My New Favorite Tee Shirt and the Camaraderie of Misery

On September 25, 1974 fellow members of a local track club Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan hosted an event at Mission Bay in San Diego unlike any they believed the world had ever seen. They assumed that because neither had been present when a similar event took place near Paris in 1902.

There are some triathlon events that include different combinations of sports, like the Running Rivers Flyathlon, which includes running, fly fishing, and beer drinking. True story. Asþont, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In each case the event consisted of three separate sports mashed together into one race. The Paris event was cleverly called Les Trois Sports, which roughly translates as “race event for impressive athletes who are also mildly insane.” Trust me on this. French is a highly efficient language.

In San Diego, the newfangled race was called a triathlon, because Greek is an even more efficient language and Johnstone, unsatisfied with his fitness level after running and running and running, was just insane enough suggest that the San Diego Track Club throw some other challenges into the mix.

Les Trois Sports initially included run, bicycle, and canoe components, all completed consecutively without a break outside of the time it takes to exchange some equipment and chow down some quick sugar, like a power bar or maybe a baguette or something. I don’t really know that much about turn of the century French culture.

My super cool sharpie tattoo also included my age on my calf, so that every time I got passed by a 65-year-old, I would be sure to know, which was helpful.

The Mission Bay Triathlon consisted of running, biking, and swimming. In that order. Fortunately, the distances for this first triathlon were relatively short since it had not yet occurred to the organizers that an exhausted swimmer is more likely to accidentally drown than one who has a lot more exercise still to look forward to.

Forty-six athletes participated in this first triathlon event in the US, which is a lot more mildly insane people than Johnstone and Shanahan expected. Two of those participants were Judy and John Collins, who only four years later, proved they were not so much on the mild side of insane when they began the Ironman event in Hawaii, consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26 mile run. At least it was in that order because by then, triathletes had figured out that collapsing from exhaustion on the road, while dangerous, is usually not as immediately deadly as collapsing in the ocean.

As insane as I believe the Ironman to be, I do admire and appreciate the extreme dedication of the athletes who train for and participate in it. In concept, and on a much smaller scale, I am even drawn to the idea of a triathlon.

As long as you’re doing it for the right reasons (a tee shirt and a medal), it’s not that insane.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before, but it always bears repeating, that I believe with my whole heart that running is stupid. I do, however, love to swim and I’m also a big fan of biking and of participating in race events in general. There’s just something about the camaraderie of misery that really sizzles my bacon.

So, when a friend recently asked if anyone would like to join her for the sprint course of the TriathLou in Litchfield, Illinois, I readily volunteered. I participated in a similar event ten or twelve years ago with my sister and I remember it being tough but fun. Then, to my surprise and delight, my slightly insane fourteen-year-old son said he wanted to give it a try this time, so I was definitely stuck.

It wasn’t a terribly long event. We swam 0.3 miles, biked 12 miles, and ran 3.1 miles, done consecutively with only enough break between to exchange some equipment and chow some quick sugar, like an energy bar or a Snickers because I am pretty familiar with early twenty-first century American culture.

Yes, I did finish, and I did run every step. As I easily predicted, the swim and bike went just fine and I was slow and miserable-ish on the stupid run, but I did it. For my efforts I got improved satisfaction with my fitness level, a tee shirt, and a finishers medal so I can prove to anyone who questions me that I am mildly insane.

An Exhilarating Fight to the Death

This past week saw the official opening of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, with some definite adjustments. There are no cheering crowds and the athletes arbitrarily wear masks when they don’t have the immediate need to breathe. Viewership in the US is way down, I’m sure partly because seeing empty stadiums is unsettling and partly because so many people have given up cable in favor of streaming services. It’s also difficult to hashtag a 2020 Olympic Games that is occurring in 2021. We’re probably all little discombobulated.

