Former Pali High Freestyler Mike Newman Became a Lifeguard, Firefighter and ‘Baywatch’ Star
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Life’s a beach for Mike Newman—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Newmie,” the nickname by which he is widely known, spent his childhood surfing the local beaches and went on to become an accomplished surfer, swimmer, lifeguard, fireman and TV actor. He’s also proud to be a Palisadian.
Newman grew up on Kenter Canyon in Brentwood, attending Kenter Elementary and Paul Revere Middle School. Upon his arrival at Palisades High, he sometimes played hooky to catch the early morning swells.
“My coaches Dave Anderson and John Apgar wanted me at the morning workouts and Dave even drove down to the beach to see where I was surfing but he never caught me,” Newman remembers fondly. “I’d surf all day, then go to the [swim team] workouts in the afternoon and I was slow because I was tired. The coaches couldn’t understand why I was so slow, but I was smart enough to rest on the days of the meets.”
His memories of his days as a swimmer at Palisades High are a bit fuzzy. In fact he doesn’t recall many details from his junior year in 1974 when he helped the Dolphins tie Chatsworth for their first boys City swim title.
“I’m 63 years old so it’s all a blur,” he admits. “I have a few pictures in my mind but that’s it.”
What he does remember well is swimming the freestyle leg in the 200-yard medley relay at the 1975 finals meet, helping the Dolphins set a City record of 1:38.91 that stood for 38 years.
“Franz [Szymanski] swam the backstroke, Fred [Kitchener] swam butterfly, Les [Wulk] swam breaststroke and I swam anchor in I think 22 or 23 seconds,” he recalls. “It’s kind of hard to believe our record was only broken a few years ago.”
The record was finally topped in 2013 when Cleveland clocked 1:38.14 and Palisades holds the current standard of 1:35.68, set by brothers Jon, Greg and Alex Havton and Lucas Lacy in 2017 in the same pool at East LA College.
Though the team camaraderie was good, Newman remembers there being a healthy grudge between the sprinters and swimmers in the distance events.
“The 50 freestyle is all-out whereas the 500 is more of a long, painful race,” he reasons. “What’s funny is that there was real animosity between the distance guys and us. They’d call me a lazy bum, but then ask ‘Can you anchor the relay so we can win it?’”
After graduating from Pali High in 1975, Newman continued his swimming career at Santa Monica College, where he earned All-American status, then at UC Santa Barbara, where he was an NCAA Division I All-American and moved up from the 50- and 100-meters to the 200 freestyle.
“That’s what happens when a sprinter gets in shape,” he says, laughing. “We weren’t known as a powerhouse by any means, but we did pretty well and were sixth in the nation one year. Being Division I it was very competitive and we worked out six hours a day.”
At the age of 10, Newman enrolled in Junior Lifeguards and rode his bike to the Santa Monica Pier for four hours of training every day in the summer. He took the LA County Lifeguard test in 1977 and passed it with flying colors. In fact, he accumulated the third-highest score out of 350 people. Newman was simultaneously training to be a firefighter and after nine months as a permanent lifeguard in the South Bay, he got his fire department certification. He served as an LA County firefighter in West Hollywood, Carson, on the Hazmat squad and spent the last 15 years of his career at Station 70, one mile north of Duke’s Restaurant in Malibu.
Shortly after Newman became a lifeguard, childhood friend Greg Bonnan (who swam at Pali sades with Newman’s older brother), asked if Mike wanted to be in the teaser tape for a show he was attempting to sell. Newman not only appeared in that teaser, he went on to star for 13 years in what became the hit TV series “Baywatch,” playing the role of “Newmie” Newman in over 150 of 300 aired episodes.
“I juggled the fire department, which was only 10 days a month, and Baywatch,” he says. “The fire department of course insisted I not miss any shifts on account of my acting and the Hollywood people were just as demanding that I be at a shoot on time. No excuses. But I had a blast.”
The most gratiyfing aspect of being a star on one of the most popular television dramas in the 1990s was reading all his fan mail.
“All along I’d been training to be a real lifeguard, not a fake one, but I grew up driving boats in treacherous places and one of the reasons I got the part is because of that skill,” he says. “I could drive a 70-foot ocean racer and pull up right next to another. Through all those years I never once scratched a boat. One of the best things was the letters I got from people saying I inspired them to become a lifeguard or a father sharing a story of how his son saved his daughter because of me. That all makes me feel really good. Of course I went by ‘Newmie’ on the show but on the set they called me ‘horse head’ because my hat size was 7 7/8.”
After college, Newman started renting a house in the Palisades.
He swam in the Masters porgram at the old YMCA pool in Temescal Park and it was there he met his future wife Sarah (also a swimmer). He proposed to her a few years later and they have two children. Like his dad before him their son Chris, 31, is an LA County Lifeguard. Their daughter Emily, 28, was a freestyle sprinter at Pali High (just like her dad) and was on several City title teams under present coach Maggie Nance. Chris now lives in Ojai and Emily just bought a house in Atascadero.
