PUCKISH: Underwater hockey really is a sport!
Anyone who's seen the first 20 minutes of Casino Royale has seen Parkour—or, at least, the Hollywood version of Parkour. Like the love child of Nadia Comaneci and Chuck Norris, Parkour is a highly skilled, gymnastic practice of navigating urban obstacles, involving jumps, flips, limber maneuvers and a whole lot of upper-body strength. It's also catching on in the Bay Area like wildfire, with two organizations, San Francisco Parkour and Bay Area Parkour, offering training sessions and monthly "jams."
But what is Parkour? "There are two different angles on it," explains Andres de la Rosa, a Parkour trainer at Crossfit Marin gym. "One of the most common definitions is traveling through your environment in the most efficient way possible, from point A to point B, using just the powers of the human body. But it's also a way of self-expression, a philosophy on being strong and developing swiftness and agility and coordination through movement."
Those practicing Parkour, or "freerunning," will see a set of stairs and think: why walk down them when I can drop over the banister onto the ground below? They'll see a concrete wall and think, why walk around it when I can run up its face and vault over it? They'll see a gap between rooftops and think, why use the sidewalk when I can make the jump and land with a roll? What's important, de la Rosa stresses, is that they don't also see an onlooker and think, I'm gonna show off by trying something crazy.
"Parkour can be dangerous if it's done too rationally without using enough patience and good judgment," he says. "Yet if you do the progressions directly and take your time, and weigh the risks and the rewards so you can steadily improve without getting injured, then it can be done safely and it can be very rewarding. There's self-confidence that develops, there are ways of meeting challenges. There's a step-by-step methodology of not just overcoming obstacles that are physical but also of tackling problems and overcoming obstacles that present themselves in your own life."
Santa Rosa Parkour enthusiast Brett Robert has watched the Bay Area's monthly jams attract more and more participants in the last year. "Parkour is growing because it requires no equipment, is incredibly fun and because the community around it is so positive and open," he says. "My friends that I train with are incredible athletes and nice people. The art traces its history to France in the early '90s, where its founders were influenced by French kinesiologist Georges Hebert and his invocation 'être fort pour être utile,' which translates as 'be strong in order to be useful.'"
Parkour isn't just for teens and young adults; there's a 50-year-old Parkour enthusiast at Crossfit Marin who's mastered large jumps and wall flips, and there's also a SWAT officer in his 30s from the East Bay who uses Parkour in real-life applications. Those interested in Parkour can audit a training class for free on Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday at Crossfit Marin, 412 Tamal Plaza, Corte Madera. 415.250.9710.—G.M.
Imagine being at the beach in Northern California. Let's say Dillon Beach in Marin, or Salmon Creek in Sonoma County. There's no fog, just a steady on-shore breeze blowing 15 knots or more. The sun feels warm, the water a chilling 48 degrees, home to sneaker waves and great white sharks.
Now envision flying a kite, a two-handed kite with two 75- to 100-foot lines attached to each end of a steering bar. A harness aids stability and control, and prevents a person from flying away, because this kite is a little different from the colorful octopi and dragons in the sky nearby. This kite has 15 to 60 feet of surface area, large enough to tow a car, let alone a human being. Muster up the upper-body strength and hold tight to the bar as a bystander down the beach launches the kite for you. Maintain control as the wind catches and fills it like a sail.
Add a small surfboard, but keep it manageable. Change it to a kiteboard and add some waves. Any size will do. Now, keeping control of the kite, bend over and pick up the board which is strategically placed close by, walk into the water, set the kiteboard down, and quickly! Kiteboarding requires intense concentration to do two things well simultaneously but independently—riding a board and flying a kite—both powered by forces that can easily get out of control.
"Most people can learn how to kiteboard without preliminary experience surfing or windsurfing," says Jeff Broffman, a local physician and kiter of five years. "But it's a sport where it's important to take lessons to get started so there are no critical errors. I've been surfing almost 45 years, but it took six to 12 months for me to feel relatively adept on a kiteboard because coastal conditions vary so much around here."
