The History of Hawai‘i From Our Files: Hawai‘i’s Olympians
From Duke to Carissa, Hawai‘i athletes have had a presence in this prestigious competition dating back to 1912. Here’s a look at their stories.
As we cheer on our hometown Olympians in Tokyo (including a new history-setting gold medalist named Carissa) we take a look back into our archives. In 1996, HONOLULU told the stories of the more than 60 local athletes who represented Hawai‘i and the U.S. in 80 years of Olympic history.
“It was billed as the ‘Breakfast for Champions,’ but the guests who attended the recent morning affair at the Sheraton Waikiki looked more like Rotarians than sports heroes. There was a middle-age orthodontist, a schoolteacher from ‘Aina Haina, a graying retiree from the state parks division, a city bus driver, and an administrative services officer with the city and county. The youngest, a thirty-something firefighter from Maui, bemoaned the fact that there were so few of his contemporaries present. The oldest invitee, pushing 90, had sent regrets, not because of poor health. but because she was traveling around the country giving speeches to high school students as an Avon Olympic ‘ambassador.’
“The members of this select group were being honored as champions of the highest order. They are Hawai‘i residents who have taken part in the most prestigious worldwide amateur athletic competition, the Olympic Games.
“As Dr. Peter George, spokesman for the quadrennial group, says, ‘Every four years they take us off the shelf, dust us off, and put us on display for the summer. Then back on the shelf we go for another four years.’
“Many of these resident Olympians were born in Hawai‘i or were living here at the time they participated in the games. Others have since moved here. Of the country’s 750 living gold medalists, 10 are currently residing in Hawai‘i. Three of them will be traveling to the games in Atlanta this month for special recognition. Aileen Riggin Soule, 90, will be honored as the senior Olympian, while weightlifters Tommy Kono and Peter George will be part of an elite 100-member all-time Olympic dream team put together by corporate sponsor Xerox Corp.
“This year’s games mark the centennial of the modern years Olympics, which began in 1896 in Athens, Greece, when 311 athletes from 13 countries competed. To date, 63 athletes from Hawai‘i have participated in the modern Olympics.
“Hawai‘i first made a splash in Olympian waters when larger-than-life Duke Kahanamoku swam in the V Olympiad in Stockholm. Sweden, in 1912. Since then, Hawai‘i has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics, with the exception of the 1936 and 1972 games. Hawai‘i contenders have taken part in some of the most memorable events in Olympic history, and have been recognized as some of its most outstanding participants.
“Duke Kahanamoku was one. His advance to the 1912 games hadn’t been easy. The Amateur Athletic Union had refused to accept his spectacular record-breaking times clocked by its own timers in Honolulu Harbor. It was not until he competed in Chicago early in 1912 that Mainlanders finally accepted his revolutionary swimming style as well as the new records he set. He was soon selected to represent the United States in Stockholm. The homesick Hawaiian made history in that Swedish city by setting a new record for the 100-meter freestyle and leading the American team to a silver medal in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. King Gustaf of Sweden personally awarded Duke his gold medal.
“Unfortunately for Duke, who was already 22 when he went to Stockholm, World War I caused the cancellation of the 1916 Summer Olympics. Still, at age 30 in 1920, he went to Antwerp, Belgium, to compete. That year, not only was the U.S. team composed mostly of Hawai‘i athletes—including one woman, Helen Moses—but the U.S. swimming coach was none other than George ‘Dad’ Center, another of Hawai‘i’s native sons and world-famous watermen.
“The Hawai‘i swimmers astounded the world by winning the first three places in the 100-meter freestyle. Duke set a world record of 1:00.4 with teammates Pua Kealoha and William Harris close behind, sweeping the medals in that event. Warren Kealoha took the gold in the 100-meter backstroke, and another Hawaiʻi swimmer, Harold ‘Stubby’ Kruger, came in fifth. Duke and Pua Kealoha each garnered another gold in the 4×200- meter freestyle relay. This time it was the king of Belgium who awarded the medals.
“Also at the Summer Games in Antwerp was Aileen Riggin, 4 feet 8 inches tall, 65 pounds soaking wet, and just a few months past her 14th birthday. When she won the women’s springboard diving event, she became not only the smallest and youngest person to ever win an Olympic gold medal, but the first American woman to do so. Although not from Hawai‘i at the time, she has spent the last 40 years in Honolulu.