Cesar I. Martins from Jundiai, Brazil, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What I miss the most are the parents of the athletes, sitting in the stands wringing their hands, biting their nails, trying to watch and not watch at the same time while their son or daughter competes at the highest level in a sport to which they have dedicated so much time and energy for so many years. Instead, we’re shown occasional glimpses of them in the comfort of their living rooms half a world away, or gathered with family and friends for watch parties. It’s nice to see them, but it’s not quite the same.

There are two types of Olympic parent. The first is the one who is the former elite athlete themselves. This parent my even have been a coach to their young athlete at some point. They can semi-calmly answer knowledgeable questions about their son or daughter’s performance. The second kind of parent had no idea that their child might be the greatest handball player of all time, and when it all began, had no idea precisely how one played handball.

It’s this parent with whom I identify, because while the rest of the handful of Olympic watchers in the US was tuned into the primetime replay of the Opening Ceremony last Friday, I was instead watching men’s sabre fencing. This is the kind of event you have to watch live mostly in the middle of the night because it’s not gymnastics, swimming, sprinting, or beach volleyball. And it’s a sport that we had to watch, because for about three years now, my youngest son has been a fencer.

Italian sabre team at 1908 Olympics. Unknown author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the fact that fencing is one of the world’s oldest sports, as it developed alongside the need to learn how to fight and defend oneself with a sword, and despite the fact that it is one of only five events that has been part of every single occurrence of the Modern Olympic Games since they began in Athens in 1896, fencing remains a watch-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of sport around these parts.

And we did watch it in the middle of the night. The preliminaries began around 7 pm and the gold medal bout occurred around 7 am. In between was a lot of fencing, very little of which was understood by this mom.

It’s not that I don’t like the sport. It’s just that before my son started, the only thing I knew about fencing I had learned from The Princess Bride, which taught me that Bonetti’s defense might be fitting for rocky terrain, and that if one is to be satisfied with his bout, he should fence with his non-dominant hand unless forced to do otherwise because his opponent is better than he is. Neither of these pieces of information has so far proven useful in the slightest.

I have accumulated some knowledge over the last few years. For instance, there are three varieties of sport fencing. Each uses a distinct type of sword, set of rules, and method of scoring. Foil is the classic art of poking one’s opponent in the torso. Epee, according to my son, is the sword dancing of lawless hippies. And sabre is more or less an exhilarating fight to the death by stabbing or whacking.

Thadius856, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, my son primarily fences sabre, which is the fastest moving of the three and is therefore the most difficult for an enthusiastic mom to spectate without making a fool of herself.

In case you’re not familiar with the sport, I’ll explain. Very basically, each fencer is attempting to score a “touch” against the other by being the first to make contact with an opponent from the waist up. This touch can be scored with either the stabby part of the sword or the cutting edge. That’s not so tricky. But if both fencers manage to achieve a touch, which seems to pretty much always happen, then the point goes to the fencer who has claim to the right of way, or in other words, the last fencer to have done something either offensive (like move forward without stopping or flinching) or defensive, like parry an opponent’s attack.

Right of way is determined by a judge, who is never swayed by the simultaneous outpouring of enthusiastic celebration by each of the fencers, as convinced the point belongs to him as a soccer player is that he has been gravely injured by light contact with another player. Except that sometimes the judge is swayed. But more often, they just call a simultaneous, no one gets the point, and the false celebrating ceases for the next 0.4 milliseconds that it takes to do it all over again.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

I have been trying to figure it out. I really have, and I thought that maybe by watching sabre in the Olympics with commentary and slow-motion views, I might gain some super fencing-mom skill. Alas, until the finals, fencing events were only viewable on a four-way split screen with no commentary at all, except for the unintelligible utterances of my son and husband (who is much better at mimicking sports knowledge than I am) who said things like stop hit, mal-parry, or flunge.

So, I ended up doing what I always do. I cheered when my son did.

As far as learning how to cheer on the sport, the whole exercise was about as helpful as watching The Princess Bride. But that’s okay. He’s not in the Olympics yet. If he is someday, I’m sure I’ll have it all figured out by then. Or at least I’ll be the mom who is wringing my hands, biting my nails, and trying to both watch and not watch at the same time. Because everyone can understand that.

