THEY FILE INTO the cold water like penguins on a crowded shore, hundreds of men and women in neoprene bodysuits who’ve turned out early on a Sunday morning for the annual Seafair triathlon.
Young and old, fit and ridiculously fit, they bob and flex among lily pads in preparation for what will be a grueling race requiring swimming, then cycling, then running.
Nobody will wind up on a box of Wheaties for winning this race. There won’t be any autograph signings.
Competitors have come out for the pure love of sport.
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The victories are quieter, more personal. A hand-drawn placard left on the cycling course reads, “Go Papa!!! Go!!! We love you.”
What dad needs his name in the papers after reading that?
Sports is in our blood in the Pacific Northwest, and it is deeply ingrained in the way we live. The shame is that most of the time we take for granted the extent to which we, in our own active pursuits, feed into that sensibility.
Sure, like any big town, we worship at the altar of big-money professional sports teams.
We love our Mariners. We proudly don lime-green soccer jerseys and scarves for every sold-out Sounders matchup. We’ve even christened ourselves The 12th Man on behalf of our Seahawks. We ache still over the loss of NBA men’s basketball, as a banner that reads “Bring Back Our Sonics” at a sports bar in the Capitol Hill neighborhood attests.
But “Our” Sonics aren’t coming back, at least not soon.
And in some ways, it doesn’t really matter. The athletic spirit of the region plays out best in our everyday lives, on our own fields of dreams, not in fancy arenas and cavernous stadiums.
“Sports entertainment at its best … from people not swayed by the money, the limelight and trappings of ego in professional sports, they just wanna have a catch … gotta love it!” a commenter on a recent most-read article on Seattletimes.com wrote.
He was raving about a Seattle team playing in the Little League World Series.
We play so much that we often can’t find a place to play. King County’s playfields, for example, are notoriously inadequate for the demand from all sorts of leagues, from Little League Baseball to lacrosse, the new big thing in amateur sports. Nearly 146,000 people use the baseball fields in a given year, and about 132,000 people use the hard-to-reserve soccer fields.
We may be awesome sports spectators, but we’re even more passionate about doing sports ourselves — from serious to seriously silly.
On A COLD, GRAY Saturday morning, a farm outside Bonney Lake is the scene of total, organized chaos as the first of 8,000 people turn out for the Warrior Dash, a “mud run” that sends waves of 500 runners at a time slogging through a 3-kilometer course filled with mud pools, climbing walls and monkey bars.
As runners wait their turn at the starting line, they howl and chant, forming a menagerie of weirdness. Some wear Viking hats, others come decked out in tutus, funny T-shirts and superhero costumes.
Keri Jensen of Lake Stevens and Frank Sandoval of Snohomish have just finished the race and they are dirty. Real dirty. This is their 25th mud-run event since they started doing them as a duo in 2009.
The appeal? Simple: “The mud,” Jensen jokes.
“It was a challenge,” Sandoval explains. “A lot of people sit at home, watch TV and say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that. I could do that.’ Well, we got off our couch and we went and did it.”
The thing is, Jensen says, you don’t have to be all that athletic to participate in a mud run.
“Please tell me there’s beer at the end of this,” one woman pleads as she inches forward on her elbows and knees to avoid getting snagged on barbed wire at the “Storming Normandy” section of the course. It’s only 10 a.m. Crawling in the mud like a military commando can do that to you. Lucky for her that the homing devices on runners’ shoes both track their progress and serve as tokens in the beer garden at the end of the race.
Beer is also partly what drives Amanda Mollet, 29, of Moscow, Idaho, who’s just finishing the course with friends, including James Wagner Jr., of Shoreline, who has dyed his beard green to match his T-shirt.
Mollet says she does roller-derby back in Idaho, and after those rowdy competitions, skaters also celebrate by throwing back a couple.
But the Warrior Dash has a little something extra.
“It’s like a big jungle gym for adults,” Mollet says.
“And then you jump through fire,” adds another friend.
She’s not kidding. To finish the race, runners must leap over a short wall of flames before swimming across one last mud pond.
AMATEUR CYCLING occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from the sloshy fun of mud runs. The sport is huge in this region, and there’s no better place to get a taste of it than Marymoor Park Velodrome in Redmond, home to nightly training workshops, practices, beer socials and prize competitions.
The first thing you notice about the velodrome is that the 400-meter cycling track slants upward at both ends. The design feature is meant to help cyclists build speed, but it also just looks cool when a pack of three or four dozen comes streaking by you in a blur like roadsters on a mountain highway, with a sound that brings to mind a hive of turbocharged bees.
And the bikes, unlike the ones most of us ride, have neither gears nor breaks, upping the thrill factor.
This is where amateur cyclist David Lanier often rides when he’s not at his sales job in Seattle or working extended shifts as a volunteer firefighter in Burien. His other favorite route is Lake Washington Boulevard, which ends at Seward Park, site of regular Thursday-night races.
Today he rides more for fitness, both physical and mental, than to condition for races.
The better shape you’re in, he says, “the clearer you think.”
Lanier’s dad was an avid cyclist and got him into long-distance events in his home state of Texas. He didn’t always take the sport as seriously as he should have, once flipping over his handlebars during a wave of exhaustion. After moving to Seattle in the mid-1990s, he took up cycling again, this time closed-course racing, which requires a combination of speed, agility and total dedication. Cyclists ride inches from each other at speeds that can exceed 35 miles an hour. Victories are measured in thousandths of seconds.
Cyclists can spend thousands on high-end bikes, but Lanier says it’s not necessary in order to race seriously at the amateur level. His bike cost a measly $125, plus extra for special features.
Mental strength is a big part of the sport. It’s easy to psyche yourself out, he says.
