August 11, 1911 Duke swam the 100-meter dash in Honolulu at a record-shattering 55.4 seconds, obliterating the existing world record by a staggering 4.6 seconds. Duke's 100-meter time was so fast that officials on the mainland at the time didn't believe it and it would take years for them to recognize this achievement. On the heels of this legendary swim, Duke easily qualified for the 1912 Olympic Summer Games in Stockholm, where he would go on to win both a gold and silver medal and place Hawaiian swimmers quite literally on the podium. In the following games, Duke would continue racking up medals, ending his Olympic run with five podium finishes, catapulting him into worldwide fame. From all accounts, Duke was the Michael Phelps of his day, the fastest man in the pool with a gentle, respectful demeanor that earned him—and all of Hawaii—a respected place in the world.

Duke, Father of Modern-Day Surfing

While surfing has been an integral part of Hawaiian culture for hundreds of years, Duke is responsible for bringing this special Polynesian pastime to the rest of the world. When he wasn't competing in the Olympics or giving swimming exhibitions to fans the world over, Duke was sharing his love of surfing to the masses. On Christmas Eve, 1914, with throngs of Australians looking on, Duke rode a wave at Freshwater Beach in Sydney and changed the history of the Lucky Country forever. In the coming years, Aussies would flock to the lineups in droves and the sport would eventually come to define the entire country—all thanks to Duke. But his influence didn't end in Australia. He would eventually bring surfing to Southern California, New Zealand, and the East Coast as well. According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, Dukes real gift was "the way he presented the sport as something that could be practiced with grace, humor, and generosity. 'You know,' he said in 1965, 'there are so many waves coming in all the time, you don't have to worry about that. Take your time—wave come. Let the other guys go; catch another one.' The sport's greatest shortcoming may be that surfers have for the most part failed to live up to the Kahanamoku ideal.

Duke, The Lifeguard

In the 1920s, Duke spent quite a bit of time working as an actor and lifeguard in Southern California. It was here—when not rubbing elbows with some of Hollywood's most famous actors—that Duke pioneered life-saving techniques that are still in use today. In June of 1925 in Long Beach, California a vessel just off shore began to sink, spilling 29 fishermen into the sea. Using his surfboard, Duke heroically paddled past the lineup and towards the sinking ship, saving eight lives in the process. Following his heroics, which a local paper dubbed "superhuman" lifeguards in Southern California adopted surfboards into their life-saving efforts, a feat that has literally prevented thousands of people from drowning.

Duke, Sheriff and Ambassador of Aloha

Following his Olympic performances, Duke was revered in the Islands, a true living legend. So much so that he was elected as the sheriff of Honolulu 12 times, serving for more than two decades. In this position, Duke was often responsible for greeting foreign dignitaries and serving as an unofficial ambassador for the state, eventually earning the moniker as the Ambassador of Aloha. In the end, perhaps this was his greatest accomplishment: spreading Hawaii's sense of warmth to the rest of the world. "Duke provided the people of Hawaii with an idol which we'd been lacking since the monarchy," said Kenneth Brown, a family friend to the Kahanamokus. "Because of his fame, and the fact that people accepted him as a Hawaiian, it helped the perception of the Hawaiian people."

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