What determines a great Olympian ? Aren’t they all, just by getting there ? (Well, depends on your definition of greatness : Remember Eddie the Eagle ?)
Is it purely the number of medals won ? How much does it matter if it’s gold, silver or bronze ?
Should it matter if an athlete won them by him or herself, or as part of a relay or in a team sport ?
And what about the back story ? What challenges were met to become one of the best, or the absolute best, in the world ?
Speaking of the athlete’s story, what criteria should we in Hawaii use to claim Olympians—and other athletes as “our own “?
Born here, raised here, went to college here, long-time resident ?
OK, those are a lot of questions. Here come some answers—and you probably won’t agree with all of them. It’s very likely your lists of Hawaii’s greatest Olympic athletes will differ from mine (although I expect there will be general consensus on No. 1 today ).
Today, the men.
No. 10: Pua Kealoha … In 1920, at age 17, he was one of two Hawaiians on the U.S.’s gold-medal winning 4×200 freestyle relay anchored by some guy named Duke Kahanamoku. The quartet set a world record in the final. In the 100 freestyle Kealoha showed he could medal on his own, scoring the silver when he was second to … you guessed it … Duke. The native of Waialua was also known for making the rigorous Oahu-Molokai swim.
No. 9: Clay Stanley … The three-time Olympian struck gold with the U.S. team in volleyball in 2008 after barely missing a medal in 2004 in a loss to Russia in the bronze medal match. Four years later at Beijing, Stanley was the MVP of the tournament on the best team on the planet. The former University of Hawaii star was also on the ‘12 team that did not medal. Stanley has strong volleyball bloodlines, but didn’t play at Kaiser High.
No. 8: Warren Kealoha … He was the first two-time gold medal winner in the 100 backstroke, in 1920 and ‘24. From the time he was 16, Warren Kealoha dominated the event in whatever national and world championship meets he could get himself to. After retiring from swimming he led a quiet life as a rancher.
No. 7: Buster Crabbe … This Punahou product won Olympic bronze and gold, but is more known for silver … the silver screen, where he played Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. At Amsterdam in 1928 he was third in the 1, 500 free, and he won the 400 in 1932, by a tenth of a second. Crabbe also barely missed the medal stand with fourth and fifth in other races. But plenty of fame would find him soon enough.
No. 6: Peter George … George was a teen prodigy weightlifter in Ohio who has lived most of his life in Hawaii, including while training for his third Olympic medal, at the 1956 Melbourne Games, where he won his second silver. He won gold in ‘52 and silver in ‘48. Tommy Kono’s friendly rival later became an orthodontist who taught at UH and researched treatment for sleep apnea.
No. 5: Bill Smith … One of legendary swimming coach Soichi Sakamoto’s greatest, and part of the Hawaii-to- Ohio State pipeline, Smith won two gold medals in 1948 (400 free and 4×200 freestyle ). The many-time world champion and record-holder undoubtedly would have had more if not for the cancellation of two Olympiads during World War II, when Smith served in the Navy. The Baldwin High graduate later coached at UH.
No. 4: Tommy Kono … The man still recognized by many as the greatest weightlifter of all-time started pushing metal because he was a sickly kid in an internment camp during World War II. Representing the country that put him and his family in the camp, Kono won two Olympic golds (1952 and ‘56 ) and a silver (‘60 ). He moved to Hawaii after that first gold and lived here the rest of his life. He won world championships at seemingly any weight class he chose and was also a three-time Mr. Universe in bodybuilding, and coached three Olympic weightlifting teams.
No. 3: Bryan Clay … He was small for a decathlete and came from a state and a school with little track and field tradition. But the product of Castle High won a silver medal in Athens and followed it up with gold in Beijing in 2008. Not bad for a guy who had to manage asthma.
No. 2: Ford Konno … He captured four medals, including two gold in swimming at the 1952 and ‘56 Olympics. The McKinley High graduate is another Hawaii swimming great who dominated collegiately at Ohio State. Konno set an Olympic record in winning the 1, 500 freestyle in Helsinki, and held world records in three events. He went on to become a teacher and swimming coach on Kauai, after marrying Evelyn Kawamoto, who medaled twice at the 1952 Olympics and also went to McKinley.
No. 1: Duke Kahanamoku … The legend who still comes up at the top of any list of Hawaii athletes won five swimming medals (three gold ) in three Olympics, from 1912 to 1924. He very likely would have won at least two more if the 1916 Games weren’t canceled due to World War I. His signature event was the 100-meter freestyle (two golds and a silver ), but Kahanamoku was no specialist ; he also was an alternate on the 1932 water polo team, 20 years after his first Olympics. And the Olympic debut of surfing came a century too late for him.