Anderson served as Palisades’ swimming and water polo coach from 1971-93 and he remembers Newman well: “Mike had a ton of raw talent in one stroke: freestyle. He was a member of our first City championship team in 1974 and was voted ‘Most Improved’ on the 1975 water polo squad. As a junior in ‘74 he tied for first place in the 50 free in 22.613 seconds with his friend Bill Dedrick from Monroe. The next year he helped our 200 medley relay team set a record that stood for decades. Interestingly, that time was set using the old backstroke turn. Later, a rule change allowed swimmers to use a faster turn so our guys probably would’ve been one or two seconds faster had they been able to use the new turn. Mike won the Todd Swanson Award along with teammate Eric Moore at our swim banquet that year.”
Anderson recalls a friendly rivalry Newman had with his Pali High teammate Les Wulk.
“Occasionally, one of them would challenge the other to a 50-yard freestyle race,” Anderson recounts. “Les, being superbly conditioned, would want to race Mike after the workout. Mike, not as superbly conditioned, would want to race before the workout. I don’t think they could ever come to an agreement.”
Newman’s natural ability was evident long after he retired his Dolphins speedo.
“In 1986 we held a meet between the Pali Masters swim team and Pali boys varsity swim team,” Anderson recalls. “Mike was about 30 years old and raced Pali High sprinter Kevin Shepard in the 50-yard free. At first, Kevin took the lead going into the turn. However, Mike had a super turn and won the race handily. Kevin went on to win the 50 freestyle in 21.830 seconds as the varsity boys rolled to another City title. I’m sure that loss to Mike was a huge motivator for Kevin!”
Newman has great respect for his parents, who came to America as English immigrants (his dad had a $10 bill in his pocket). They owned three Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance studios but when The Beatles arrived in 1964 it signaled the beginning of the end of that venture.
“Suddenly it was no more Foxtrot,” Newman says. “Once The Beatles got here, everyone wanted to do the Twist.”
Newman’s mom was also a swim teacher and taught many movie stars’ children to swim. In fact, she was the original “newmie” in the family—a moniker passed down to Mike and subsequently to his son.
Every summer the family would take a seaplane back and forth to Catalina Island. “I grew up in Avalon,” he says. “We had our snorkels and fins and dove for coins when the steamer ships came in. Crewmen would throw quarters overboard and if you were good you could make $7 or $8 every time a boat came in. I became the ‘big man on campus’ in the penny arcade.”
As a boy, Newman idolized Honolulu-born swimmer Duke Kahanamoku (known as the “Father of Surfing” he won a gold medal in the 100 freestyle at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and two more golds at the 1920 Games in Antwerp).
“When it came to surfing, he was a deity,” Newman recalls.
“Newmie” continued to surf and his competitive juices flowed at the lifeguarding national championships, an event he won four times in the 1980s. He went on to captain the United States team at various international competitions in Hawaii, South Africa and other exotic locales around the globe.
“It was essentially a decathlon for lifeguards,” Newman says. “It was like the Ironman competition for us. It included running, a swim around buoys, paddleboards, rowing, team exchanges… things like that. We used to have contests every year and it was a great opportunity for me to travel the world.”
These days, Newman keeps busy working on his kids’ houses, riding his rescue paddleboard, kayaking, bicycling, weightlifing and surfing. He also owns a 5,000-square-foot vacation home on a one-acre lot on Oahu with a regulation-length pool across the street from the beach.
For the last 14 years he has battled Parkinson’s disease and although there are drugs he can take to lesson the symptoms, his hands shake and he has trouble walking due to an accident he suffered years ago. Besides that… life is good.
As the only ‘real’ lifeguard on ‘Baywatch,” Newman was so adamant about the show being true to life that he often put the other actors through his own “boot camp,” so they looked fit enough to pass as real lifeguards. “Newmie” even taught co-star Pamela Anderson how to run on the beach. Newman remained on the show for the entirety of its run. His other screen credits include “Panic at Malibu Pier” (1989), “Welcome to Hollywood” (1998) and “Enemy Action” (1999). He was also the stunt man on the TV series “Search Party” (1999-00). After all that, he became the go-to “water expert” in the film industry, training Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Costner for their roles in “The Guardian” and Tom Hanks for “Angels and Demons.”
For someone who has spent his whole life in and around the Palisades, Newman is content despite the myriad of changes the town has undergone over time.
Dennis Moore, a senior on Pali High’s 1974 City title squad who later became a public school teacher and coached Poway in San Diego to five CIF swim titles, is still a huge admirer of his ex-teammate.
“I was always amazed at how strong and fast Mike was,” Moore recalls. “He was the same grade level as my younger brother Eric. Not only that, both swam at Santa Monica College for the incredible coach John Joseph and were LA County lifeguards together. I’d often see Mike at our John Joseph dinners on the Santa Monica pier that funded the SMC swimming scholarships in Joseph’s name.”
Surf’s up for the man known universally as “Newmie.”
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