Which Commercial Will You Root For?

On July 4, 1941 the Brooklyn Dodgers took on the Philadelphia Phillies at home in Ebbets Field, a game that was broadcast on local television station WNBT. Though only about 1% of US homes had a television at the time, maybe as many as four thousand households tuned in. It was probably less than that, but just before the game started, those watching also got to see a ten second advertisement for the Bulova Watch Company.

Remembered as the first ever television commercial, it cost less than ten dollars to create, somewhere in the neighborhood of $70-$160 in 2021 dollars. I have no idea what the return on investment for this commercial was, but given that the same company produced the first radio spot advertisement in 1926 and in 1931 engaged in the watch industry’s first million-dollar advertising campaign through its retail partners, I think it’s a safe bet that Bulova thought it was money well spent. That might be especially true since we’re still talking about it eighty years later.

And it seems like a particularly reasonable price tag when you consider that the bidding for a 30-second commercial time slot for this weekend’s Super Bowl 55 began at 5.6 million dollars. Of course, commercial slots aren’t always quite that expensive. When that one pirate-themed team with the quarterback who cheats takes on the Great State of Missouri’s one and only professional football team which just happens to be the reigning champion, more than 100 million people are expected to be watching.  

Eighty years later America still runs on Bulova time.
photo credit: Max Grabert Bulova Precisionist Champlain 98B142 via photopin (license)

As much as it might sound like I do, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I tried for a while because my husband enjoys watching the sport, but I’ve never much cared for American football. Now more and more it just feels like I’m watching repeated brain trauma.

So, like an estimated 37 million of my closest friends, I will tune into the commercials and use the football breaks to go to the bathroom, enjoy some snacks, or perhaps read a book.  I am reading a really good one right now. I will root for the best commercials, those that stick with me because they made me laugh, or cry, or admire their cleverness.

I don’t really have a dog in that fight either because I couldn’t quite swing the $5.6 million. A while back I did spend exactly zero dollars of 1941 currency to produce two book trailers that I have now posted (for the bargain price of zero dollars in 2021 currency) here on my blog where nearly 5,000 followers could potentially see them. It will probably be somewhat less than that and they aren’t exactly Super Bowl quality, but who knows? Maybe people will still be talking about them eighty years from now.

The Official Flaming Underpants of the 2020 Covid Olympics

This week our local schools revealed their plans for the fall. There are as many different approaches as there are school districts involved, but the one thing that is fairly consistent is that if students return to the classroom, they’ll be wearing face masks.

It’s going to take some adjustment and patience, but I suspect most kids will do okay with this. Image by Leo Fontes from Pixabay

I don’t think that comes as such a shock. Also this week, most stores in our area began requiring masks inside, a mandate that has not come from our governor in the state of Missouri, but has been left up to county health officials, local governments, and business owners. A good number of people were wearing them anyway, but now it’s official policy.

That’s led to a little bit of grumbling, as there are still some people who question the practice, but for the most part, the folks in my little corner of the world are handling any conflicts with calm discussion and a touch of humor.

Mostly, we talk about underwear.

It’s all over my social media feeds as clever memes that draw parallels between wearing a face mask and wearing a bra or panties or boxer briefs. A mask, they say, should be treated like underwear—it should be kept dry, worn clean, and not adjusted in public. Many ladies add to the discussion by proudly proclaiming that even though it’s uncomfortable and kind of a pain, they wear a bra in public for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, outside of social media, and in the sticky summer St. Louis heat, the resolve of some seems to fall away and that particular metaphor doesn’t always hold.

But the point is still valid. And what else do we have to talk about?

Because on this day in 2020, when the world should be sharing in the celebration of the parade of nations and the end of the Olympic torch relay at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, instead we’re sharing a virus.

