Revered worldwide as the father of modern-day surfing, Duke Kahanamoku introduced Australia and New Zealand to the Hawaiian style of surfing. During a 1915 swimming exhibition tour, Duke captivated spectators with a demonstration of surfing on Freshwater Beach, Australia. Waterman depicts the jaw-dropping tandem surfing ride with Isabel Letham, a young woman who would go on to become an accomplished surfer.
American Masters Dives into the Legacy of Olympic Champion Duke Kahanamoku
Narrated by Jason Momoa and featuring rare archival footage and new interviews with Laird Hamilton, Carissa Moore, Jack Johnson and others
Five-time Olympic medalist Duke Kahanamoku broke swimming records and introduced the world to surfing while overcoming racism in a lifetime of personal challenges. American Masters: Waterman – Duke: Ambassador of Aloha explores his life, career and struggles with prejudice.
As a dark-skinned Pacific Islander, Kahanamoku broke racial barriers with athletic accomplishments before Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson – yet relatively few people outside of Hawaii know his story and impact.
Narrated by Jason Momoa (Aquaman, Game of Thrones, Dune), this new documentary reveals Kahanamoku’s influence on the global popularity of surfing, his life-saving achievements ad the obstacles he overcame within and outside of the world of sports.
Watch the premiere Tuesday, May 10 at 9pm on WITF TV or through the PBS Video app. The documentary will also be available for streaming starting May 11 through June 12 through the PBS Video app and at video.witf.org.
Kahanamoku’s story will be told using rare archival footage, contemporary visuals and new interviews with Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater, Carissa Moore, Jack Johnson, David Davis, Moses Goods, Dr. Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Fred Hemmings, Kelia Moniz, Kai Lenny and others.
The documentary shows Kahanamoku’s rise to fame and how he became the face of Hawaii as it evolved from an isolated island kingdom to a multi-ethnic American paradise.
After his performance in the 1924 Olympics, Kahanamoku dabbled in Hollywood and started to appear in movies by 1925. Unlike other Olympic champions who went on to star in blockbusters, Kahanamoku’s dream of playing Tarzan never materialized. Instead, that role went to his friend and Olympic rival, Johnny Weissmuller.
Though he represented Pacific Islanders in minor Hollywood roles, Kahanamoku became known as the “Ambassador of Aloha” and played a vital role in supporting Hawaii’s new and flourishing tourist industry.
Because of Kahanamoku’s influence and celebrity, surfing had spread throughout America and the globe by the time Hawaii joined the U.S. as its 5oth state. Through his popular surfing exhibitions, he brought the sport to both U.S. coasts, and to Freshwater Beach near Sydney, Australia. He also famously used his surfboard to save eight people from a shipwreck near Newport Beach, CA, which was heavily documented in news media.
WITF Passport members have extended access to Waterman – Duke: Ambassador of Aloha and other American Masters documentaries. Learn more or become a WITF Passport member or explore other American Masters documentaries today.
This program is part of WITF TV’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month programming. This month’s AAPI programming is supported by Penn State Health and The Foundation for Enhancing Communities.