All illustrations by Chris Danger

Duke Kahanamoku

His amazing skills helped make surfing popular worldwide.

A crowd lined the shore of a beach near Sydney, Australia. It was December 1914. Duke Kahanamoku (kah-hah-nah-MOH-koo) put his surfboard into the ocean and paddled toward the waves. When he zoomed back into view, he was standing tall on top of the water.

Kahanamoku put on a show. He rode wave after wave, facing forward and backward—he even stood on his head! His surfing exhibitions helped turn the sport into a national craze in Australia.

Kahanamoku went on to introduce the sport to the world. Today, he is known as the father of modern surfing—and one of the greatest there has ever been. 

A Natural in the Water

Bettmann via Getty Images

Duke Kahanamoku

Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Growing up, he spent much of his time surfing. The ancient sport had been a part of Native Hawaiian culture for centuries. Hawaiians called it he‘e nalu (HEH-eh NAH-loo), or wave sliding.

Spending so much time in the water helped Kahanamoku become a strong swimmer. He made a name for himself in Hawaii, which became a U.S. territory when he was a boy. But he was unknown thousands of miles away in the rest of the U.S.

That would soon change. In August 1911, the American Athletic Union held a swim meet in Honolulu Harbor. Kahanamoku won the 100-yard freestyle. He shattered the world record by 4.6 seconds. But officials refused to recognize the record. They couldn’t believe anyone could swim that fast. Outraged, his community raised money to send Kahanamoku to California to prove himself.

He did just that, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team. Kahanamoku won both a gold and a silver medal at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, Sweden.

A Daring Rescue

Kahanamoku was invited to other countries to show off his swimming skills. He also surfed whenever he could, on a 16-foot board that weighed more than 100 pounds. He thrilled people who had never seen the sport. 

At the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, he won two more gold medals in swimming events.

His skills in the water also proved to be lifesaving. In June 1925, a boat capsized in Newport Beach, California. The sea was too rough for a rescue boat. So Kahanamoku paddled out on his surfboard and saved eight men.

Alamy Stock Photo

Duke Kahanamoku (left) receives a medal from the King of Sweden at the 1912 Olympics.

Hawaii’s Gift

By the time Hawaii became a state in 1959, surfing had become more popular. People rode the waves in movies, music lyrics, and TV shows.

Kahanamoku died in 1968 at age 77, but his legacy lives on. A century after he suggested it, surfing became an Olympic sport at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan. Today, many people call surfing Hawaii’s gift to the world—that’s largely thanks to Kahanamoku.

  1. Why do many people consider Kahanamoku the father of modern surfing?
  2. The text says that Kahanamoku “shattered the world record” in the 100-yard freestyle. What does the verb shattered tell you?
  3. According to the article, how did Kahanamoku’s skills in the water prove to be lifesaving?
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