One of many great disappointments in 2020. photo credit: Tim Schofield IMG_0965 via photopin (license)

And when we should be watching with pride as the torch is run into an Olympic stadium filled with the best elite athletes the world has to offer, anticipating gymnastics floor routines, swimming medley relays, and (in my household particularly) epic fencing bouts, we’re stuck instead with endless conversations about the fallout of Covid-19. And underwear.

In 1956, the topics actually overlapped, because that’s when the great underwear torch relay occurred. The Olympic torch, of course, is the symbol of connection and continuity from the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the modern-day event, which draws the world together in a spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and good fun.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have touched this and whether or not their hands were clean.

The relay, however, which sees the lighted torch carried from Olympia, Greece to the host city, making appearances in cities around the world on the way, has much shallower roots, only dating back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tradition begun by Nazis.

For this and probably lots of other geopolitical reasons, the torch relay and the torch itself, has at times been the target of protests. In 1956, one such protest carried out by eight students from St. John’s College at the University of Sydney, involved a fake torch made from a silver-painted wooden chair leg, a plum pudding can, and a flaming pair of underpants.

Approximating the dress of an official torch runner, and accompanied by a uniformed buddy on a motorcycle, one student carried the flaming drawers ahead of the official torch and even managed to hand it off to then Lord Mayor of Sydney Pat Hills, who, flustered at the earlier than expected arrival of the torch, proceeded to give a prepared speech to an expectant crowd. By the time he learned of the deception, the student had disappeared.

The real torch did make its way to the handoff at Sydney Town Hall amid a little bit of mayhem. It went on from there to Melbourne where it burned brightly over the Olympic Games that year. The student who’d handed off the flaming underwear, a young man named Barry Larkin, went on to establish a successful veterinary practice, and as is so often the case, no one really seems to know what he and his friends were actually protesting.

photo credit: pburka Mask required via photopin (license)

But I suppose people will always find a reason to get a little riled up. It might be that we disagree with the way our local school districts have decided to try to navigate an impossible situation. Or it might be that we have deep-rooted personal beliefs about whether or not people should be required to wear face masks into WalMart.

I wish we could all be watching the Olympics. But I guess instead we’ll talk about underwear.

And Then Ninety-two Years Later

It was 1928 when pathologist Dr. Harrison Martland first wrote about the condition that came to be known in the boxing world as “Punch Drunk Syndrome.” With his partner Dr. Christopher Beling, Martland autopsied more than three hundred brains from traumatic cerebral hemorrhaging cases and found a connection between unusual brain structures and the sport of boxing.

boxing punch
Image courtesy of Skeeze, via Pixabay.com

Dr. Martland set out to learn as much as he could about the sport and noted carefully the observations of the athletes and trainers who exhibited and described tremors, vertigo, and mental deterioration, many of them having been reassured by physicians that there was no correlation between head injury sustained in the ring and such symptoms.

Martland believed there was enough evidence to suggest a connection and though he didn’t have the exact mechanism of the disease figured out, he poured a great deal of effort into detailing boxing styles and career longevity and their possible relationships to long-term health effects.

football concussion
Image courtesy of tpsdave, via Pixabay.com

But Martland’s work didn’t gain a lot of traction, and barely any outside the sport of boxing. It certainly wasn’t discussed within other contact sports, and was flat-out denied by some. It was another seventy-seven years before the 2005 publication of Dr. Bennett Omalu’s paper on “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” (CTE) observed in the brains of deceased professional American football athletes and before the danger of frequent concussion was even on the public’s radar.

The NFL was quick to disparage the study and the reputation of Dr. Omalu, but was eventually pressured enough to admit to some knowledge of brain injury problems. It turned out that many former NFL players were experiencing impulse control, impaired judgment, chronic headache, aggression, paranoia, and early onset progressive dementia.

Thanks to a tenacious media and Hollywood director and producer Ridley Scott who enlisted Will Smith to tell the story of Dr. Omalu’s discovery in the 2015 film Concussion, the public has begun to pay attention and sports are beginning, though still much too slowly, to seriously examine ways to keep athletes safer.