The network of North Bay kiteboarders has grown from just three to some 25 athletes over the last five years. But unlike surfers, kiteboarders roam over a huge area of the ocean where they can avoid crowds. And there are other advantages, according to Broffman. "One has a greater sense of freedom," he says. "It's like waterskiing or wakeboarding behind a boat, but without the boat. People can go wherever they want to. Kiters can go faster than windsurfers. The kite is more adaptable and the equipment is much lighter. You can fly 30 feet in the air and do flips. And lastly," he laughs, "it puts less strain on one's aging body." —S.D.
We see ourselves as omnipotent, but the one thing we can't do is throw our bodies into the air and stay there. From Icarus to Richard Branson, we keep trying to attain what comes so easily to our feathered friends. In the 1930s, "birdmen" tried to soar in the sky with wings made of whale bone and canvas; 72 of the 75 daredevils fatally crashed.
Nowadays, these wings are made from nylon, and the adrenaline junkies who wear them are sometimes called "flying squirrels." As these thrill-seekers jump off cliffs or out of planes with their arms and legs spread like they're doing a belly flop, it's easy to see the resemblance to an awkward squirrel careening through the trees.
The technical name for the sport is "wingsuit flying" and it is a variation of BASE jumping, an extreme sport involving jumping from buildings or cliffs with a parachute strapped on. Wingsuits, nylon body gear with wings sewn on the arms and between the lower legs, are worn with parachute equipment.
Wingsuits give the effect of flying with a slow freefall of 30 mph and a horizontal soar of 75 mph. Flyers can do aerial maneuvers in the sky until they pull the parachute. To watch the wingsuiters skim the sides of mountains or float serenely over green pastures gives one a sense of the absolute freedom and rush of excitement they must feel.
Youtube features people flying so close to the strikingly majestic Alps that they could grab a blade of grass, and the shots of wingsuiters circling the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil can make your stomach drop.
Obviously, this sport isn't for the weak of heart, and takes practice. Flyers are supposed to have 200 skydiving jumps under their belt before they fly a wingsuit for the first time. Even though wingsuit flying is much safer than what the birdmen killed themselves for in the 1930s, there is still huge risk involved. People still make fatal mistakes, but that's what makes it an extreme sport. People wouldn't do it if it didn't get their heart pounding and their palms sweating. Perhaps it is something ingrained in our DNA.—H.S. Underwater Hockey
Their sleek, powerful bodies swim quickly through the turquoise twilight, fins cutting and thrashing the water as they dive for their elusive prey. Bubbles froth as heads break the surface, and then disappear again, seeking to hit their target. The swarm swims with a chaotic focus until a dulled thunk! is heard, and all action slows to a halt.
Although this scene might resemble a shark feeding frenzy to the uninformed, what onlookers are actually witnessing is an intensely physical game of underwater hockey. A breath-holding sport developed in England in the early '50s by divers who wanted to stay in shape during the winter off-season, UWH is now played by a couple dozen swimmers at Ives Pool in Sebastopol.
Twice a week, a group ranging in age from their 20s to 50s gather for an excellent workout that improves their wind and stamina, and will see them through the next abalone season. Currently, all the players are men, and some members have played on the national and U.S. world teams. There are no tryouts. Anyone can play regardless of sex, age, conditioning or skill level, but a player should know how to swim!
The black or white hockey stick, which is made of wood or heavy plastic, is about a foot long, and resembles a plastic cooking spatula that has melted out of shape, leaving a short, nubby foot that makes contact with the puck. The lead puck, covered in brightly colored, super-smooth plastic for easy sliding on the pool floor weighs a kilo (2.2 pounds). The edges have a tackier plastic applied so the stick has a little grip. The full length of the pool is used to play, with goals at each end.
Brian Tucker, a local UWH group organizer, has been playing since his teens and has coached the Women's USA Underwater Hockey team. "It's an anaerobic sport—you can't breathe," he says. "You have to control your breath to handle the puck."
Positions are dynamic and goalies are nonexistent. Passes range from three to six feet, again, not so easy considering the resistance the water adds to movement. Shots at the upper chest and head are forbidden.
"Most of us who have been playing a long time have had stitches once or twice from being kicked or hit in the head by the puck," Tucker chuckles. His tone grows more serious as he adds, "Nationwide, there have been three heart attacks and no drownings. That's a pretty good record for a sport that's been around almost 60 years." Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Ives Pool, 7400 Willow St., Sebastopol. 707.823.2251 or 707.579.1870.—S.D.