Article

How To Be A Legend

The art of creating a legacy with Duke Kahanamoku

| posted on March 13, 2012

A legend in the making, a young Duke Kahanamoku poses for a photo on the East Coast. Photo: Library of Congress

Duke Kahanamoku’s impact on the world can’t be overstated. Although he may be best known as the father of our sport among surfers, the list of accomplishments outside of the lineup bearing his name are seemingly endless: five-time Olympic gold medalist, actor, Sheriff of Honolulu, international celebrity, hero. Want to be remembered as a legend long after you’re gone? Take a note from the original:

Stay True To Your Roots. Despite being an international celebrity with fans from around the world, Duke, who was of pure Hawaiian descent, always held true to his heritage. Known for speaking Hawaiian and holding an affinity for Hawaiian food, he never turned his back on his homeland and culture. When he returned home from his first Olympic Games with a gold medal in tow, he became an icon in the islands. “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.” With the exception of a stint in Hollywood where he worked as an actor, appearing in more than 25 films, Duke continued to call Hawaii home throughout his life, serving as the Sheriff of Honolulu for 26 years. If that alone wasn’t enough to earn him legendary status, there’s even a Supreme Court decision bearing his name.

Be a Legend Outside of the Lineup. If you thought that Duke’s prowess in the ocean was legendary, his aptitude in the pool was otherworldly. Throughout his life, Duke would take five Olympic medals back to his home in Waikiki. In 1911, while swimming in an amateur race in Honolulu as a 21-year-old, Duke shattered the existing world record in the 100-yard freestyle by four seconds, astounding the swimming community. Duke would continue swimming competitively for the next 20 years, becoming a swimming hall-of-famer and a household name to the world.

Change Surfing Forever. While most men father children, Duke fathered modern surfing. Beginning in the early 19th century, Calvinist missionaries in Hawaii sought to quell the sport. Although it would never truly be quashed, for the next century, lineups that once overflowed in the islands grew desolate. But beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, surfing experienced a renaissance in Hawaii, and Duke was there leading the rebirth. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was regarded as one of the most adept surfers and watermen in Honolulu. In 1915, while visiting Sydney, Australia, Duke shaped an 8’6″ alaia out of Australian Sugar Pine and took a young woman named Isabel Letham on a tandem ride, making her the country’s first surfer and ushering in a sport that would come to define a nation. In the ensuing years, Duke would continue his travels to the East Coast of the United States, putting on clinics in New Jersey and sowing the seeds for the East Coast surf scene. Although he was by no means the first surfer in many of the places he put on clinics, his was undoubtedly the most influential.

Save a Life, or Eight. While living in Southern California working as an actor, Duke heroically saved the lives of eight men. In June of 1925, just outside of Corona Del Mar, a pleasure boat capsized, spilling its passengers into the sea. Upon hearing of the situation, Duke grabbed his board and paddled out to the scene where he dragged all eight survivors back to the beach over multiple trips. The local police chief would call Duke’s act that day “superhuman.” Ever modest, Duke had left the scene well before reporters arrived.

Your Job is Done When…: You’ve officially become a legend when you become the center of larger-than-life stories that begin to border on myth. Part truth, part embellishment, all legendary, the stories seem to grow with every telling. Our personal favorite is the purported death-battle with a 10-foot eel that appeared in multiple newspapers in 1913. Although we’re skeptical on the factuality of the piece, there’s no denying that if a story of this caliber ever appears about you, you’ve officially entered legendary status. Here is an excerpt from the Long Beach Press article in July of 1913:

HAWAIIAN SWIMMER BATTLES WITH BIG EEL

As a result of a battle to the death with a ten-foot eel, the largest ever seen here. Duke Kahanamoku, who won the world’s championship at Stockholm, is today minus the index finger on his right hand and his swimming prowess may be permanently impaired.

The swimmer encountered the eel while practicing for the Australian swimming championships off here, and after a fight lasting several minutes, choked it to death. He was exhausted when he reached the shore, with the eel’s body in tow.


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  • http://www.surfingheritage.org bkh2o

    You may get in a little trouble with the statement concerning Duke introducing surfing to Australia and Isobel being the first native Australian surfer. Many Australians will disagree with this.

  • http://www.miketabeling.com Mike Tabeling

    Young Duke Kahanamoku would have become a legend without anyone’s help, but when he was a strapping 19 year-old, and the hottest surfer on the island, he was ‘discovered’, at least to the rest of the world, by an East Coast surfer from South Carolina named Alexander Hume Ford. To him, this amazing young man was the personification of surfing. Alex was an incredible promoter who love this new-to-him sport of wave riding and in 1911 he put the Duke on the cover of the first issue of his new magazine ‘Mid-Pacific’. The East Coaster, Alexander, was all about promoting surfing and founded the Outrigger Canoe Club in 1908. Jeeze, being a proud East Coaster myself, I can’t let a bit of East Coast history go un mentioned. :-)

  • Mitch Martinson

    Wow! Tabeling and BK, 2 legends right there. 10 foot Eel?