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Paying homage to a hero

Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic swimmer, "father of surfing'' and rescuer of eight has been honored on a stamp.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 30, 2002


You can be an ordinary athlete by getting away with less than your best. But if you want to be great, you have to give all you got -- your everything.

-- Duke Kahanamoku

* * *

ST. PETERSBURG -- The woman behind the counter of my friendly neighborhood post office appeared confused.

"Duke Who?" she asked.

"Kahanamoku," I replied. "The father of surfing."

I explained that I received a news release announcing that on Aug. 24 a stamp honoring the legendary wave rider and Olympian would be unveiled at a ceremony in his hometown of Honolulu. I wanted to buy a few for my son before they ran out.

Duke, you see, is a personal hero, but it is not just because of his athletic accomplishments. Soft-spoken and humble, Kahanamoku is widely considered to be the ultimate "waterman." He swam, surfed, paddled, and when called upon, wasn't afraid to use those skills to help others.

But ask most youngsters today, or "grommets" as they are called in surfing circles, who the father of the sport is and they probably will say Kelly Slater. Sure, the Cocoa Beach surfer has won more world titles than you can count on one hand, but even he owes a debt of gratitude to Duke, the man who started it all.

Duke first burst onto the world stage in 1911 when he swam the 100-meter freestyle in less than a minute, a magic mark that was equivalent to running a four-minute mile. At first, people thought there had been a mistake. So he went to the mainland, where he dazzled audiences with his adaptation of the Australian crawl, earning a spot on the 1912 U.S. Olympic team.

Duke traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, broke the Olympic record and received his first of three gold medals. In the years that followed, he would travel the world, participating in swimming exhibitions and introducing thousands to surfing, the sport of Hawaiian kings.

It is said that Duke had the longest ride ever on a surfboard -- more than a mile -- atop a monster wave spawned by a Japanese earthquake. But perhaps his most defining moment came in 1925.

Duke and some friends were relaxing on a beach at Corona Del Mar, Calif., when they spotted a luxury yacht in trouble a few hundred yards offshore. Of the 29 people aboard the Thelma, 17 died. But eight owed their lives to Duke, who made trip after trip to the stricken craft on his surfboard.

In his early years, the dark-skinned Hawaiian encountered the racism and discrimination that faced all people of color of his time. And despite his status as a world-class competitor, Duke never enjoyed the financial success one would have expected, which is hard to comprehend in a day when millionaire athletes whine about salaries.

But Duke would be proud to see how the sport that he popularized has grown exponentially. In recent years, surfing, along with other so-called "extreme sports," has surged in popularity.

The number of surfers has increased by about 25 percent a year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. But the number of kids who snowboard, skateboard and surf may be coming at the expense of traditional sports. The same survey shows participation dropping in baseball, basketball, softball and volleyball.

Surfing also has become the darling of the media. At the recent Teen Choice Awards, winners were given surfboards as organizers hope to ride the wave of success generated by the film Blue Crush.

Next to college football, surfing is Florida's most successful sport. On the current Association of Surfing Professionals tour, three Floridians are ranked in the top 10: Shea Lopez (No. 3) and brother Cory (No. 7) hail from Indian Rocks Beach. C.J. Hobgood (No. 9) comes from the east coast.

Some people say that you can't surf in the Gulf of Mexico. Don't tell that to the hundreds of shortboarders who will flock to places like Sunset of Bradenton Beach when the next tropical system rolls through. In the winter, when the north wind blows, you'll find dozens of "graybeards" -- doctors, lawyers, even judges -- riding the waves of Upham Beach on their longboards.

For this we have to thank but one man: Duke Kahanamoku.

I'll make sure my son understands that. He has a poster of my hero hanging in his room and each night before he goes to bed, he says: "Good night, Duke."

Kahanamoku never had any children, but I am sure that looking down from heaven, he would be surprised to see how large his family has grown.

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