Whatever’s happening on the inside can either help or sabotage what you do on the course. Lanier has learned this the hard way.
“HITS! HITS! HITS! Hits! Hits! Hits! Hits! Hits!”
The Seattle softball team known as Sin is taking a different tack, using chants to psyche themselves up in a thrilling matchup with another Seattle team called Squadron at Marymoor Park. It’s Seattle’s annual gay-softball tournament, a huge event on the gay and lesbian calendar, drawing 800 players from Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco and beyond.
But Sin isn’t able to will itself to victory.
The Sin players look disappointed over their loss, but in a sign of sportsmanship, they gather on the field, join hands and yell, “Good game, Squadron!”
Across the field, the winning team reciprocates, “Good game, Sin!”
Then the teams form a parallel line and exchange high-fives.
The Emerald City Softball Association, host of the tournament, is one of the largest of its kind in the country. Its history goes back to the 1980s when a group of gay athletes living in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood formed their own team to compete in the citywide straight league. Before that, if you were gay and wanted to play softball, you had to join one of the teams in that league and risk feeling like an outcast, or worse, endure homophobic slurs. With the gay team, there was security in numbers, as well as the fellowship that comes from shared experience.
“It’s nice to be on a team where you don’t have to play in the closet,” league historian Dug Wehage says.
Today, the league has 37 teams and more than 500 players. Nine of the teams went to the gay softball World Series in Washington, D.C., this summer, the most ever.
Sin was one of them. Team manager Brandon Chun joined the league when he moved to Seattle in the early 2000s. An attorney in his early 40s, he was living in the closet. With the league, he had an instant support network and social circle.
“It’s a real safe zone for people,” he says.
He knows of players who’ve used the league as a launchpad for coming out to their broader circle of friends and loved ones. And it offers an alternative for gays and lesbians who aren’t necessarily into the gay club scene or the arts, Chun says.
For him, playing in the league brings him full-circle in a way. He grew up playing Little League Baseball in Hawaii, and his dad, a league coach, taught him the ins and outs of the game.
“When I started again, I really appreciated the fact that I knew how to throw, that I knew how to hold a bat,” Chun says. “It’s allowed me to connect again with my father.”
WHEN JASON Coffman was growing up in Seattle’s Genesee Park neighborhood in the 1980s, he could look out his family’s kitchen window and watch the Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Club being built nearby on the shore of Lake Washington. He’s been rowing and sailing most of his life.
Today he coaches crew teams on how to hit that sweet spot between the brute force required to row and the Zen-like synchronicity achieved when rowing well in a group.
Crew is a sleeper success story in Seattle. The University of Washington boasts one of the best rowing programs in the country. Top-line rowers from the region often earn spots on the U.S. Olympics squad.
With more high-profile sports, young people gain inspiration by watching their idols at crowded stadiums and on TV. Rowing relies more on word-of-mouth.
Most kids who row at the Mount Baker club come to the sport through friends who row or parents who once participated, Coffman says. He and his staff try to draw from the diversity of the surrounding South Seattle neighborhoods by exposing young people of color, in particular, to the sport.
Rowing is about matter over mind, training your increasingly taxed body to move in perfect concert with the person in front of you, all while streaming backward on open water in a craft so low to the surface you can almost dip your elbows in the swells.
In cycling, you hold back to survey the field in front of you before making your big push toward the finish line.
In rowing, the finish line is always behind you. You never see it coming.
In the bigger eight-seater boats, though, it’s the job of the all-seeing and usually petite coxswain at the forward end of the vessel to serve as the eyes and brain of the operation and keep tabs on those details along the standard 2,000-meter course.
You don’t think of anything in crew but the physical act of rowing itself and the messages reverberating through the super-lightweight boat’s hull as it responds to each ideal stroke, each screw-up, Coffman says.
If ever a sport required muscle-melding with fellow teammates, it is this one.
“You know it when you hit it, that moment when everything seems to coalesce,” Coffman says. “It’s powerful.”
The fluidity of rowing makes it look relatively easy, but it is one of the most physically demanding sports of all, requiring herculean core strength, thunder thighs, bottomless lungs and an iron constitution.
On a recent, still morning in Seattle, varsity coach J.P. Marquart goes out on a motorboat to trail teams of still-developing teen rowers on eight-person boats. Mount Rainier towers to the south, providing a magnificent backdrop for the backbreaking, 90-minute practice ahead.
The teens row their strikingly slender boats from the club’s docks across smooth water toward the Highway 520 bridge, working their oars just so to prevent excessive splash. But the guys’ faces and jerseys all drip with lake water after each sprint.
“It’s a sport where there’s no star — you’re normally not gonna get in the papers,” Marquart says while steering his boat and calling out instructions on his megaphone. There’s just hard work — “grinding away and seeing the results.”
A lot of the kids who get into rowing don’t excel in other sports, he says. Somehow with rowing, everything clicks.
If the goal of a mud run is to get knee-deep in a pool of sludge and act a fool, the goal of rowing is to move with such finesse that it feels as if you’re barely touching the water. The rowers aren’t even allowed to speak while in motion. The views of the lake, mountains and secluded mansions dotting the shore render you speechless anyway.
“If you talk in a boat, you’re shamed for life,” jokes the club’s assistant program coordinator and former UW crew member, Monique Miller.
Our boats pass a bare-naked couple taking snapshots of themselves on a dock along the lake. The rowers keep mum, but gawk and grin.
Rowing is beautiful to watch from a distance, but there are far better sports for spectators and armchair athletes. It’s hard to see the action because it’s mostly confined to the subtle adjustments of delts and quads and the mesmerizing rhythm of oars.
Rowing’s for doers. And in that sense, it suits us perfectly.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW staff writer. Reach him at tbeason@seattletimes. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer. w