Duke Kahanamoku Continues to Inspire

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Duke Kahanamoku Continues to Inspire


Early morning rain showers shrouded the upper mountain reaches of Oahu’s leeward coast. While at a lower elevation, along the coastline, the sands of Waikiki glowed in the morning sun, as usual, and the Duke’s Legends Surf Classic got underway with the shrill blast of an air horn.

Beachgoers unfurled their beach towels, raised beach umbrellas and inflated hot pink plastic rafts given out by the women at the Roxy booth—who were also giving away Schick Quattro for Women Surf Style razors, proving, in case there was ever any question, that women are a fixture in the surf lineup. Just like legends and lore of old Hawaii recount.

Before paddling out for their heat, the Outrigger Reef team made up of Joanna Demeo, Catharine Lo, Yushing Ting, Kuhao Zane and hall-of-fame surfer LJ Richards posed for their team photo in the manner popularized by the king of the sport who goes by the name of Duke.

Duke Paoa Kahanamoku is credited with reviving the sport of surfing after decades of banishment by starchy missionaries. He was the first to be inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame. He is renowned for riding a 35-foot wave for one-and-a-quarter miles off Waikiki. And there are dozens of photographs, and a larger-than-life, lei-bedecked statue on Kuhio Beach in Waikiki, portraying Duke standing in front of his legendary longboard.

But surfing is not what generated his international acclaim. Before Michael Phelps. Before Mark Spitz. Before Johnny Weissmuller. For twenty years, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku competed in the Olympic Games. He won a total of six medals in four Olympics in two different sports—swimming and water polo. He set Olympic records and world records. He captured his last medal at the age of 42.

Just as legendary as his athleticism, though, Duke was famous for his humility, honesty and aloha. Especially his aloha. Duke is known throughout the world as the “Ambassador of Aloha.” Printed on the back of his business card, and on the bronze plaque below his statue, were these words:

In Hawaii we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with "Aloha," which means with love. Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as the world's center of understanding and fellowship.

Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha. You'll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it, and it is my creed. Aloha to you. Duke Paoa Kahanamoku

The people of Hawaii love Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. They call him Hawaii’s greatest athlete. Thousands of water sports enthusiasts from around the state celebrate his legacy with week-long festivities every August. There’s traditional surfing for children, amateurs and professionals; there’s tandem surfing, stand up paddle surfing, stand up paddling, paddleboarding, canoe racing, swimming, beach volleyball, and, in the evenings, water-related movies on the beach. For the past seven years, Duke’s OceanFest has served as his extended birthday party. There’s even a birthday cake—this year’s sparkled the numbers 1-1-8—and a rendition of “Happy birthday to you.” Duke is so much a part of Hawaii today that you’d never know he’s been dead for 40 years. Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was born August 24, 1890; he died January 22, 1968.

After the photo session, Joanna Demeo turned to her team’s captain, LJ, and said, “I’m new at this.” She paused and the rest of her thoughts trailed offshore on the growing trade winds, which earlier in the day had created trouble for the tandem surfers.

LJ just smiled. When asked how many years she’d been surfing, Joanna laughed and said, “Point five.”

A total of 22 teams competed in the Duke’s Legends Surf Classic, each with a “legend,” which means a surfer of some notoriety who is 50 years of age or older. At 68, LJ qualified as the legend for Joanna’s team, sponsored by Outrigger Reef. Like Duke, he is also a member of the Internationals Surfing Hall of Fame. The rest of the four members of the team were made up of amateurs. Catharine and Yushing have surfed for 9 and 13 years, respectively, and Kuhao surfed as a boy but has hardly stepped on a board in the past half-dozen years.

And that’s just one of the three goals of Duke’s Oceanfest: To get people of all ability, from Joanna to LJ, in the water.

The second goal is to raise money for the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation. In 2008, ODKF will award $204,000 in college scholarships and athletic grants to more than 100 Hawaii athletes and nonprofit organizations.

On the water, Joanna’s team paddled out to the lineup. Immediately, a surfer sporting a bright red jersey paddled into a wave and popped up. “That’s LJ Richards, folks,” called out the announcer, watching from the grandstand tower. “LJ’s here from southern California. It’s fun watching these legends get together each year. These guys are old friends.”

Every team had 20 minutes to ride up to 15 waves per person. For scoring purposes, the best two rides of each surfer would make up the team’s score. Each surfer wore a different colored jersey, so the judges in the grandstand could identify them. In this heat, it seemed the only color painting the waves like a brush was red: LJ. A swath of white washed through a couple times. Also blue and yellow. And, finally, orange.

“Standing up and riding a wave is a beautiful thing, no matter how big it is,” said the announcer. “Only a surfer knows that feeling.”

When Joanna paddled back to shore and shed her orange jersey, she was smiling. She knew the feeling. Her team had not racked up enough points to rank near the top of the leader board, yet some of the first words out of her mouth were, “That was fun. It makes me want to surf more.”

And that’s the third goal of Duke’s OceanFest.

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