Dispatches, July 1998
There's something Mitch Kahn wants you to know: He's nothing like Mitch Buchanan, the blow-dried ersatz beach hunk played by David Hasselhoff on that most tired of international television phenomena, Baywatch. "That guy can't even paddle," says Kahn, the blond-haired, blue-eyed lifeguard upon whom Hasselhoff's character is based. "When it looks like he's paddling a surf ski on the show, he's really just waving a broomstick around and getting towed on a platform while guys like me race beside him. It's pathetic."
Alas, aquatic prowess apparently means little to southern California's legions of starstruck bimbettes: Unlike the meticulously moussed thespian, Kahn says he rarely, if ever, finds himself thronged by fawning, silicone-enhanced babes. But he does reign as the soulful king of an obscure sport that has, of late, finally begun to acquire some buzz. "King Kahn," as he's known, is the winningest American surf lifesaver of all time, and on the 18th of this month the aging champion will make what could be his last stand, as he seeks to fend off a swarm of flashy young turks at the sport's most venerable event: California's 22-year-old San Clemente Ocean Festival.
The Festival's "International Ironman" competition provides a rigorous test of the entire repertoire of skills that lifeguards must call upon to drag near-stiffs from the sea: There's a 400-meter sprint through sand, a 400-meter swim, a one-kilometer race on surf skis, and a grueling 600-meter paddleboard sprint. Kahn first won the event in 1982, so ruthlessly dominating the field that Baywatch producer Gregory Bonann came to regard him as a kind of bronzed blueprint. "When we started the show in 1989," says Bonann, "it had to be Mitch. He is a stud, a bitchin' guy." Over the years, Kahn has won the event an astonishing 12 times, ceding victory only twice to Craig Hummer, the closest thing he's ever had to a nemesis.
This year, however, Mitch turns 38, and a surly pack of junior rivals is snapping disrespectfully at his heels. Heading up the throng is Tim Gair, 24, a newly minted graduate of UC Santa Barbara who has this to say about the legend of surf lifesaving: "I beat him in the paddleboard last year."
Oh, the impudence of youth! According to Barrett Tester, the festival's race director, Gair represents a new breed on the beach: "He's driven by dreams of Nike sponsorship, and he's not afraid to hang out in a Speedo and wraparounds." Kahn, on the other hand, seems tuned to a deeper chord. These days the old warhorse guards only sporadically, having launched a grown-up career as a paramedic, and has grown philosophical about surf lifesaving's place in the sporting pantheon. "There'll never be any big money in this," he says, more matter-of-fact than wistful. "People in Kansas will just never get it."