Honoring Duke And His Descendants
He was the original Ambassador of Aloha and one of Hawaii’s most beloved athletes and heroes.
But Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was more than just a five-time Olympic medalist and Hawaii’s greatest waterman — he was a fine actor, a former sheriff of Honolulu and the father of modern-day surfing.
But to his many nieces and nephews, he was simply Uncle Duke.
“I’m fortunate I was old enough to be brought up by all of my uncles, and Uncle Duke was a soft-hearted, kind person, very loving and very giving,” says Elianne Kahanamoku-Vannatta of Kona, the granddaughter of Samuel Kahanamoku. “My uncle taught me to share with the world his love of surfing and all water sports. The ocean was his playground, and it’s the same with all the family members.”
Kahanamoku-Vannatta says Uncle Duke willingly shared his knowledge with her and her cousins. She has vivid memories of one particular lesson she learned at an early age.
“The one lesson that sticks in my mind was him telling me to keep my head down when I dive,” she chuckles. “I always had a bad habit of lifting my head up when I jumped in the water. Of course, I tried to swim like him, but I didn’t have his amazing hands and strong feet.”
Few on this planet ever will. On March 15, Uncle Duke will be honored in the 30th annual Duke Kahanamoku Challenge at Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Duke’s Beach and Lagoon. His family says it is an honor he truly deserves.
“I think it’s wonderful that to this day they still celebrate my uncle’s life,” says Kahanamoku-Vannatta. “Our family is so very proud of him. We’re very happy.”
Waikiki Jaycees first established the event in 1985 as a community-service project. Back then it was called the Ala Wai Challenge. Five years ago, they moved the event to Duke’s Beach to honor Kahanamoku.
“It’s so exciting because it’s such a wonderful event and especially since it is being held at Kalia in Waikiki, where the Paoa family once lived, it’s extra special,” says niece Heather Kinau Paoa-Hicks of Honolulu. “This is where he learned to love the ocean. It’s where he grew up surfing and paddling.”
Today the Duke Kahanamoku Challenge is a family and corporate event for the entire community, and is the signature sports fundraiser benefiting Waikiki Community Center. Proceeds from the event support programs and services for families, children and senior adults who live, work and visit Waikiki.
“I’ve been to the events, and I always think it’s good to include the community in any kind of watersports,” says Paoa-Hicks. “Paddling and surfing is the main focus for our family because of my uncle, and I’m all for sharing this love with the next generation of children. It keeps them clean, safe and out of trouble.”
Organizers once again have lined up great entertainment for the daylong event. But the highlight of the day will be the opening ceremony, which starts at 9 a.m. on the grand lawn of Hilton Hawaiian Village. In memory of Duke, several of his direct descendants will be introduced as part of the ceremony.
“I know the family is just so thankful to be a part of the celebration of Duke Kahanamoku,” says Paoa-Hicks. “We’re just so proud of him and everything that he represented about Hawaii.”
“It’s just an honor to be part of this event because he has brought so much love to the community and to the rest of the world,” adds Kahanamoku-Vannatta. “He brought surfing where it is today, and after all these years, people still look up to him.”
And they do as well to the hero, the legendary waterman, the loving uncle.