“With Duke firmly established as the world’s fastest swimmer and Hawai‘i gaining a reputation as a wellspring of outstanding watermen, a local contingent of seven men and one woman departed for Paris to participate in the 1924 Summer Olympics. Duke and his brother Sam, the Kealoha brothers, Warren and Pua, along with William Kirschbaum, Henry Luning, Charles Pung and a young woman named Mariechen Wehselau, brought home six medals—two gold, three silver and a bronze. Duke, then 33, came in second in the 100-meter freestyle, beat out by 20-year-old Johnny Weissmuller, later famous for his portrayal of Tarzan in the movies. Weissmuller later confided that he had been worried that the Kahanamoku brothers would swim a team race against him. But at the start of the race, Duke had wished Weissmuller luck and told him: ‘The important thing in this race is to get the American flag up there three times. Let’s do it!’ Weissmuller set a new world record that day, but Duke and Sam were right behind him, in second and third place.
“Wehselau brought home a gold medal from Paris, as a member of the winning 4×100-meter freestyle relay team. She also won a silver in the women’s 100-meter freestyle. Riggin was in Paris as well for her second Olympic appearance. This time she won a silver medal in springboard diving and a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke, making her the first person to win a medal in two different sports, a feat that has been repeated only once in Olympic history.
“Amsterdam, Holland, was the setting for the Summer Games of 1928. Although Duke had been in training and had planned to try out for the U.S. Olympic swimming team, a bout with the flu forced him to abandon his plans to compete for the fourth time. Hawai‘i’s only entry that year was an up-and-coming 23-year-old swimmer named Clarence ‘Buster’ Crabbe, who came in fourth in the 400-meter freestyle and captured a bronze medal in the 1,500-meter.
“Four years later in Los Angeles, Crabbe took the gold in the 400-meter freestyle in one of the most exciting swimming duels in Olympic history. In the opening round and the semifinals, Takashi Yokoyama of Japan set new Olympic records. A close race was expected between Yokoyama and the world record holder, Jean Taris of France. But Crabbe cut Taris’ early lead, and in the final 25 meters, the two athletes cut through the water neck and neck, leaving Yokoyama in their wake. In a dramatic finish, Crabbe managed to beat Taris by one-tenth of a second. This was Crabbe’s final Olympic appearance, but he would go on to a long film career in Hollywood, portraying such legendary characters as Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
“Other Hawai‘i swimmers, Mannella and Maiola Kalili, both swam on the second place 4×200-meter freestyle relay, garnering two silver medals for the U.S. team, which won the games with a total of 41 gold, 32 silver and 31 bronze medals.
“Duke Kahanamoku, whose Olympic competition spanned an incredible 20 years, made his fourth and last appearance in the 1932 games in Los Angeles. At age 42, he had failed to qualify in the swimming trials but landed a spot on the U.S. water polo team.
“The Los Angeles games marked the beginning of a 16-year hiatus for Hawai‘i’s Olympic participation. No one from the Territory went to Berlin in 1936 when Germany took first place over the United States. World War II caused the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 games. It was not until the games resumed in 1948 that Hawai‘i’s athletes would again participate. It would also be the first time Hawai‘i would be represented in events other than water sports. Of the six Hawai‘i Olympians in London that year, two were swimmers and four were weightlifters.
“Bill Smith was a St. Louis College high school student when he took up competitive swimming and started training with Hawai‘i’s legendary coach, Soichi Sakamoto. Originally from Maui, Sakamoto had developed many outstanding swimmers from that island including Keo Nakama, Jose Balmores and Halo Hirose, all promising Olympians. Unfortunately, they had been in their prime during the war years and were denied the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.
“When it became apparent that Smith had the makings of a great swimmer, he moved to Maui to live with Sakamoto. Smith credits his coach with being a great motivator. Many nights they would sit around the kitchen table, setting goals and planning how to achieve them. Smith trained relentlessly. When the pool was closed for repairs, the coach had him swim in the irrigation ditches rather than miss a day of practice. Their No. 1 goal was for Smith to compete in the 1944 Olympics. But the war intervened, and it was not until after a stint in the military that Smith would have his chance. In the meantime, while attending Ohio State, Smith managed to set eight world and 12 American records.
“Smith’s first event in the 1948 games was the 800-meter relay. He swam anchor in that race and his time was not only the fastest 200 meters of his career, but it set a new world record. The next day, in a close race in the 400-meter freestyle, Smith came in first and won his second gold medal and set a new Olympic record. That same year, Thelma Kalama, a graduate of Kaimukī High School, was on the winning U.S. team that set an Olympic record in the 4×100-meter relay. Alan Stack, a longtime Hawai‘i resident, took the gold in the 100-meter backstroke. It was the first time since the modern Olympics began in 1896 that the U.S. had won all swimming events.
