The Ultimate Waterman

Writer David Davis takes us into his new biography on Duke Kahanamoku

Duke's biography hits shelves in early October. Photo courtesy of David Davis.
Duke’s biography hits shelves in early October. Photo courtesy of David Davis.

David Davis is a sports writer whose byline has appeared in The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, but his new work ventures into some unfamiliar waters. His book, Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, looks to set the record straight on Duke as a major biography on the man’s life. Davis took a moment to talk with SURFER about his new book, what he discovered during his research, and the impact of Kahanamoku’s legacy on American culture.

Your longform sportswriting has primarily covered running, specifically marathons. Why write a book on Duke? And why now?

“It actually began while researching for my first book, Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, and covering the athletes of the 1908 and 1912 Olympics. There was Jim Thorpe, one of the most famous athletes to emerge in the 1912 games, and there were a bunch of sources written about Thorpe. Not too far behind Thorpe in terms of achieving fame that year was Duke Kahanamoku. Duke is obviously known for surfing, but most people don’t know much about his Olympic swimming career. There have been very well-written and well-researched stories about Duke, but I don’t think anyone had done a comprehensive book. I am not well-versed as a surfer, but to me, his story is bigger than just his surfing.

Where did the research begin for you?

“While I was finishing up the manuscript for my first book, I took a trip to Hawaii and poked around in museums and archives. I wanted to get a sense of what material was out there that I could access and who I might want to talk to and interview. I found a boatload of material that I felt like biographers had not really put together. You have to start in Hawaii. Everything about Duke starts in Hawaii, and in particular, Oahu. I also researched up and down California, from Santa Cruz to San Diego. I went back East and did some research at Duke University to look at the Doris Duke-Cromwell papers. I didn’t get the chance to go to Australia or New Zealand, but I was able to get some good articles on his trips there. Thankfully, he kept a journal of that trip, which is at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and that was a great resource. Researching Duke, you just start connecting the dots. One door opens and it leads you to another door, and you just keep going.”

Duke’s personality was typically viewed as one of friendliness and humility—the embodiment of the spirit of Aloha—but in the book, his rivalry with actor and swimmer Johnny Weissmuller complicates that picture. What was Duke like as a competitor?

“Duke was a man of humility, but he was also a competitor; I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You can be a fiery competitor, but once you’re outside the arena, you can be genial and welcoming and so forth. I think the rivalry between [Johnny] Weissmuller and Duke was very important in Duke’s life. In some ways, they had a lot of similarities. They both were high school dropouts, sort of outsiders. Weissmuller was of German, Austrian, and Hungarian descent, and he was very much an immigrant, not necessarily welcomed in all of the insider circles. Duke had a similar experience, and they both found release and joy and victory in the water. So in some ways they were similar, and in some ways they were very different. One point I’ll bring up about Duke’s competitiveness: Paul Strauch, Jr, the great surfer from Hawaii, was part of Duke’s surf team in the ‘60s, and he travelled with Duke quite a bit. Strauch relates a story about Duke, who was in his 70s at the time, when the two of them were attending a surf contest in Huntington Beach. When the third-place finisher was announced, the guy walked up on the stage, didn’t kiss the beauty queen, stormed off the stage, and threw the trophy in the trash can. Everyone was taken aback. Strauch turned to Duke and went, ‘Can you believe that?’ And Duke turned to him and said, ‘Wow, Paul. He really wanted to win. That’s great.’ And that was Duke in his 70s. In 1932, Duke tried one last time to make the Olympic team, and he’s 41 years old. He didn’t make it, but I think it’s telling that he still wanted to try, and that competitiveness was still in him. I think it was difficult for him after his career was over. Figuring out what’s next can be a difficult thing for a world-class athlete, when your only thought for the previous 20 years was your game, and your sport, and staying in shape. And then it’s gone. It disappears. I think people naturally struggle with that. Duke went through that, but then was able to gain his footing and equilibrium and move on with his life.”

Tom Blake (left) and Duke. The two developed a close friendship during Duke's time in Southern California.
Tom Blake (left) and Duke. The two eventually developed a friendship during Duke’s time in Southern California. Photo: Tom Blake/SHF

Duke met racial intolerance in the U.S. before Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson did, and yet his name is rarely mentioned among the athletes who pioneered a new form of race relations in America. Just what was his impact in that regard, and what will be his legacy?

“That was an important part of his story to me that seemed neglected or overlooked. If you go back and look at the non-white athletes at the time, there was Jack Johnson, the boxer, Jim Thorpe who was ¾ Native American and a quarter Irish in him, and not too many others. Obviously Duke was not African American; he was Hawaiian. But he was very dark-skinned and was sometimes mistaken as African American. And he did encounter prejudice and racism on the mainland. He was refused service at certain restaurants, believe it or not, in California. Some of the ‘public beaches’ of California were anything but. Duke belonged to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and if they were racing against another team, Duke was probably the only non-white athlete competing. In terms of comparison to a figure like Jackie Robinson, who came after World War II, fighting for democracy, and based on the sport of baseball being the national pastime, and the dramatics of that combination — I wouldn’t put Duke quite in the same category. But he certainly broke ground, not just on the mainland, but also in Hawaii. He was the first full-blooded Hawaiian to be in the Outrigger Canoe Club, which was an all-white, very exclusive club. He straddled two worlds, sometimes successfully and sometimes with challenges. He didn’t talk about it much, at least not publically. It’s frustrating that we don’t have, on the record, an answer to questions like, ‘How did you feel about being refused service at a restaurant due to your skin color?’ But we do have some firsthand testimony from those who did see him encounter it, and I tried to draw what I could from that.”

What was the most surprising piece of information you learned about him?

“I didn’t realize just how massive a figure he was and is to the American sports culture, and I mean that in a number of ways. We know that he was father of surfing, the Johnny Appleseed of surfing. But you also have to extrapolate one step further. Skateboarding comes directly from surfing. Snowboarding comes directly from surfing and skateboarding. When you connect the dots, you could argue that Duke was the godfather of actions sports. He also did quietly a version of what we now know as standup paddling. That vastness to me is amazing, and I didn’t realize how influential he really was. There’s a quote from sports columnist Bob Considine from the ‘30s. He visited Hawaii once and wrote a column about Duke, and his line was, ‘Down here, in Hawaii, Duke is Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey combined.’ When you think about that, those are two of the biggest sports figures ever, and certainly in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was an honor and a privilege to look into his life as much as I could, and I hope I did a little bit of justice to it.”