Kalani Simpson

Olympians still
chasing the Duke

AARON Peirsol has won three Olympic gold medals and broken individual world records so many times it's getting tough to keep count. So it was pretty nice of him to agree to be the celebrity headliner for this week's fourth annual Duke's Hoolaulea, which celebrates the 115th anniversary of Duke Kahanamoku's birth.

But then, there's a little more to it than his being nice.

Swimming, like any sport, has its Names. And Peirsol, like any good swimmer, recites them like they've been etched into his brain: Spitz, Nabor, Krayzelburg, Weissmuller, Hall (Sr., of course).

Peirsol, again, a multi-gold medalist himself now, met Matt Biondi recently and was instantly reduced to a star-struck little kid.

Duke is one of those guys. One of the sport's sacred names.

Always. Forever. Still.

"I mean, he's a historical figure," Peirsol says. "He's an icon."

And so Peirsol, an Athens golden guy, the fastest backstroker alive, came to do a kids' clinic Thursday. This weekend, he was out on the water for the Duke's Legends Surf Classic and yesterday's Duke's ocean mile swim.

For these short few days, he gets his name next to Duke's. And that's no small thing.

Any swimmer worth his salt would trip over himself to be part of something like this.

"We owe a lot to him," Peirsol says. "It was the least I could do. A lot of guys would do the same thing if they were in my shoes."

They would. Because they know him. Swimmers do. Surfers do.

Peirsol said he first heard the name when they learned about Duke Kahanamoku at his mainland elementary school.

HE KNOWS THE stories, too. Like when Duke smashed the stopwatch, but back on the mainland they refused to sanction the eye-popping result.

"No one believed he could do it," Peirsol says. "They shot away his first world record when he broke it by about 4 seconds or whatever. Still, they didn't believe it. 'It's not possible.' And then they go ahead and compete with him and, 'Oh, OK.' "

A star was born. A star that shines to this day for guys like Peirsol.

It shone brightest here.

There was a constellation around Kahanamoku in those days. A galaxy. Hawaii owned the Olympic pool.

"Well, back then, whether these guys believe it or not, probably, the Hawaiians were probably training better and harder than a lot of people on the mainland. And with what they were doing -- if they were out here," Peirsol nods out at the Waikiki break, "for hours and hours a day, surfing and doing ocean swims and paddles and all that kind of stuff -- I mean, those guys were in great shape. You know, you look at the guys and they were more ripped than the guys who they were swimming against."

They all followed Duke. They kept coming, in waves.

And then they stopped.

Today, the best swimmers no longer grow up here. Peirsol, 22 -- he set another world record just last month -- is a California kid. All his friends swam competitively when they were young. Did they drop out as they got older?

"No," he says.

There, kids grow up seeing Olympians, world-record holders at every meet. "And they say, 'Wow, that's amazing.' And eventually they stop thinking it's amazing."

Eventually, they start thinking that's something they could do, too.

That's what happened here in Hawaii, so many years ago.

But it might be even tougher to do, now. Duke and his beach boys were ahead of the rest of the world. Everyone else had to catch up, and eventually did. And more.

It isn't easy to catch the rest of the world.

"When you're 13 years old and you're told you can make the Olympic team you think, 'Oh, that would be great,' " Peirsol says. "And then you get into the water the next day and you realize how hard it's going to be, because your coach is tearing your (okole) off. And then you think, oh, 'Maybe I just want to go home and sleep.' And you can't. It's a lot more than that, but, you need some people watching your back, making sure you get the work done. You look back and think, thank God I had those people or I wouldn't have had the chance to do what I've done."

Peirsol wants to be one of those people. This week he was the record-holder he hopes the Hawaii kids could see themselves in. Yesterday, he was on the water, guest of honor; ecstatic he'd been asked.

Duke is one of his heroes, and he's been privileged to pass that on.

It's been easy, of course.

Duke Kahanamoku's legend is alive and still kicking. People everywhere know it. On his 115th birthday, we're all still riding his wave.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com

| | |
E-mail to Sports Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com