“Hawai‘i’s initiation into Olympic weightlifting that year was nearly as spectacular. Light heavyweight Harold Sakata took the silver medal. Sakata went on to achieve fame, first as a professional wrestler under the name of Tosh Togo, then as an actor in Hollywood, eventually landing the role of Oddjob in the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
“Richard W.S. Tom brought home the bronze medal as a bantamweight, the first time in Olympic history that that event was held.
“Peter George also represented the United States in London in 1948, although at the time he was not yet a resident of Hawai‘i. George came in second in the middleweight event. He would eventually be a medalist in three Summer Olympics and hold the title of world or Olympic champion six times before retiring from the sport in 1957. When he retired, he was listed as the most successful weightlifter of all time. Today, based strictly on statistics, George is still listed in the No. 3 position.
“Hawai‘i’s Olympians helped the United States win the 1948 games, garnering 38 gold medals, 27 silver and 19 bronze.
“Hawai‘i was on an Olympic roll, and four years later sent nine athletes to the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki to compete in swimming and weightlifting.
“Coach Soichi Sakamoto, who by this time was swimming coach at University of Hawai‘i, had developed some outstanding new challengers in Evelyn Kawamoto and Bill Woolsey. They, along with their former McKinley High School classmate Ford Konno, won more medals in a single Olympic sport than Mexico, Spain and Korea combined. Kawamoto was already national champion in the 200-meter breaststroke and 400-meter freestyle when she won two bronze medals in Helsinki in the 400-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.
“Ford Konno, who held six NCAA titles and set two world records in swimming while attending Ohio State, won a gold medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle and a silver in the 400-meter. Both Konno and Woolsey were on the Olympic record-setting team that won the gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay.
“The Helsinki games brought a new swimming sensation into the limelight when Yoshi Oyakawa, an 18-year-old swimmer from Hilo, also attending Ohio State, set a new Olympic record in the 100-meter backstroke event.
“Tommy Kono, destined to become one of the greatest weightlifters of all time, was originally from Sacramento but moved to Hawai‘i in 1955. While still a resident of Sacramento, he made his Olympic debut in Helsinki. Kono won a gold medal as a lightweight while Peter George took the gold as a middleweight.
“In Melbourne, Australia, the site of the 1956 Olympics, Hawai‘i sent athletes to compete for the first time in boxing and shooting, although it was the swimmers and weightlifters who brought home the medals. This time Peter George was in the military, stationed in Hawai‘i. He won the silver medal as a middleweight with Tommy Kono, who had since moved to Hawai‘i, taking the gold as a light heavyweight.
“Bill Woolsey returned for his second Olympic swimming competition and was on the second-place U.S. 4×200-meter freestyle relay team. Not only was Woolsey the only homegrown swimmer to compete that year, but he was the last Hawai‘i Olympic medalist in swimming, ending a great tradition begun in 1912 by Duke Kahanamoku.
“Tommy Kono, in his third Olympic appearance, competed in Rome in 1960. He won a silver medal in the middleweight class, making him the only weightlifter to win medals in three different weight categories.
“In the next two Olympic Summer Games, volleyball brought the largest contingent of Hawai‘i athletes to the competition. In Tokyo in 1964, Pete Velasco, Gail O’Rourke and Verneda Thomas played on the U.S. men’s and women’s volleyball teams. Four years later in Mexico City, the U.S. men’s volleyball team would include five players from Hawai‘i—Tom Haine, Pete Velasco, Jon Stanley, John Alstrom and Butch May. On the first night of the competition, the U.S. team pulled off an unexpected upset and beat the favored Russians. They ended the event in a respectable fifth place.
“The U.S. women’s volleyball team also included four from Hawai‘i—Fanny Hopeau, Barbara Perry, Sharon Peterson and Miki McFadden.
“Hawai‘i has never produced a diver of the caliber of Keala O’Sullivan since the 17-year-old Kailua girl and Punahou student won a bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games. The American team was heavily favored, and when O’Sullivan placed first in the trials for the 3-meter springboard event, she was a strong contender for the gold medal. Something went wrong, however, on her first and easiest dive, and she scored only four out of a possible 10 points. But the near perfect dives that followed kept her in the running. For a while, it appeared that she and Tamara Pogoscheva of the USSR were tied for second place, but the Russian diver nosed out O’Sullivan for the silver by barely one-tenth of a point.
“Ken Walsh won two gold medals and a silver in swimming in Mexico City. Although a native Floridian attending Michigan State University at the time, Walsh moved to Hawai‘i in 1971 and for many years has been director and cameraman for Hari Kojima’s Let’s Go Fishing television program.
“Another swimmer, ‘Pokey’ Watson, also a Mainlander who eventually moved to Hawai‘i, garnered a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay in 1964 and the 200-meter backstroke in 1968.
