Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Avery from St Augustine, FL. Avery Wonders, “Who invented surfing?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Avery!

Have you ever thought about riding the waves? Paddling out into the surf. Waiting for a huge ocean wave. Then jumping on a board and riding into the shore. Or maybe you would like to try paddle surfing. For people who live near or have visited the ocean, surfing can be an exciting sport.

Surfing began in the islands of the Pacific Ocean a long time ago. The first evidence of surfing is a cave painting from the 12th century! In Indigenous Hawaiian culture, people had a strong connection to the ocean. He’e Nalu, or wave sliding, was not just a sport. Men and women surfed as part of social rituals. They saw building boards as a spiritual process. 

In the late 1800s, missionaries came to the Hawaiian islands from the United States. They encouraged Native Hawaiians to accept American ways. The missionaries wanted people to stop using traditional practices. They discouraged surfing. Fewer and fewer Hawaiians did He’e Nalu.

However, in the early 1900s,  more Hawaiians returned to surfing. One of them was Duke Kahanamoku. He, his brothers, and friends started a surf club called Hui Nalu in Waikiki. They competed in local surf competitions. People described Duke as “a showman in the surf.” As excitement grew, more Hawaiians took up the sport. He became known as the “Father of Modern Surfing.”

Kahanamoku was also famous as a swimmer. He had a unique style of swimming for his time. Kahanamoku used an overhead arm stroke called the Australian crawl. He  also developed a signature kick called the “Kahanamoku kick.” He entered and won competitions in cities across the United States. In the 100-meter freestyle, he set, and then broke, a new world record. 

In 1912, Kahanamoku competed in his first Olympic games. He swam in the 100-meter freestyle and  won a gold medal. Kahanamoku also won a silver medal in the 4x200-meter relay race. He was the first Hawaiian Native to win an Olympic medal. Kahanamoku competed in three more Olympics. He won five swimming medals—three gold and two silver—during his career.

Kahanamoku traveled around the world as an Olympic medalist. He did swimming demonstrations and showed off his signature moves. He often took his surfboard on these trips. Duke began teaching people how to surf.

In 1914, Kahanamoku was visiting Australia. A picture of him standing on a surfboard appeared on a flier. People wanted to see him surf, but he did not have a board. Kahanamoku built his own surfboard from wood he found at a hardware store. He put on a surfing exhibition at Freshwater Beach in Sydney. Australians fell in love! They credit Duke with introducing modern surfing to their country. The surfboard he made is still on display at the Freshwater Surf Club.

Kahanamoku was inducted into the swimming and surfing halls of fame. He was the first person to receive both honors. He is celebrated with statues on Waikiki and  Kuhio Beaches in Hawaii and Freshwater Beach in Australia. In 1999, Surfer Magazine named Kahanamoku the “Surfer of the Century.”

As a Native Hawaiian, Kahanamoku earned these honors while confronting racism. People in Waikiki started a segregated, Whites-only surf club. Duke and his brothers had to start their own club—which was open to everyone—in order to compete in surf competitions. Kahanamoku also broke color lines in swim meets. He was often the first Native Hawaiian to compete. He opened the door for other Native Hawaiians, and people of color, to take part in water sports. 

Duke Kahanamoku overcame obstacles to excel in both swimming and surfing. He shared Hawaiians’ passion for water sports with the world. What sport or activity do you love? What inspired you to try it? How might you share it with others?

Standards: CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.3, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.4, CCRA.L.5, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.W.6, CCRA.W.8, 2.PS1.A, NCAS.CN.10

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If you’re coming to Wonderopolis tomorrow, bring some old clothes. We’re going to be getting just a little messy!