Everybody knows the Outrigger Canoe Club, the Elks Club, Waialae Country Club, and Oahu Country Club.
But probably only a handful of kamaaina reacts to the name Uluniu Swimming Club — formerly the Uluniu Women’s Swimming Club. The Uluniu today is one of the most exclusive clubs in the islands, with a membership limited to 100. Somebody has to die or quit to open up a space. Members seldom quit.
The Uluniu has long moved from its renowned location next to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach. It’s now located on an oceanfront beach lot in Laie.
The Uluniu’s history, like the history of many Hawaii clubs, begins with discrimination.
When I was young my parents belonged to clubs that prohibited Asians as members. People talk about Hawaii as a racial melting pot. But up until the 1960s, club bigotry was common, not just over racial membership but also because of gender discrimination. Some clubs allowed women but only as second-class auxiliary members or as spousal members with limited club privileges.
When Uluniu started in 1909, it was called the Outrigger Canoe Club’s Women’s Auxiliary. The Outrigger was located in those days on Waikiki Beach where the Outrigger Hotel is today. It was a men and boys’ club. The women of the Outrigger Auxiliary Club were denied voting rights and were assigned to separate quarters, sometimes in the least attractive areas of the club. The women’s dues were $5 and chaperones were provided after 2 p.m.
In time, the women’s auxiliary members began to get restive. They were looking for more respect after all the energy they put into organizing fundraisers to keep the men of the Outrigger financially afloat.
Barbara Del Piano, author of “Outrigger Canoe Club: The First Hundred Years 1908-2008,” wrote that ”the Auxiliary often bailed the men’s club out of financial difficulties. They personally prepared and served gallons of fish chowder for fundraisers, planned elegant balls and casual dances, and during World War I entertained the troops.”
In 1925, the women separated from the Outrigger CC and formed their own club with their own building, at first located on the Diamond Head side of the Outrigger CC near the Moana Hotel. They eventually relocated to a site between the OutriggerCC and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Their new group was named the Uluniu Women’s Swimming Club. Its membership soared until it was cut off at 600. Turning the tables on discrimination, the women allowed their male spouses to join, but only as non-voting members.
Uluniu means “many coconuts” because the club was at the edge of Helumoa, the former grove of 10,000 coconut trees where King Kamehameha I built his Waikiki compound.
Uluniu members from the beginning distinguished themselves.
Member Mariechen Wehselau won a silver medal in the 1924 Olympics in Paris for the U.S. women’s 100 meter free style, and a gold medal as a member of the award-winning U.S. women’s 4×100 free style relay team.
Ellen Fullard-Leo, another Uluniu member, became the first woman on the executive committee of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and also member of the U.S. Olympic Executive Committee.
People were amazed that Fullard-Leo, a lifelong champion of women’s participation in sports, never competed athletically herself. As she explained in the Honolulu Advertiser before her death in 1999 at age 90: “ I grew up in the Victorian age when it was considered vulgar for young ladies to compete in athletics. So, of course, I didn’t compete.”
The Uluniu in 1914 had been the first women’s club to be affiliated with the AAU. When the AAU asked the Uluniu club to create a “sensible bathing costume” for women, Fullard-Leo designed a simple black tank suit, which became the national standard for all AAU swim meets. Until then, women athletes dressed in modest but cumbersome bloomer-type bathing suits.
It wouldn’t be until 1965 that the Uluniu club accepted men as voting members. When it went co-ed, it changed its name for a third time to the Uluniu Swimming Club. John Lind, father of local journalist Ian Lind, became one of the club’s first male officers.
Things kept changing. Both the Outrigger and the Uluniu lost their leases in the mid-1960s and were forced to leave their Waikiki properties. The Outrigger built a new club near San Souci Beach on land it still leases from the Elks Club.
Uluniu in 1970 bought a fee simple beach estate from Princess Liliuokalani Kawananakoa Morris for $125,000. The property includes a beach house capable of sleeping 10 people, a caretaker’s cottage and a separate shower house, on nearly an acre of oceanfront land.
The club changed from a competitive swimming club to a nonprofit hideaway for its limited membership to use on a reservation basis for a “country” respite and beach access. Members pay a $17-per-adult nightly fee and do their own cleanup after a stay. Bring their own food and do their own cooking.
Quite a difference from the Outrigger Canoe Club’s development history.
So the onetime women’s swimming club still funds swimming lessons for needy children, but it is no longer is involved in competitive water sports like the Outrigger Canoe Club. Its membership is as many men as women, although a woman, Gerry DeBenedetti, is the president.
The weathered Uluniu Women’s Swimming Club signboard from the club’s Waikiki days is posted on a wall by the dining table in the beach house, and in the living room there’s a museum-like photo exhibit of the club’s women founders and their former Waikiki clubhouse.
There’s no pool, no golf course, no fancy dining room — but also few exorbitant fees and dues hikes. Members do periodic yard work and spring cleaning.
If you use OCC, Waialae or Oahu Country Club, you use it and walk away. Uluniu Swimming Club — you use it, clean it, and fix it on your spare time and with your spare money.
I am a member, and that gives me a proprietary sense I’d never have had at Outrigger or Waialae.
The Uluniu also gives me a deep sense of pride whenever I think about the gutsy Uluniu women breaking off on their own when things were not going their way.