“In the bicentennial year of 1976, when the double-hulled canoe Hōkūle‘a set sail for Tahiti, two Hawai‘i yachtsmen—David McFaull and Mike Rothwell—sailed in the opposite direction to Montreal and became the first from Hawai‘i to enter Olympic yachting competition.
“However, days before the first race began, an international controversy almost cost the Hawai‘i team its chance to compete. Protesting the participation of Taiwan, China threatened to withdraw. While the Olympic Committee wrestled with the dilemma, President Ford threatened to boycott the games if Taiwan was not allowed to remain. The entire American contingent of Olympians was in limbo for three days while the controversy raged.
“In Kingston, Ontario, where the Olympic yachting facility was located, someone gave McFaull and Rothwell a Hawaiian flag. While the powers-that-be wrestled over their decision, the Hawaiian flag flew from the mast of the Hawai‘i boat, Zomby Woof. McFaull and Rothwell vowed that if they could not sail for the United Sates, they would represent Hawai‘i instead. Fortunately, the dispute was settled and the competition began. In the Tornado class, with the UK easily outsailing the rest of the countries, the excitement was centered on the boats vying for second place. Zomby Woof, again flying the Stars and Stripes, beat out Germany and Australia to win the silver medal.
“Four years later, the threat of a U.S. boycott became a reality when President Carter refused to allow the United States to participate in the Olympics and sent the entire U.S. team home from Moscow.
“There were seven athletes in the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles with Hawai‘i ties, but only three of them were living in Hawai‘i at the time. Ironically, those three represented other countries. Swimmer Gary Hurring, a native of New Zealand, was a sophomore at UH when he qualified, but swam for his own country. Two brothers, Yal and Kui Yim, were born in the United States and lived in Hawai‘i for many years, but sailed under the flag of Taiwan. The brothers were eligible to represent Taiwan because their father was a citizen of that country, where there was far less competition to qualify.
“Ambrose ‘Rowdy’ Gaines, who won three gold medals in swimming that year, later became a resident of Hawai‘i and for several years was general manager of the O‘ahu Club.
“Punahou graduate Chris Duplanty, a swimmer turned water polo goalie, was one of four 1988 U.S. Olympians from Hawai‘i. Duplanty was a member of the U.S. team that had brought home the silver medal from Seoul, Korea. Duplanty had been state champion in the breaststroke when a friend convinced him to try water polo. He fell in love with the game and in 1988 became the youngest non-Californian to make the U.S. Olympic water polo team in 32 years.
“Kevin Asano, who competed in the extra lightweight judo category, brought home a silver medal. It was the first time Hawai‘i had sent a competitor to the Olympics in that sport.
“Yet another sport brought Hawai‘i athletes to the Olympic games in 1988 when Traci Phillips and Mike Harbold each qualified for kayaking events.
“In 1992, in Barcelona, Spain, Duplanty was again on the U.S. water polo team. Phillips and Harbold, also returning Olympians, were joined by Peter Newton. Harbold and Newton, in the double kayak event, advanced to the finals just a fraction behind the first-place Italian team. Wyatt Jones, who had made it to the World Kayak Team after only two years of training, also qualified for the Barcelona games.
“The first world-class weightlifter from Hawai‘i in several years, Vernon Patao of Maui, came in 10th in Barcelona in the lightweight category in his first Olympic try.
“As members of the ‘92 team, Duplanty, Phillips, Harbold, Newton Jones and Patao will take their places among their fellow Hawai‘i Olympians. And this month, in Atlanta, a few more names will be added to the 63 now listed. They’ll be in good company.”
Of course, Hawai‘i had representation in the Olympics to follow. Patao returned in 1996 in the weightlifting category. In 2000, Kelsey Nakanelua represented American Samoa in the 100-meter in 2000 and 2004. Bryan Clay took the title of the world’s greatest athlete with the gold in the decathlon in 2008. Soccer star Natasha Kai scored her gold medal with the U.S. women’s soccer team in the first gold-medal win for Team USA and Roosevelt High School alum Clarissa Chun made her Olympic debut in wrestling. She would win the bronze medal in 2012. Kyla Ross, who was born in Hawai‘i, won gold with the women’s gymnastic team.
UH standout Clay Stanley was a member of the 2008 gold-medal U.S. Men’s Volleyball Team. Kamehameha Schools graduate Micah Christenson and the sons of UH’s longtime Wahine Volleyball coach Dave Shoji, Kawika and Erik, won a bronze medal with the U.S. volleyball team in Rio in 2016. All three are back in Tokyo.
And, of course, Carissa Moore made history in 2021 by becoming the first woman to win the gold medal in surfing, which made its debut in Tokyo.