Days before Thanksgiving, Craig Childress was working late into the night with three crew members at Boston University (BU) on yet another plumbing job.
They were replacing cast-iron drains in a ceiling, a job Childress has done countless times in his 21 years of plumbing. At one point, the job required two crew members to climb two ladders—and one of Childress’s co-workers quickly volunteered him.
“Why don't we let the best plumber in the United States up on the ladder?” the co-worker said, and everyone laughed.
The comment, which was said in jest and respect, had some truth to it. Just one month earlier, Childress competed on the national stage at the Elite Trades Championship Series (ETCS) in Tampa, Florida, in the plumbing competition and won the grand prize, becoming the 2023 Plumbing National Champion.
But that achievement was only half of the story.
Childress, who’s admittedly shy and likes to stay away from the spotlight, only shared the full story with a handful of people right after the competition. That’s why, when some of his BU co-workers initially celebrated his big win, they were in for a shocking surprise.
“Congratulations on the plumbing championship!” they said, until someone in the room revealed that Childress also competed in the ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship that weekend—and won.
That also makes Childress the best HVAC tech in the United States, and the proud owner of an exclusive title: The ETCS’ first-ever crossover champion.
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‘It almost became one industry’
Ask Childress what he does for a living today, and the answer is simple.
“I categorize myself as a plumber,” he said. “But that’s only because that’s what I do currently.”
It’s also the trade he first learned.
Childress grew up in the Boston suburbs, and after his parents sent his two older brothers to vocational high school, Childress said he was “lovingly nudged” in the same direction. He enjoyed working with his hands and quickly gravitated toward plumbing—mainly because he got to use a torch.
“You're 14 years old and you're using a torch to solder. It was something fun to do,” he said.
Childress went straight into the field after high school. Three years in, his company wanted him to pick up another trade—HVAC—so they sent him to a two-week, intensive program. Over time, Childress continued to sharpen his expertise in both trades. He’d do a bathroom remodel one day, a furnace replacement the next, and install a tankless water heater the day after.
“I was so involved in all portions of plumbing and HVAC that, for me, it almost became one industry,” Childress said.
He obsessed over making his jobs clean and neat. And those skills only sharpened when he met Mack Shwert roughly 10 years ago. At first, Shwert was Childress’s apprentice. But quickly, Shwert was teaching him. They worked together countless times at different companies over the years.
“And we push one another,” Childress said.
For example, after the pair had done the same jobs hundreds of times together, they challenged themselves to add a new component to their work: Speed and urgency.
“We’d (imagine) that every customer was a family member,” Childress said. “So before every job, our motto would be, ‘My mom has no heat,’ or ‘My mom has no cooling. Let's get in and finish our job.’”
The duo’s career paths eventually diverged. But around this time last year, Childress learned some incredible news about his friend.
Shwert had won the inaugural 2022 ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship in Tampa. Childress had never heard of the competition—but he wasn’t surprised that Shwert won. He was thrilled and celebrated with him.
“But then once things settled down, I started looking into it a little bit and I was like, ‘All right. I'm in (for next year).’”
Speeding to the top
Childress didn’t know what to expect from the ETCS—but nothing could prepare him for the moment he stepped onto the competition floor.
His name boomed from the loudspeakers as he moved through a fog-machine entrance like he was a WWE wrestler. Cameras followed his every step. His wife, Rachel, stood in the crowd, chanting his name the entire time, watching her husband of 15 years breeze through the semi and final rounds of the plumbing competition.
At the end of the first day, Childress hoisted the Plumbing National Championship trophy along with a $10,000 check. Later, he FaceTimed with his 12-year-old daughter.
“Hearing her say she was proud of me was the highlight of the night,” Childress said.
But there wasn’t much celebration—if any—that evening. That’s because he had to be up early to compete in the HVAC semifinals the following day. Childress approached that competition in a familiar way.
“My mindset was, ‘My mom has no heat,’” he said.
Childress was the first person to finish his task in both the semis and the finals. Rachel yelled some variation of, “You got this, Craig!” every five minutes, and Shwert, who didn’t qualify for the semis this year, also supported his friend from the crowd.
By the end, Childress walked away as the new ServiceTitan HVAC National Champion, holding another heavy trophy and an additional check of $40,000.
“Professionally, this is the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said in a daze of joy moments after walking off the winner’s stage.
Shining a light on the trades
One month since the ETCS, that joyous daze is still with him.
Sure, he’s returned to BU and gotten back into his day-to-day routine. But there’ve been countless surreal moments.
Like when he autographed a dozen hard hats after being crowned the HVAC national champion. Or when TV camera crews followed him along for a day’s work at BU. Or when Chris Hunter, a ServiceTitan principal industry adviser and one of the ETCS HVAC judges, wrote a Facebook post highlighting Childress’s crossover skillset, comparing him to the “Bo Jackson/Deion Sanders of the trades.”
Childress loves how much his 4-year-old son gawks over his two huge trophies—which sit on the family’s dining room table for all guests to see. More than ever, his son has been walking around the house, pretending to do what Dad does.
“He'll pretend to be on the phone, talk about doing plumbing and that he's on his way to work,” Childress said with a laugh. “(This whole experience) has really just given (my kids) more of a positive look on the trades. More of a positive look on what I do for a living.”
The trades don’t normally get the spotlight they deserve, Childress explained. And events like the ETCS make it shine as bright as can be. He said his family will host some sort of watch party at their house when the ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship premieres on CBS Sports Network on Friday, Dec. 15 at 8 pm ET.
Until then and probably soon after, when Childress’s face and impressive crossover feats are aired on national television, the normally shy and reserved plumber is going to have to deal with more jokes at work and other surreal moments in the limelight.
But it’s a fair tradeoff. “The awareness (the ETCS) brings to the trades, it’s special,” Childress said. “I’m so thankful.”
More HVAC Championship Coverage
The Elite Trades Championship Series is taking over your television every Friday at 8pm EST this December on CBS Sports Network. Catch Craig in the ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship on December 15th, and the Plumbing National Championship on December 29th!
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