In the summer of 1921, Johnny Weissmuller broke the world record for the 100-yard event in open water. The previous owner of that record was Duke Kahanomoku, the amazing Hawaiian swimmer who won five medals over three Olympics spanning the years 1912 to 1924.
As Weissmuller won race after race, and broke record after record, the lanky, broad-shouldered boy from Chicago was building a reputation for invincibility. No one could beat him as he crossed over into 1922. But many at the time believed that, until he defeated the champion from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Duke Kahanamoku, Weissmuller would not be considered the fastest swimmer in the world.
At the end of June, 1922, a faceoff was looking very likely as the AAU National Championships were being held off the beaches of Honolulu Hawaii, where Kahanmoku lived. And the press, according to David Davis, in his well-written biography of Duke, called “Waterman“, were licking their chops in anticipation of this battle of the titans.
The newspapers played up their differences. Duke was symmetrically muscular with a powerful upper body and thighs that seemed custom-made for springs. Johnny had “wide shoulders, flat belly, no hips or buttocks, long, slender, smooth-muscled legs and arms,” according to sportswriter Paul Gallic. Duke was a pure sprinter; Johnny was versatile enough to win at distance events up to 500 meters and at other disciplines besides the freestyle. Duke was old school: reserved and circumspect. Johnny was jazz age: he liked to play the rogue and was an inveterate skirt chaser…. The anticipation that Duke, the human fish, would face off against Johnny, the human hydroplane, was keen.
According to Weissmuller’s coach Bill Bachrach, in David Fury’s biography of Weissmuller – Twice the Hero – Kahanamoku wisely pulled out of the competition, with some prompting by Bachrach himself. The coach said he gave Kahanamoku his stopwatch and time him himself.
Bachrach sent Johnny into the 25-yeard Punahou pool, and he swam at his top speed as the Duke timed him for 100-years. Kahanamoku was stunned as he watched Johnny swim faster than the Duke had ever done, confirmed by the stopwatch held by his own trembling hand. There was fear in the Duke’s heart, because he knew if he raced on the morrow he would be beaten by this relative newcomer to the swimming wars. The next day, all newspapers announced that the Duke had taken ill, and had left Honolulu to recuperate.
The flip side of this battle of egos was that Kahanamoku never intended to compete in the AAU event. According to members of the Kahanamoku camp, the Duke was actually in poor health, having lost some 10 kilos and was in no condition. And apparently, he was readying for his departure to Los Angeles. According to Davis, Olympic track sprinting champion, Charlie Paddock was adamant that Kahanamoku was not afraid of Weissmuller. “Duke did not quit the swim game because of Weissmuller. He quit because of personal reasons, one of them being that it is necessary to work to make a living, and you cannot work while traveling around the country swimming as an amateur.”
Of course, another consideration is that Kahanamoku was 14 years older than Weissmuller, and whose prime years went untested as the 1916 and 1920 Olympics were cancelled. So if Kahanamoku did decide to dance around possible encounters with the young and future king, it would not be hard to understand.
Regardless, whether you were Team Weissmuller or Team Kahanamoku, you had to wait until the 1924 Olympics before the two would go head to head. And as the two stood at the edge of the pool, just prior to the finals of the 100-meter sprint, Duke is reported to have offered this win-win proposition: “Johnny, good luck. The most important thing in this race is to get the American flag up there three times. Let’s do it.”
At the end of the race, only Americans stood on the winner’s podium, the crowd saluting two of the century’s greatest champions.