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On this date in 1911, an unknown 19-year-old Hawaiian swimmer named Duke Kahanamoku shattered the world record in the 100-yard freestyle. The feat was accomplished at an AAU swim meet in Honolulu Harbor and the recorded time was so fast -- it broke the existing record by 4.6 seconds -- that official swim organizations wouldn't recognize it for four years.

Partly, this reluctance stemmed from honest doubts that any human could travel through the water so fast. Some of it was also straight-up racism. But this was a man whose talent and appeal parted the currents of skepticism and racism as easily as he sliced through the water.

I said that Duke Kahanamoku was "unknown." While that was true on the mainland, he was certainly known in the Hawaiian Islands. By the following summer he would be a household name in this country.

* * *

At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Duke Kahanamoku won gold and silver medals in the pool. World War I prevented the Games from being held in 1916, when Kahanamoku was at the peak of his athletic ability, but he came back in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, winning gold in the 100-meter freestyle again and anchoring the American 800-meter relay team in a first-place finish as well. 

Four years later, while in his mid-30s, he finished second in a storied U.S. sweep in the100-meter freestyle at the 1924 Games. Johnny Weissmuller, who parlayed his athletic prowess into a Hollywood career in an iconic role, won gold; "The Duke" won silver; and his younger brother, Samuel Kahanamoku, won the bronze.

Duke Kahanamoku's Olympic career ended in 1932, at the Los Angeles Olympics. Nearing age 42, he was an alternate member on the bronze-medal-winning U.S. water polo team.

During those years, all he did when not competing in swim meets was reintroduce the world to an ancient sport and make it accessible to the masses.

Surfing -- or "wave sliding," as it was known -- had been the province of Hawaiian royalty. Riding a 16-foot longboard that weighed over 100 pounds, The Duke showed the world that the big waves were accessible to anyone with the guts and skill to ride them. Known as "the father of surfing," he was the first person inducted into both the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the Surfing Walk of Fame. In 1999, Surfing magazine named Duke Kahanamoku "the surfer of the century."

At the end of the 2012 biopic "Chasing Mavericks," a story about legendary young surfer Jay Moriarity, the protagonist's surfing mentor, Frosty Hesson, ruminates about humans' relationship with the oceans. "We all come from the sea, but we are not all of the sea," Frosty says. "Those of us who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again, until the day we don't come back, leaving behind only that which was touched along the way."

Unlike Jay Moriarity, Duke Kahanamoku lived a long life. When he died in 1968 at age 77, thousands attended his funeral on Waikiki Beach to say goodbye. Millions of others have been "touched along the way" by his spirit. They still are being touched by him -- every time a young surfer buys or borrows that first surfboard and decides to test himself, or herself, against the waves.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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