Duke swam into history at Olympic Games

Duke swam into history at Olympic Games

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - With six Olympic medals, three of them Gold, Duke Kahanamoku could have bragged. But conceit wasn't part of his vocabulary.

"He never boasted. He wouldn't. 'I won the race,' is about all he'd say," family friend Wilmer "Bill" Morris said.

Kahanamoku splashed onto the world scene as a 22-year-old in the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden. He set a record and won his first Gold medal. He was tall and muscular and larger than life.

"He had huge hands and feet.  He had feet like fins. I think that gave him a lot more leverage when it came to swimming fast," said Fred Hemmings, who knew Kahanamoku in his later years.

In the 1920 games at the age of 30, Duke finished first in the 100-meter freestyle. He was on the USA's winning relay team. He brought home two more Gold medals. One is on display at the Bishop Museum.

"Not only did he get a tremendous amount of publicity here at home for his swimming triumphs, but all throughout the United States, all throughout the world," Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown said.

In the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Kahanamoku came in second to fellow American Johnny Weismuller. The title of world's fastest swimmer changed hands. But Duke was still the man. He still is.

"He set the bar very high. and to our credit, many of Hawaii's great athletes have followed in his footsteps," Hemmings said.

Their photographs and accomplishments hang in the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame along with his.

"Duke really needs to be recognized as the pioneer, the first guy from Hawaii, the first Hawaiian to really blaze the trail for everybody who came after him in the Olympics," Brown said.

"I think he was the beginning of the American swimming force, as it is now," Morris said.

Duke competed in four Olympic games. The first at 22. The last at 42 when he was on the U.S. water polo team.  He is regarded as the greatest waterman Hawaii has ever produced.

Hemmings said the state should be proud of the man he was and in his character. It's not measured by records and races, but it is golden.

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