The word was finally out eighty-seven years after Dr. Martland’s description of Punch Drunk Syndrome, and thirty-seven years after my cousin Jake started playing sports as a little kid.

We lost Jake a few months ago, just before Christmas. He ended his own life because at age 47, he could no longer manage the symptoms of this terrible degenerative disease. That’s when most of his family found out for the first time what he had been struggling with. He hadn’t wanted us to know while he did his best to enjoy life with the people he loved.

He was a wonderful, generous man and yes, he was a gifted multi-sport athlete who loved, among many others, the sport of football. He played it for many years, and then in more recent years told his fiancée that if he had known the price for playing, he wouldn’t have done it.

soccer header
Image courtesy of tpsdave via Pixabay.com

And that’s why I decided to use this space, where I typically stick to more lighthearted topics, to write about Punch Drunk Syndrome, CTE, and my cousin who is so very loved and so terribly missed. Because his choices might have been different if he’d had the information. And maybe your choices or the choices of those you love could be different now that you do.

CTE does not correlate strongly with isolated large concussion injuries, though of course those are concerning. Those who suffer from CTE are more likely to have experienced years of repeated small head trauma, much of which may not even fit the diagnostic criteria of concussion. Sports most likely to see CTE development include not only football and boxing, but also hockey, rugby, and soccer. It also affects military personnel and victims of domestic violence.

There’s still a lot to be learned. CTE doesn’t affect everyone who has ever experienced head trauma, or everyone who plays contact sports, but when it does, it is devastating and incurable. In fact, though we understand much more about the causes and symptoms than we ever have before, it still can’t be conclusively diagnosed until death.

What we do know for sure is that it’s entirely preventable. And we should’ve known that for at least ninety-two years.

You can learn more about CTE from the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Bobbling Along With Style

History has not been especially kind to King George IV of the United Kingdom. Many of his contemporaries described him as selfish, unreliable, and just kind of the worst. He was difficult to work with, indulged frequently in heavy drinking, and he was a pretty terrible husband. But he did have one thing going for him. The man had style.

Referred to as the “First Gentleman of England,” George had tremendous influence on style and taste in the early 19th century. He was particularly passionate about architecture and design, and spared no detail when planning his Brighton Pavilion beginning in 1787. Built after Indian architectural styles, then Prince George chose Asian-influenced décor for the interior. And it’s pretty heard to question the man’s impeccable taste when you realize that this choice led to the incorporation of a bunch of bobbleheads.

japanesebobblehead
This is a Japanese “nodder” doll that dates to the 16th century, though bobblehead-style dolls are probably older than that. Cleveland Museum of Art [CC0], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
According to the website of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a real place in Milwaukee, WI in case you ever want to go, George was pretty fond of these Chinese and Japanese dolls with oversized heads attached with string. Perhaps it was because when nudged, they always agreed with him.

Not a great deal seems to be known about the origin of the bobblehead, except that something like it seems to have developed in parts of Asia prior to 1760 or so when it started nodding its way into Europe and became a fun, manufactured product coming out of Germany.

popebobblehead
This could be yours for just $19.95 on Amazon right now. No, seriously.

The bobblehead doll’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years since its introduction to the western world, but it’s been on the rise pretty steadily now since the late nineties when the San Francisco Giants handed out 20,000 big-headed bobbling Willie Mayses to a crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Since that time an army of distorted, acquiescent, cartoon celebrities, athletes, and even Pope Francises has been released upon the world.

And though I hope I’m not selfish or unreliable or just kind of the worst, I have to agree with King George IV on this one. I find bobbleheads pretty adorable and I do have quite a few. Mine are all of the baseball variety, collected from stadium giveaways.

