There are few who have never heard the name Duke: Paoa Kahanamoku, nicknamed Duke, was a living legend in the 1910s for being a five-time Olympic swimming medallist and in particular for his now legendary surfing demonstrations. Waterman a competing documentary , tells his story.

In Hawaii in 1910, times were difficult for the Hawaiian people. Paoa Kahanamoku was born into a colonized society where racism permeated daily life. “He changed lives just by being himself, he was the best athlete in the world in the 20th century and the first Polynesian to go around the world,” says Jason Momoa, the documentary’s narrator. Paoa, or Duke, simply wanted to be a waterman and he learnt from his father to swim, to fish, to live in harmony with the Hawaiian aloha spirit. When sports clubs were created, they were reserved for white people, for the rich, there was no room for the workers and even less for the Hawaiians. But the Hawaiians rebelled and created their own club which was mixed, where men and women of any origin were welcome and Duke was their teacher.  In August 1911 during a swimming competition, Duke took the start “for fun” and according to the timekeepers he beat the world record by several seconds. No way! He was celebrated but also disbelieved, everyone doubted it. A year later, he was entered in an international competition, but he who had never swum in a pool, in cold water, found himself unable to finish the race and was laughed at. A coach suspected his potential and took him under his wing and by dint of hard work, he managed to be selected for the American Olympic swimming team. This time, he finished the race well, won the gold medal and broke the world record in the 100 meters, again.

While his athletic record is impressive, especially in an era of segregation, it is Duke’s personality that was endearing and made him a legend. “His open-mindedness, his smile, his kindness, such an example of humanity.” The way he didn’t dwell on the racist remarks he heard. And then he was a real showman, especially in his surfing demonstrations. His Australian opponent Cecil Healy, invited him to his home for swimming contests but everyone wanted to see him surf. So he made his own wooden board and took to the waves, at the time, it was a real novelty to see someone go over the rollers to the peak and catch the wave, people thought he was crazy, that he was going to die, but no. He even accepted a challenge from a journalist to surf while carrying someone on his shoulders. Australians were amazed! “Travelling through Polynesia, many natives and locals recognized him. He was celebrated around the world,” says Isabel Cathcart, the producer of this film about him. He was invited all over the world to give surfing demonstrations. He then went to Hollywood dreaming of a career in film, but he only obtained roles as extras and never got a major part.

Back in Hawaii, Duke became a member of the “beach boys”. Then, in 1925, a boat capsized in the waves right in front of his eyes, despite the rough sea, he jumped in with his board and saved eight of the seventeen people. He never made a fuss and on the contrary hid from the journalists to avoid talking about it. That was during the surfing boom and all the personalities rushed to Hawaii to visit Duke the legend. He died at the age of 77 but his legacy is still very much alive. Several surfers testify in the documentary about the inspiration he is for them, an example to follow, and an idol. “60 years after his death, he remains alive in the minds of people who did not know him. We all learned a lot from making this film and it’s very special to be here in Tahiti when the surfing event of the next Olympics will be held here next year,” explains Isabel Cathcart. Duke surfed “for fun” but he dreamed of seeing his favourite sport entered in the Olympic Games. Today, he is not so well known by the new generation “They know his name but not his life. The production has offered this film to schools and we hope to extend this gift to all of Polynesia. May Duke’s legacy not be lost. He was a very special person,” concludes the producer.  

Lucie Rabréaud – FIFO