The inspiring story and impact of five-time Olympic medalist Duke Kahanamoku in “Waterman – Duke: Ambassador of Aloha” on AMERICAN MASTERS, May 21 at 9 pm

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American Masters Explores the Life and Legacy of Surfing Legend, Racial Pioneer and Olympic Champion Duke Kahanamoku

May 21 at 10 pm on WOUB

Documentary features narration by Jason Momoa, rare archival footage and new interviews with Laird Hamilton, Carissa Moore, Jack Johnson and others


man standing behind surfboard with many trophies. Three women in swimsuits with him smiling
Waterman follows Duke Kahanamoku on his journey through the Olympics, Hollywood, and back to Hawai’i, where he served as the Sheriff of Honolulu for 13 terms. After two decades of public service, Duke’s longtime status as the unofficial greeter of Hawai’i became official: he was named the “Ambassador of Aloha” in 1959 when Hawai’i became the 50th U.S. state.

Five-time Olympic medalist Duke Kahanamoku shattered records as a swimmer and brought surfing to the world while overcoming rampant 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 through racial barriers with athletic accomplishments before Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson; yet relatively few outside of Hawaii know the details of his inspiring story and considerable impact. Narrated by Jason Momoa (Aquaman, Game of Thrones, Dune), this new documentary reveals Kahanamoku’s influence on surfing’s global spread, his life-saving achievements and the obstacles he conquered both within and outside the sporting world.

man surfing a wave with woman on his shoulders
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.

Using rare archival footage, contemporary visuals and new interviews with Laird Hamilton (big wave surfer), Kelly Slater (11-time world champion surfer), Carissa Moore (Olympic surfing gold medalist), Jack Johnson (musician), David Davis (author, “Waterman”), Moses Goods (playwright and actor, “Duke”), Dr. Isaiah Helekunihi Walker (author, “Waves of Resistance”), Fred Hemmings (world champion surfer), Kelia Moniz (world champion surfer), Kai Lenny (big wave surfer) and others. The documentary presents Kahanamoku’s rise to fame and how he became the face of a changing Hawaii as it evolved from an isolated island kingdom to a multi-ethnic American paradise.

Man swimming underwater in Olympic pool
Waterman explores the journey and legacy of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, renowned Olympic swimmer and undisputed father of modern-day surfing. After shattering the world record for the 100-yard freestyle swim in 1911, Duke traveled to the University of Pennsylvania and trained under coach George Kistler before competing at the Olympics. Duke is known for developing the “Kahanamoku Kick” – a flutter kick that made him a fierce competitor in the water.

After his appearance in the 1924 Olympics, Kahanamoku began dabbling in Hollywood and started to appear in movies by 1925. Unlike other Olympic champions who went on to further glory by starring in blockbusters, Kahanamoku’s dream of playing Tarzan in the movies never materialized. Instead, the role went to his friend and Olympic swimming rival Johnny Weissmuller. Though he represented Pacific Islanders in minor Hollywood roles, Kahanamoku became best known as the “Ambassador of Aloha” playing a vital role in supporting the burgeoning tourist industry.

By the time Hawaii became the 50th state, surfing had spread throughout America and around the world because of Kahanamoku’s influence and celebrity. Through his popular surfing exhibitions, he brought the sport to both coasts of the United States and to Freshwater Beach near Sydney, Australia. Additionally, he famously used his surfboard to save eight people from a shipwreck off Newport Beach in California, which was highly documented in news media.