Courtesy Sonia Lien Kahanamoku Collection/Dave Kragen
Sonia Vrooman Lien Kahanamoku is seen here with her niece, Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya, and Patty’s granddaughter.

Daughter of Olympian Sam Kahanamoku Walks On

Richard Walker

Sonia Vrooman Lien Kahanamoku, who met her Native Hawaiian family when she was in her 70s and in her last five years became an author, mentor and advocate for Native children, walked on to join her ancestors on March 9.

She was 80 and had battled cancer. A celebration of her life is scheduled for 2 p.m. April 2 at the First Lutheran Church in Poulsbo, on the Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle. Earl Maikahikinapamaikala “Pa Mai” Tenn, liaison for the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, will attend.

She was born Sonia Vrooman on September 20, 1935 in Long Beach, California, to Winifred Powell, a Navy commander’s wife. Powell had had a brief affair with Olympic bronze medalist Sam Kahanamoku (100-meter freestyle, 1924) while traveling on the SS Lurline from Los Angeles to Hawai’i. After the baby’s birth, Powell’s husband, recognizing that he was not the father, abandoned wife and child. Mother and daughter were also rejected by Powell’s Virginia family.

Brothers Duke and Sam Kahanamoku. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

“I was only 4 when I became a ward of the court,” Lien wrote in her book, “From Alone to Aloha” (PublishNext, 2011), which chronicles her journey from abuse and abandonment to healing and joy. “The state of California placed me in homes and institutions professing to practice religion, but my spirit was broken in the name of God.”

By the time she was 15, she was angry and rebellious. She also grappled with her identity. “Having lived in foster homes and group homes, I never knew the feeling of belonging to a loving family,” she wrote.

Sonia Vrooman Lien Kahanamoku is seen here at age 11. (Courtesy Sonia Lien Kahanamoku Collection/Dave Kragen)

But two things carried her those years: hope that “somewhere there had to be a kinder God,” and, she realized years later, “the strength and character I inherited from my real father from Hawai’i.” She wrote in her book that aloha—affection, peace, compassion—“lived and thrived in me as I struggled in those early years.”

She served in the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps from 1954-58; became a musician and performer; and in 1964 met her husband, Stanley Lien, with whom she was married until his passing in 1995.

In February 2010, a door opened to a union with her ohana in Hawai’i. She had lunch with a friend who asked about her Hawaiian heritage.

“I told her what I had heard from my mother [when Sonia was in her 50s]: that my father was a popular and prominent Hawaiian and sheriff of Honolulu when I was born,” Lien recalled. “My mother had said his name was Duke Kah–something. My friend's partner, an avid surfer, became curious. He googled ‘Sheriff of Hawai’i in 1935;’ that was all it took for him to obtain the name ‘Duke Kahanamoku.’”

This bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku stands on Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The friend tracked down the ship’s passenger list for that voyage, Dececember 22-27, 1934. Lien’s mother and Sam Kahanamoku, Duke’s brother, were on the same voyage. (Another notable passenger: aviator Amelia Earhart.)

It turned out that Sam was Lien’s father and Duke was her uncle.

Lien wrote of having an “a-ha” moment during Lent that year. She felt peace with, and “total acceptance” of her history for which she was ostracized earlier in life. “My mother had had a brief affair with a Hawaiian man that resulted in my birth in 1935,” she wrote. “Both she and I were abandoned by my prejudiced family from Virginia. I had internalized this rejection—until now.”

With the help of friends, she reached out to the Kahanamoku family through the Duke Kahanamoku Foundation and, on August 24, 2010, she met her long lost family in Hawai’i at a celebration of the 120th anniversary of Duke’s birth. She also visited the gravesite of her father, Samuel Alapai Kahanamoku (Nov. 4, 1902 – April 26, 1966). Her life had gone from alone to aloha.

“She did [a] DNA test which [confirmed] her ancestry as Asian/Pacific Islander, but that's it,” said Dave Kragen, Sonia’s friend who co-authored “Alone to Aloha.” “The family, after seeing the cruise liner manifest of the Lurline in 1934 with Sonia's mother and Samuel Kahanamoku, and the facial similarities [when compared to] Sonia’s pictures as a little girl, and other circumstantial evidence… the big picture of cumulative evidences, the Hawaiian community concluded Sonia was indeed Auntie Sonia Lien Kahanamoku.”

Sonia Vrooman Lien Kahanamoku is seen here at age 8. (Courtesy Sonia Lien Kahanamoku Collection/Dave Kragen)

Kragen called it “the odd beauty of the story:” Sonia, rejected by her racist Southern family, her mother unable to care for her, at 75 years old connecting with and being welcomed by her Native Hawaiian family.

In the last five years of her life, she wrote her book; mentored students at Chief Kitsap Academy, a grade 6-12 school owned and operated by the Suquamish Tribe; and served on the local Indian Child Welfare Advisory Committee.

In 2014, students at Chief Kitsap Academy produced a short film about Sonia Lien (she now used the Kahanamoku name), in which she shared her story of hope and restoration. She participated in weekly Kanikapila, or impromptu Hawaiian music sessions, at Aloha Kitchen restaurant in Silverdale; performed Hawaiian music and signed her books in Allyn and Poulsbo; and sang “Honolulu, I'm Coming Back Again” for a video posted on YouTube in June 2014.

In April 2015, she was diagnosed with stage 3 liver cancer. She revisited her Hawaiian family that summer, staying with a niece, Patty Kahanamoku Teruya, and attended Waikiki’s annual Duke’s OceanFest Celebration, which features competition in ocean sports that were close to Duke Kahanamoku's heart—longboard surfing, paddleboard racing, swimming, tandem surfing, surf polo, and beach volleyball.

Duke Kahanamoku is seen here with a longboard in Los Angeles, California in 1920. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

In February this year, her cancer had progressed to the point that she moved to Bainbridge Island Health & Rehabilitation.

“​In the final days of her earthly sojourn, Sonia maintained her cheery self,” friend David Kragen wrote on Sonia Kahanamoku’s blog. He co-authored her book and helped maintain her blog.

“She saw her last moments ‘as a new beginning,’ assuring those around her ‘all is well with my soul.’ As a survivor, artist, friend, delightful Hawaiian, Sonia amazed us all with her outlook on life, on death, her aloha …”

Kragen wrote that Sonia once noted, “My cancer, living with cancer is a blessing—a joy. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with and care for others who visit me in my final days in this life.”

Kragen wrote, “Right to the end, she found ways to care about others, her visitors, her roommate in the bed next to her at the hospice.”

​About the Kahanamoku family

Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968) was an athlete who won Olympic gold medals in swimming in 1912 and 1920, and silver medals in 1912 and 1924. He served as sheriff of Honolulu from 1932 to 1961, and appeared in 18 movies and documentaries. He was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame, Swimming Hall of Fame, and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Sam Kahanamoku (1902-1966) won an Olympic bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle in 1924. He and other Kahanamoku family members appeared on the TV show “This Is Your Life” in 1957.


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