Water Sports: The Baywatch Conundrum

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Outside magazine, January 1996

Water Sports: The Baywatch Conundrum

All Craig Hummer wants is someone to take his lifeguarding seriously
By Martin Dugard

“Hummer Mania,” jokes professional lifeguard Craig Hummer, a Californian by way of Ohio who’s currently turning the Australian sport of surf lifesaving on its ear. “Can you imagine?” Nope. Not in the United States, where the flex-and-jiggle specter of Baywatch trivializes the work of the chiseled, blond 30-year-old, who every summer anonymously
watches over Venice Beach’s cocoa-buttered throngs.

But it’s different in Australia. “We’re very ocean-oriented down here,” says Graem Sims, deputy editor of Inside Sport, Australia’s largest sports publication. “I know it’s hard for you people to understand, but lifeguarding is an institution.” Which means that if Hummer, who defeated a cadre of Australia’s best in the esteemed Waikiki King’s Race
last September, should win at the upcoming Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships, it will amount to blasphemy. “As good as he is,” sniffs Sims, “nobody thinks for a moment that a Yank can win.”

Surf lifesaving, for the uninitiated, usually consists of a two-mile run in pudding-soft sand, a two-mile ocean swim, and several miles of propelling a paddleboard and a surf kayak. It demands a sailor’s understanding of waves and currents as well as speed and endurance on- and offshore–in short, the elements of a successful water rescue. Over the last five years Hummer has
had trouble breaking into the top 15 in international competitions, hindered by the Achilles’ heel of being so-so in paddleboarding. But suddenly–and mysteriously to most Australian observers–Hummer last year finished a surprising ninth in that country’s million-dollar Uncle Toby’s Super Series. Which has led to the panicky speculation that an American just might sabotage the
national pastime. But even as opportunity knocks, Hummer balks at the notion of being a hero in a foreign land. He says he might not return to Australia for the 1996 season, which begins in September, because the prospect of spending six months away from his wife, Jennifer, has little luster. And there’s the problem of making a living Down Under. “Australian companies won’t offer
me money, because they think it looks like they’re betraying Australians,” he complains. “And U.S. companies won’t, because they don’t understand what a big deal lifeguarding really is over there.” Thus another dilemma: Should Hummer toil abroad in hopes of a few more minutes of Aussie fame? Or try his Hasselhoffian smile on Hollywood?

“I’d like for people to take the sport seriously over here,” he says, looking out over Venice Beach’s sea of slow-cooking arms, legs, and backs. “And maybe I can be a part of making that happen. But if they ask,” he says with a Faustian grin, “I certainly wouldn’t rule out being a regular on Baywatch

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