It’s a fun collection that sometimes borders on the ridiculous. In fact, just this past weekend, the promotional giveaway at the stadium I love the most was a double bobblehead featuring two of the all-time greats from the history of the team. Because my husband and I couldn’t go to the game, we bought our nephew a ticket so he could go and collect our keepsake for us.

cardinal bobbleheads
My husband is fond of saying, “There’s no more agreeable activity than dusting a collection of bobbleheads.”

Our prize has now found a new home in our baseball-inspired family room, which probably isn’t all that influential in the style and taste department. But it is a pretty accommodating place to be, surrounded by nodding statues in matching uniforms.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may recall that uniform has a pair of red birds on it. Also, you may recall that I don’t mention the team that wears that uniform by name when they are in the middle of a playoff run. Yes, I realize that’s not rational, but bear with me here. The last time I blogged about my favorite Midwestern flock of baseball-playing birds during a playoff run without using their actual team name, they won the World Series. I’m just doing my part.

With style.

The Queen of Strength and Beauty

Just two years after he organized what is largely considered the world’s first bodybuilding competition in 1901, acclaimed German muscle man Eugen Sandow met his match in a woman. The story goes that it was at a performance of feats of strength in New York when strongwoman Catherine Brumbach challenged anyone in the audience to outlift her.

sandwina1
Also known as the “Lady Hercules,” Katie Sandwina was known for being feminine as well as uncommonly strong. University of Washington [Public domain]
Sandow allegedly jumped onto the stage and proceeded to lift a 300-pound barbell to chest height. Catherine then lifted the same weight over her head with one hand. Some historians question the truth of the tale that pits the two heavy lifters against one another. When one considers that Katie spent much of her life working for master promoter P.T. Barnum, it’s easy to suspect it may be little more than a load of hogwash.

But there’s no question Catherine Brumbach, whose stage name became Katie Sandwina after her rumored victory over one of the world’s strongest men, was a powerhouse. Katie grew up in a circus, performing with her very large family. When she was a teenager, her father offered a prize to any man who could outwrestle her. None ever did, but one man did fall in love and propose.

Happily married for more than fifty years, Katie incorporated her husband Max into the show, lifting his 165-pound body above her head with one arm and then tossing him about with ease.

I’m impressed by this woman, whose 5’9”, 200 lb. frame was considered by many to be the ideal image of perfect womanhood. She was even known as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”

sandwina2
She’s lifting three grown men. And she’s wearing heels. I’d say the title of queen is well deserved. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
I can’t exactly relate, but I have recently begun lifting with my husband. Of course I don’t mean that I’m lifting him over my head like Katie Sandwina would do with her Max. But we do try to get to the gym together about three times a week where he lifts the kind of large weights a large man might lift and then I show him how it’s done by lifting much lighter weights. Super impressively.

And I am getting stronger, though I’m pretty sure no one is referring to me as America’s Queen of Strength and Beauty. Or even Missouri’s. Yet. Katie still has quite a bit of size and strength on me, and I’m a lot more interested in being a little bit healthier and a little bit stronger than I am in becoming the strongest woman in the world. She was, by the way, her record unbroken until 1987 by American weightlifter Karyn Marshall.

Katie performed with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus until she was sixty years old. Then she and Max retired to run a restaurant in New York. There this queen of beauty and strength cooked up a storm and occasionally acted as formidable bouncer until her death in 1952.

Perhaps that should be my goal. By the time we retire, I plan to be strong enough to literally throw someone out of my kitchen should the need arise. Like a queen. And of course, I’ll look beautiful doing it.

Why Hello There, Stanley (Woo Hoo!)

Since 1893 when Governor General of Canada Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley donated a silver challenge cup to be held each year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion of Canada, the oldest trophy in professional sports has been passed around, drop kicked, stolen, and accidentally left on the side of the road. What came to be known as the Stanley Cup has held flowers, cereal, and newborn babies.

Premiere_Coupe_Stanley_1893
Original Stanley Cup – Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been through some design changes over the years and since 1926 it has served as the championship trophy of the National Hockey League.

And now for the first time it’s been hoisted by the St. Louis Blues. (Woo Hoo!)

