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AMERICAN MASTERS: Waterman - Duke: Ambassador of Aloha

Duke at Stockholm Olympics credit T DeLaVega Family Collection
Courtesy of T. DeLaVega Family Collection
"Waterman" follows the journey of Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimmer who holds the distinction of being the first Native Hawaiian ever to compete at the Olympic Games, winning three gold and two silver medals over three different Olympiads. Here he is pictured at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.

Premieres Tuesday, May 10, 2022 at 9 p.m. on KPBS / On demand with PBS Video App

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.

AMERICAN MASTERS: Waterman – Duke: Ambassador of Aloha: Preview

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.

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.
Courtesy of The WNET Group
"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.

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.

The meaning of Aloha

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.

How Duke broke the swimming world record in Hawaii

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.

Duke's incredible rescue mission while on a surfboard

Related: How Native Hawaiian surfers used the ocean as sanctuary
Related: Honoring one of the most famous Hawaiians in the world

"Waterman" depicts the jaw-dropping tandem surfing ride with Isabel Letham, a young woman who would go on to become an accomplished surfer.
Courtesy of The WNET Group
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.

Watch On Your Schedule:

AMERICAN MASTERS is available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO.

"Waterman" follows Duke Kahanamoku (pictured) on his journey through the Olympics, Hollywood, and back to Hawai’i.
Courtesy of Ian Lind
Duke with trophies. "Waterman" follows Duke Kahanamoku (center) on his journey through the Olympics, Hollywood, and back to Hawai’i. He was named the “Ambassador of Aloha” in 1959 when Hawai’i became the 50th U.S. state.

Credits:

A production of Sidewinder Films, a division of The Foundation for Global Sports Development and Ungerleider-Ulich Productions in association with American Masters Pictures. Directed by Isaac Halasima. Produced by David Ulich and Dr. Steven Ungerleider. Michael Cascio is executive producer. Chet Thomas is Co-Producer. Michael Kantor is executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS.