Water WorldOn his first day as a Los Angeles lifeguard--a job often uncharitably characterized as a way to get tan and get paid at the same time--Craig Hummer '87 rescued four swimmers. "The seriousness of what lifeguards do shouldn't be downplayed," Hummer says. "It is about saving lives."
Hummer's current career as a freelance sportscaster lacks the life and death drama, not to mention some of the fringe benefits, of lifeguarding, but it requires its share of specialized skills. Hummer describes his coverage of Lance Armstrong in the 2005 Tour de France as a cross between rugby and chess. When the world's greatest cyclist stopped pedaling, Hummer had to jockey with dozens of others journalists for Armstrong's attention.
"It sounds absurd, but in the grand scheme of things my job was to find my way to the front of the line," says Hummer. "All of these journalists want to talk with Lance Armstrong. It's like a rock concert where you're being squished in a crowd. It's very unglamorous. Viewers only see the back of my head."
Since the late 1990s, Hummer has covered more than forty different sports for a variety of networks, including the 2004 Olympics for NBC in Athens, Greece, where he met Kenyon's Olympic swimmers Andrejs Duda '06 and Agnese Ozolina '04.
Hummer established his broadcasting credentials after carving out an unlikely career as a celebrated lifeguard and number-one ranked ocean swimming competitor. During the late 1980s and mid-1990s he was featured in People ("Real-life Baywatch") and Cosmopolitan ("Hunks in Trunks"). He appeared on David Letterman, worked in advertising and modeling, and even showed up in television shows like Golden Girls and Baywatch, where he played himself.
"My mom used to say, 'What are you going to do, Craig? There's no such thing as a professional swimmer,' but I made it happen," says the Worthington, Ohio, native. "I became a professional swimmer."
Hummer planned to go into advertising when he moved to L.A. in 1987. To survive during the job hunt, he applied for a coveted spot as a Los Angeles County lifeguard. The first step in the application process required Hummer to compete in an open-ocean swim. "I showed up and there were all of these guys sporting parkas from Harvard and UCLA, and I thought, 'Holy mackerel, I'll be lucky to finish in the top twenty.' "
Hummer, who had no experience in ocean racing but did compete for four years with the Lords championship swimming team, beat almost 300 swimmers to win the race by one of the biggest margins in history.
From there, Hummer's career took off. In 1987, he won his first national title in an event made up of two 400-meter runs on either end of a 400-meter ocean swim. He dominated the world of competitive lifeguarding--a challenging mix of swimming, running, paddling, and kayaking--for more than a decade. And he was the first American invited to compete in the world lifeguard competition in Australia, where lifeguards have the prestige of NBA stars in the United States.
Ironically, one of his most celebrated moments came when he was accused of not taking his work seriously enough. Hummer and nine of his colleagues read the top ten lifeguard pickup lines on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1995. The episode ran without incident, but a rerun irked the Los Angeles County Lifeguard chief. He objected to Hummer's and his pals' bawdy take on lifeguards and their appearance in official swim trunks, claiming they had "set back the reputation of lifeguards for fifty years." The chief let the other lifeguards off with reprimands, but he slapped Hummer, who was the organizer, with a three- week suspension without pay. The incident garnered national press.
"I have no regrets about how that came out. I knew that I hadn't done anything wrong," Hummer says. "That conviction is what got me through that. Some people thought I did it to try and launch my commentary career, but that wasn't the case."
Hummer has been touted as the best American competitive lifeguard ever, and his athletic prowess was honed at Kenyon. He was a standout swimmer in high school, but at 5 feet 6 inches and 135 pounds, he wasn't the most likely candidate for athletic stardom when he arrived at the College in 1983. Then Hummer grew six inches, became co-captain of the swim team in his senior year, and earned All-American status.
Hummer names swimming with the Lords' championship team as one of his best experiences at Kenyon, but the waters weren't always smooth. Jim Steen, Kenyon's swimming coach for the past thirty years, booted Hummer off the team in his junior year for drinking socially with a visiting team. But Hummer refused to stop training for the approaching national championship.
"I had a friend who let me sneak in the Ernst Center at night to swim," he says. "I swam in almost total darkness. I had to swim without my goggles in order to see the walls of the pool. Then one night Jim caught me. We had it out right there and he eventually let me back on the team.
"To be brutally honest, I wasn't the perfect pupil or prodigy at Kenyon," adds Hummer, who majored in history. "I was the first swimmer to call Coach Steen by his first name. It wasn't that I was cocky, that's just who I was."
Today, Hummer's family is a big part of defining who he is. Even when he's posing in swimwear for national magazine spreads, his gold wedding band can be spotted on his left hand. He's married to Jennifer Gooch Hummer '87. The couple started dating in their sophomore year at Kenyon and married in 1991. They have three daughters and live in Manhattan Beach, California, where Jennifer is a freelance writer and script analyst.
Hummer still works occasionally as a lifeguard in Los Angeles and keeps a very active travel schedule. "We're not your typical nine-to-five family," he says. "I couldn't do what I do without Jennifer's support. I've been very lucky."
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