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.