Swimming with Tarzan – Duke Kahanamoku vs. Johnny Weissmuller | On the Line

When we went out on the street
or were out anywhere people reacted very,
very strongly to him, because he was so
world-famous as Tarzan. So they would always ask him,
invariably, to do the Tarzan yell, and I have lots of memories
of being in a restaurant or just out somewhere and he would let go with
this really strong yell… And the whole place
would just go crazy. (SWIMMING WITH TARZAN
AND TIMES OF DUKE KAHANAMOKU”) Yes, this is David. Swimming becomes a huge sport
in the ’20s, when Johnny Weissmuller
and Duke Kahanamoku met in the pool in Paris
at the 1924 Olympics. They were the two best swimmers
in the world. Duke Kahanamoku, from Hawaii,
a poor kid, not greatly educated but very, very popular. And you’ve got
Johnny Weissmuller, also a poor kid,
an immigrant kid, not hugely educated either. Johnny was young,
he had youth on his side. Duke was older, had experience on his side. (LISA MARIA SALB JOHNNY WEISSMULLER’S
GRANDDAUGHTER) Hello. Johnny Weissmuller
really was the breakout star of the 1924 Olympic Games. On July 9th, 1922, Weissmuller became
the first person ever to break the minute barrier
in the hundred-metre freestyle, which was a huge milestone
in sports achievement. But Duke was definitely still
the reigning king. He had already won gold medals in the hundred-metre freestyle
specifically and in the relays, that Johnny
would later compete in, in two previous Olympics. He was different,
he was dark-skinned and yet also very,
very modest, unassuming, very, very handsome,
very striking, and became very popular. By the way,
he also was a great lifeguard. He saved many people’s lives
in the water. With his surfboard,
he rescued eight people who were drowning in the ocean
in Southern California, and he used his surfboard
to paddle out, rescue these drowning men, bring them to shore and he kept
going back and forth and saved the lives
of eight people. He comes to Southern California
in 1922 with a big promise – “Hey, we’re gonna make you a
movie star.” Never happens. So then he turns his attention
back to swimming… ..and trains
for the ’24 Olympics. Duke is almost 34 years old, I mean, that’s an old
man in swimming. And Johnny is 22, 23. He’s in the prime
of his swimming career. He arrived in Paris
with very high expectations and he was already
very well known. This is after nearly three
years of a pretty stunning and never-before-seen
domination of his sport, of any sport really,
and having set scores of world records already. And then,
once the games started, part of what made him
so popular was that he, along with swimmer and diver
Stubby Kruger, they actually performed
a comedy diving routine for all of the spectators in between swimming events
throughout the games. And that just made them
hugely popular. So when they meet in Paris, it’s sold out the arena, the swim complex. And it was the brand-new
swimming complex that they had built in the 20th arrondissement and sold out completely. It was the biggest swim event of the 1924 Olympics. And I think Johnny
had great respect for Duke but also wanted to beat him
because that was the champ. You gotta beat the champ
to be the champ. Right before the race,
when they were there, you know, getting ready
at the edge of the pool, Duke turned to Johnny
and he said, “Hey, the most important thing
in this race is to get the American flag
up there three times. Let’s do it!” And that was a very beautiful
and classy thing to do. This is how the New York Times
described the race. Quote – “Johnny Weissmuller
in sprint swimming is in a class by himself. He has demonstrated that
at this meet. Turning his head at almost every one
of his powerful crawl strokes to see how far behind
the next competitor was, Weissmuller came within
two-fifths of a second of the world’s record
created by himself in winning
the 100-metres freestyle. His time was 59 seconds flat.” Johnny won
the gold medal decisively by three metres
and 1.5 seconds, but Duke, at the age
of almost 34, took the silver, and his brother Sam,
the bronze. When Johnny came back in 1924, radio is a big deal,
film is starting. You’ve got newsreels and everybody can see Johnny
on the screen in black and white winning the race and waving. And he repeats,
of course, in 1928 and this is when
sports stars become huge. When Duke comes home,
he’s now 35 years old. He goes back to Hollywood
and the promise of a starring film career
never happens. And instead,
he plays extras in the movies. There were not many stars in entertainment or sports who were not white. And so, when somebody like
Johnny Weissmuller came along, who was the great…
the best swimmer in the world, and was white and photogenic, well, Hollywood was very happy
about that. Johnny appeared
12 times as Tarzan over a 17-year period. And what’s
pretty amazing is that actually no other actor
in film history has ever had such longevity portraying
a certain character. Originally there was
no swimming included and then, of course, that
became a really big part of it. So all of those incredible
underwater scenes and the swimming that he did was actually
his contribution to the role. He was always amazed that he became
much more famous and beloved for portraying Tarzan than for his incredible
athletic swimming career. And it’s really true
that the Hollywood stardom has always overshadowed his incredible accomplishments
as an athlete. After his career,
when he finally retired after the ’32 Olympics, he lived in Honolulu and Hawaii for the rest of his life
and he would surf. And because of his fame
as an Olympic swimmer, that enabled him to then take surfing
around the world. He was the Johnny Appleseed
SURFING ASSOCIATION) How are you? After his Olympic success,
he became a celebrity, everybody that went
to Hawaii surfs. So people would actually
go into Hawaii to spend a month,
a couple of months, and learn to surf. And they will come back
and take surfing to them. Eventually, thanks to Duke, we are where we are today,
where everybody wants to surf. He became the father
of modern surfing, he became the huge promoter
for the sport around the world. That’s how important Duke was. He inspired people to surf and take to the ocean
and stand the waves. And he inspired all of us
to surf, including myself. So from the ISA my job was… maybe I can help
to get Duke’s dreams become a reality
of surfing in the Olympics. The Duke,
which understood how complete and how difficult surfing was, asked in 1920 for surfing
to be included in the games but nothing was really
formalised. And coincidentally, by the time we are inaugurated
as an Olympic sport in Tokyo, will be 100 years from the time
that Duke Kahanamoku asked the ISA to include surf
in the Olympic Games. And like they say in Hawaiian, “Mahalo, Duke Kahanamoku,
for all you’ve given us”. What happened at the Olympics
is really what cemented, what turned out to be a
lifelong friendship between the two of them. They loved
to spend time together whenever they got a chance. And at one point, Duke got
Johnny really into surfing. (JOHNNY WEISSMULLER NEVER LOST

11 thoughts on “Swimming with Tarzan – Duke Kahanamoku vs. Johnny Weissmuller | On the Line”

  1. I remember the first time I heard the name Johnny Weissmuller. It was in the mid-70's and I had just won a particularly close 50 meter freestyle against other "animals", a term we used for power swimmers who would turn the pool into a tornado (they are so much more gentle with the water these days). As I was walking past the starting blocks an older woman approached me and told I reminded her of Johnny Weissmuller. I had absolutely no idea what she meant, and latter my mother explained to me who he was, and that I had received a compliment. Today I might tell a young swimmer they swim like Mark Spitz and get the same response.

  2. I can respect two athletes going at it in a friendly competition kind of way but as for the whole "movie star" that's just messed up!! They couldn't put the frickin LEGEND DUKE KAHANMOKU in a movie as a main character?! Nah instead they just seen him as an extra!! Their not worthy of his presence!! Duke, I miss u homie. Neva met u but I wish I did and that we coulda shared a wave together like how y'all do it back then!! These days, to many kids being greedy and Kahuna's actin like they own the flipping beach!!

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