"Waterman" Showcases an Olympian Every Sports Fan Should Know
A Quick Film Review
As an Olympic fan, I've certainly known the name of Duke Kahanamoku as a swimming and surfing legend, but I've not delved much deeper into the Olympian's background beyond that. And that's a shame, as his life story runs parallel to so much critical history of sport and United States culture.
Growing up amidst the turmoil of colonial-era Hawaii, as a white population increasingly marginalized native Hawaiians, Kahanamoku embodied both the traditional spirit of 'aloha' - described as a generosity and a 'lifestyle of sharing from within', and pull toward becoming a 'waterman' - one connected with the power and potential of water. His surf club enabled him to teach surfing while showcasing an inclusivity and community the white-run Outrigger Club didn't, and which gave foundation to his swimming career.
From there, Waterman takes us on Kahanamoku's journey from a 'nobody to the Olympics in a matter of months'. A gifted athlete, he would win five Olympic medals across four Olympics (Stockholm 1912, Antwerp 1910, Paris 1924, and Amsterdam 1928) and while competing as both a swimmer and water polo player. While at it, the 'Kahanamoku kick' revolutionized the sport.
In between Games, he found success and popularity promoting surfing, previewing a role to come fully later in his life. But before that, he faced struggles - needing to retain amateurism for the Olympics combined with prejudices to limit his earning potential. Post-Games, an attempted Hollywood career never blossomed into starring roles. Waterman doesn't shy from Kahanamoku's difficulties, instead using them to fuel a complete picture of a man with an extraordinary life, and with successes to come in his later stages despite the hardships.
Fellow Olympic fans will appreciate acknowledgement of fellow Olympian Cecil Healy, whose sense of sportsmanship was crucial to Kahanamoku's success, and mention inclusion of swimming rival Johnny Weissmuller, who would eventually overshadow 'the Duke' both in the pool and on the Hollywood screen. Brother and fellow Olympic medalist (Paris 1924) Sam Kahanamoku is glimpsed on the This is Your Life telecast. And, Tokyo 2020 surfing gold medalist - and Hawaiian - Carissa Moore provides a modern athlete's perspective on Kahanamoku's legacy.
It's a shame that Kahanamoku wasn't able to see surfing debut as an Olympic sport, but its fair to say that without his work - his joy - in promoting the sport years ago, it might not be where it is today. Waterman is a must-watch, not just for any Olympics and sports fan in appreciation of his swimming and surfing achievements, but for anyone interested in an example of a uniquely American full life.