Australia had a lot on its mind in 1914. The nation’s capital was still in its foetal form; drought strangled the wheat yield in the southern states; and World War I began to feed on the lives of our fit and able. Most of our troubles at that time could be traced back to a single deficit – we had no-one to show us how to slide along the ocean on a piece of flat wood.
Twenty-four short years earlier, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born in Hawaii to policeman Duke Halapu Kahanamoku and his wife Julia Paʻakonia Lonokahikina Paoa, who was very good at having children. At age three, Duke moved to Waikiki with his parents, where he was brought up alongside his eight siblings. He spent most of his childhood in the water, emerging occasionally for meals, schooling and haircuts.
It didn’t take long before Duke showed a particular aptitude for swimming and surfing (no doubt he also wondered if he’d be any good at acting, law enforcement and smiling gorgeously in the future). By the time he was 21 he could swim at world-record speeds, but when his times were submitted to swimming officials on the US mainland, they were assumed to be false or erroneous.
When Duke broke the world 200m record in his trial heat for the 1912 Olympic Games and went on to win gold in the 100m freestyle and silver in the 4x200m relay, people started to get the idea that he might be one of the best swimmers on the planet (and maybe also good at acting, law enforcement and being gorgeous). Duke didn’t stop at two medals. He won gold again in both the 100m freestyle and the 4x200m relay at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920, and silver in the 100m freestyle at the 1924 Paris Games, at the age of 33.
Ordinarily, people who win five Olympic swimming medals and break a bunch of world swimming records are best known for... you know… the swimming thing. But Duke Kahanamoku wasn’t interested in being ordinary. He is best known in most places – and certainly in Australia – for surfing.
The sport had been part of Hawaiian culture for centuries, but was only known in Australia from about 1911. In 1914, during one of his several international swimming tours, Duke gave a surfing demonstration at Freshwater Beach in Sydney. Given his Olympic fame and the aforementioned winning smile, Kahanamoku’s performance helped give the popularity of Australian surfing a good kick up its sandy bum. Who knows – perhaps some Australians will become quite good at it one day.
When Duke had finished riding the wave of swimming success*, he settled down in southern California to concentrate on his acting, law enforcement and gorgeousness. He appeared in films such as Mister Roberts (1955), in which he played a “Native Chief”; Hula (1927) as “Hawaiian Boy” and in The Black Camel (1931) as a surfing instructor. Either Duke didn’t have much of a range, or Hollywood casting directors in the early 20th century didn’t consider dark-skinned Polynesian surfers for any roles that weren’t miscellaneous dark-skinned foreigners and/or surfers. That sort of thing would never happen these days, of course.
From 1932 to 1961, Duke was the sheriff of Honolulu, with a stint as a military police officer during World War II. And if you were the kind of person who liked imagining very attractive people in a range of neatly-pressed uniforms, you might pause here for a little while for a spot of saucy daydreaming. But not me, obviously. That sort of… uniform… thing… doesn’t, um… oh goodness.
On January 22, 1968, Duke Kahanamoku took his final swim in the waters of existence**. He suffered a heart attack at age 77 and died at the Waikiki Yacht Club. At least, that’s what all his biographies say. But I don’t want to believe it. I want a man like Duke to live on forever. Like Elvis. Except a bit taller and with bigger hands and nicer-looking in a pair of togs.
I never really liked Elvis.
*This is possibly the worst metaphor-slash-segue I have ever written.
**No wait, THIS is the worst metaphor-slash-segue I have ever written.