‘Waterman — Duke: Ambassador of Aloha’: What We Learned About Duke Kahanamoku

A souvenir travel brochure for Hawaii features an illustration of the
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“Name some other American athlete that has statues erected to him in three different countries,” says one disciple of swimming and surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku in this enthralling American Masters profile (Jason Momoa narrates). Here are three ways the Hawaiian trailblazer made waves.

Olympic Champ

In 1912, Duke went from ocean wonder who’d never swum in a pool to the 100m freestyle gold medalist at the Stockholm Games. (Due to a miscommunication, he’d missed the semifinals and faced disqualification, but Aussie favorite Cecil Healy said he wouldn’t race without him!) Duke defended his gold at the 1920 Olympics and earned silver in a 1924 American sweep.

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Father of Surfing

At Healy’s invite, Duke traveled Down Under in 1914 and introduced eager Aussies to Hawaiian surfing. He continued on to New Zealand; schools, shops and post offices shut down so Kiwis could watch his demonstration.

Bona Fide Hero

When a fishing boat capsized off a California beach in 1925, Duke rescued eight men on his surfboard. We see three of those survivors surprise him on This Is Your Life. Like the stoic icon—who also served as Honolulu sheriff for nearly 30 years—you’ll be moved to tears.

Waterman — Duke: Ambassador of Aloha, Tuesday, May 10, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)