I can’t claim to be a huge fan of the sport of hockey, but the excitement during the playoffs and the Stanley Cup finals has been infectious.

stanley
By Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1390419

St. Louis is celebrating. I’m celebrating. None of us has slept much. And we’ve all now listened to late season Blues victory anthem “Gloria” covered in 1982 by Laura Branigan, far more than anyone did in 1982 when it topped out at number 2 on the Billboard chart.

I am delighted for the players, the lifelong fans, and the little kids whose loyalty to their favorite hockey team has been forever sealed by an awesome season in which the very worst team in the league at the beginning of January became the very best team by the end. (Woo Hoo!)

And I’m so happy for my city that has had some rough years, but has drawn together in the last few weeks as a community longing for an improbable victory. I think I’m even going to buy a Stanley Cup Championship tee shirt.

Let’s Go Blues!

(I apologize for the little bit of foul language at the beginning of this video and in the linked video above. Everyone’s been a little excited around here.)

Gold Medal Throw Down with a Monk

Olympic spirit has infected my home like a bad case of the flu. I like the Olympics. I’ve enjoyed watching US snowboarders own it, and the figure skating is quite lovely, but my case is pretty light. My husband, on the other hand, is somewhat delirious. The man is obsessed. If the Olympic Games came around more frequently than every two years, it would definitely be time to stage an intervention.

This same guy, who ordinarily couldn’t care less about the world stage of biathlon or wouldn’t devote a moment’s thought to the subtleties of bobsledding technique, has transformed into an expert on all things international sports.

curlers
Okay, it does look kind of fun. photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit IMG_1787 via photopin (license)

Nowhere is his illness more apparent than in his newfound (and likely short lived) dedication to the sport of curling. If we can assume the DJ on my preferred morning radio station got her information from a reliable source and that I heard correctly (both pretty big assumptions), then curling is currently the third most popular winter Olympic sport amongst the American viewing public.

Why not? It’s got slippery ice and heavy rocks and some very enthusiastic sweeping, everything a sport needs I should think. It has the nail-biting moments of tension that beg for otherwise responsible sports enthusiasts to stay up late even though they have to be at work the next morning.

hair curlers
Prior to 1998, the only thing that came to mind for most of us when someone mentioned curling. Image courtesy of oga_red, via Pixabay

The sport is loud, too, sometimes called the “roaring game” because of the unique rumble of stone scraping against ice or possibly because of the crazy fanboy shouting coming from my living room.

Some of the interest in Olympic curling may simply be because it’s a relative newcomer to the Games, only included since 1998. Sort of. The sport actually made its Olympic debut with the first Winter Games in 1924, but was then downgraded to an exhibition sport because it lacked an international organization necessary to meet the requirements of the IOC.

Really, despite its recent emergence in the consciousness of Olympic fanatics, curling is an older sport than even its most dedicated historians (and yes, it has some) are willing to speculate. There’s disagreement about whether curling is originally Dutch or Scottish in origin, but the earliest written evidence of the sport, or something like it, comes from Scotland in the form of a legal record book from the 16th century covering the goings on of Paisley Abbey.

Scholars discovered the book in 1976 and quickly turned it over to be examined by curling historian David Smith, who is the kind of dedicated historian that might argue with you about the origin of the sport and would win because, let’s face it, you’d probably be out of your depth.

Pieter Bruegel Winter Landscape
One of the earliest instances of curling caught on canvas, Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap By Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1565. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Smith translated the passage of interest from Latin, he found that it described, ever so briefly, a practice run of Brother John Sclater who slid three stones to roar across the ice and felt fairly satisfied he was ready to meet the challenge he’d previously issued to Gavin Hamilton, the new lay governor of the Abbey.

Because the record of the anticipated match appears in Latin legalese, scholars point out that this most likely wasn’t a friendly contest. Rather it’s an example of how an angry 16th century monk issues a throw down. There’s no record of which man won, suggesting that the notary was rooting for the other guy.

