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Kurt Loeffler: swimming to the beat of his own drum

Everyone knows Kurt Loeffler.

The 6-foot-10-inch swimmer, lifeguard and photographer towers over swim meets, cross country runs and tennis matches, always aiming for the perfect shot with his Nikon D700.

Loeffler’s evolution into the go-to photographer at Mills events happened by chance, a common theme in his life. Loeffler has followed hobbies from swimming to surfing to lifeguarding, allowing each to take him up and down the California coast.

While most Mills students know him for his faithful presence at Mills athletic events, few know of the different strokes he took to get to this small all-women’s school in Oakland, California.

Butterfly: Growing up in Huntington Beach

Loeffler’s parents were both swimmers. His Croatian mother grew up swimming in the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea, situated between the Italian and Balkan peninsulas. His mother emigrated to the States in 1942. Loeffler grew up in Huntington Beach in southern California, a small coastal town known for its wealth and good waves. His parents enrolled him in swimming lessons at age two; by age six he was participating in swim meets.

Still, Loeffler wasn’t exactly the stiffest competition.

“It’s not like I was swimming competitively back then,” Loeffler said. “I just loved the water.”

He started surfing at 12, carving the famous waves of Huntington. Soon after, he joined his school’s swim and water polo teams. At his athletic apex, he was swimming up to four and a half miles a day.

Swimming became Loeffler’s main squeeze. Still, the water wasn’t always comforting. Loeffler was 5 foot 11 inches when he was a high school freshman — by the time he graduated, he was 6 foot 10 inches. Loeffler also has a 6-foot twin sister and a 6-foot-6-inch older brother.

“Competing was a always a bit difficult; I didn’t go up to the swimming block thinking, ‘Yes, life is good,’” Loeffler said. “I think maybe because I’m tall and I always had people staring at me. It’s like, ‘look at the 6-foot-10-inch guy on the block!’”

Not that Loeffler lets looks get in the way — he simply forged ahead, ready for a change of scenery from Huntington’s warm ocean to the colder waters of Northern California.

Breaststroke: Cruising Between Huntington and Santa Cruz

After graduating from high school, Loeffler decided to chase the surf, vacillating between Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz, northern California’s “beach bum” neighbor. Besides promising waves, Loeffler felt comfortable amongst Santa Cruz’s downtown street musicians as opposed to Huntington Beach’s immaculately kept avenues.

“Huntington Beach is a monoculture and everything is gentrified — this nice neat package to look good on the outside and there’s no spontaneity,” Loeffler said. “The beach is a competition: who has the best suit and who has the best body. Up here, you see someone on the beach in a full set of motorcycle leathers.”

Life wasn’t just about chasing the perfect wave. Loeffler became a state lifeguard along the way, allowing him to make a living while staying close to the water.

“I’ve found in life I’d rather just have fun,” Loeffler said. “I’d rather just enjoy myself.”

Loeffler did enjoy himself. He was a state lifeguard for 15 years, ditching desk jobs to stay as close to the water as possible.

Backstroke: Off to Oakland

Loeffler officially said adieu to Huntington Beach in 1990, settling in the Bay Area. He started swimming at Mills nine years ago after a friend recommended its Olympic-sized pool. Loeffler found more than a pool to whet his appetite, however. He met Mills’ aquatics coordinator Carol Berendsen on the pool deck, immediately hitting
it off.

“He came in as a lap swimmer, and he’s so gregarious that you feel like you’ve known him forever,” Berendsen said. “He would come in and check in and chat and say, ‘How are you? It’s a beautiful day; I’ve missed being at the pool the last few days.’”

Loeffler paid his daily fee to get into the pool until Berendsen noticed the Thursday lunchtime lifeguarding shift was empty. Loeffler nudged his way into the position faster than a lap across
the pool.

“I said, ‘I should work here as a lifeguard so I can swim here for free,’” Loeffler said.

Loeffler took on more shifts until he was the head lifeguard, then started teaching a lifeguard class at Mills.

With each class, lesson and stroke, Loeffler was accepted into the Mills community.

Freestyle: Photography at Mills

Loeffler stumbled upon another opportunity with equal serendipity: photography.

“As a kid, I was fascinated by really old cameras,” Loeffler said. “I’d go to the Goodwill near my house and buy cameras for 50 cents, then buy film for them.”

Still, photography was just a small hobby for Loeffler until he watched junior Cathy Knight swimming butterfly; he wanted to document Knight flying across the pool, her muscled arms reaching deep into the water.

“I remember Kurt laying down at the opposite end of the pool and taking pictures as I would swim towards him,” Knight said of the first time Loeffler photographed her. “I was always afraid that when I would turn on the wall I would splash his camera, but every time he managed to roll out of the way.”

Loeffler’s desire to capture athletics on film soon went beyond Knight. He began photographing the entire swim team and then started showing up at soccer games too. Now he stands at every sporting event at Mills, his Nikon D700 at the ready.

Loeffler gradually became more woven into the community with every soccer game, swim meet and cross country scrimmage he attended. Along with photography, he still works at the pool on Thursdays and teaches lifeguarding.

“I love it here,” Loeffler said. “I found it’s really important to me. It’s like this huge extended family because I tend to have a lot of solitude in my life doing photography.”

Even behind the lense, though, people still come up to him and chat, perhaps trying to get a glimpse of Loeffler capturing a stroke, dash or leap.