I bet it broke his heart to see his favorite curler miss the mark. He’d probably stayed up late to watch the match, biting his nails as the stones roared against the ice and the competitors shouted and swept. He probably had to head to the office bright and early the next morning where he’d put in a full day filling books with Latin legalese. But he didn’t care because he’d caught the fever.

Saving the World’s Clay Pigeon Population in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri

My family and I took advantage of the recent long holiday weekend to spend some quality time together making fun of each other. At least they made fun of me. Or as my husband likes to say, I made the fun. They just pointed it out.

We took a warm sunny day to pile into the old family truckster and drive out to a shooting range in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri to go trap shooting, a first for me and my sons. It was a fun afternoon, and I can see how people could get really into the sport.

William Carver certainly did when he moved out West in 1872 to practice dentistry in Nebraska, a profession he didn’t stick with for long but that lent him the nickname “Doc.” Instead, he took up trap shooting, and soon discovered he could make a pretty good living at it if he were good enough.

And he was good. Like really good. He toured the country and by 1879 even set sail for Europe where, according to biographer Raymond Thorp, he showed off his exceptional skills to the Prince of Wales and many wealthy patrons during an extended engagement at the Crystal Palace.

doc carver
Doc Carver: a man who did his best to decimate the clay pigeon population and a pretty darn good shot. By A.H. Arnold, Omaha (Heritage Auctions) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Referred to in the New York Times as “the man who can put a bullet through a silver quarter while the coin is flying through the air,” Doc Carver could have plausibly claimed the title of greatest shooter in the world, but one challenge remained. Because there was one shooter who might have been said to be better. And allegedly, the up-and-comer Carver had a hard time convincing champion Captain Adam Henry Bogardus (who was both a pretty darn good shooter and the perfector of the glass ball and trap that had been serving to save the world’s passenger pigeon population from the sport) to accept a match.

In 1883, Bogardus finally did accept and the two faced off with a shoot in Louisville, Kentucky. Doc Carver won by one bird in front of a crowd of 1000. But as disappointing as the loss may have been to Bogardus, the match-up had its advantages.  Soon both shooters received a hefty endorsement deal from George Ligowsky, inventor of the clay pigeon and trap that would serve to save the world’s glass ball population from the sport, and a lot of innocent fields from being littered with shards of broken glass.

What Ligowsky proposed, and paid handsomely for, was a series of 25 matches throughout the United States between the two champions, using the new clay pigeons. Doc Carver won nineteen of the matches, sealing his claim that he was good at the sport. Like pretty darn good. I guess it makes sense, this desire to prove oneself against someone else of great skill. It’s what drives a lot of athletes toward success and continues to push sport accomplishments to greater and greater levels.

What I can’t figure out is why it would be important to prove oneself against a person who has no particular interest or who has never demonstrated skill in a sport. Before this past weekend I had never been trap shooting in my life. Neither had my sons, but they were kind of excited about the idea when my husband (who has been trapshooting before) suggested we give it a try.

At first I was thinking this would be a great guys’ day out and I would have the house to myself so I could read a good book. Like a really good one. But then my youngest started to get a little nervous, suggesting he didn’t think he’d be very good at it, and maybe he shouldn’t go.

So, I sighed and did what moms do. I set aside my really good book, piled in the car with the family to head out to a gun range in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri, and I literally gave it my best shot. In fact I gave it a lot of my best shots. I even tried really hard to follow my sons’ very helpful advice and aim. I didn’t hit a single clay pigeon.

clay pigeons
You might think that would mean they’d be easy to break, but it turns out you still have to manage to hit them.

Not even one.

But I was an encourager. As my boys struggled (a lot less than I did) and then started to hit their targets more often than not, I cheered them on and became the butt of the jokes. Because I’m good at that.

As far as trap shooting goes, my sons are pretty good. My husband is really good (though maybe not yet to the level of pretty darn good). And, well, I’m not bad at releasing the clay pigeons.