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Alterna-Sports: Jock itch

Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips, User's Guide to Summer Add comments

Yeah, I’m an addict. I’ve traveled countless miles for my drug, risked death, blown off deadlines, screwed up relationships, wasted buckets of money and hung out with people even I consider unsavory. After a couple days without it, the low-grade D.T.’s hit me: edgy disposition, crawling skin, and the feeling that my muscles have slipped their tenuous connection to the skeleton.

I’m an endorphin junkie and as dependencies go, it works out well; the body has an endless supply, and when you play it right, the high feels like a junior-varsity version of ecstasy: mild euphoria, tingling on your skin, a paradoxical amalgam of exhaustion and world-beating verve. Many ways exist to get that rush, from laughing uproariously to having sex, but my standby method remains a somewhat dirty word in the “alternative” community: sports.

Fortunately, new and offbeat sports pop up constantly, and until they get ruined by their popularity, tend to draw a more interesting crowd of non-jocks focused on scoring pure unadulterated adrenaline. If you go catatonic as your co-workers ham-handedly muddle their way through that softball league, or think bowling just might leave you a little flaccid, consider the following diversions:

Rock climbing: Despite Sylvester Stallone’s best cliffhanging efforts, rock climbing remains a fairly obscure sport, practiced by a tight subculture with dizzying jargon, extensive trail maps and mind-boggling equipment refinements. Far from being rocks for jocks, climbing provides an intellectual challenge to complement its adrenaline rush. Good climbers resemble chess players, thinking a dozen moves ahead to avoid making a beautiful progression only to get hung up in an impossible position. Luckily, climbing is less of an ego- and testosterone-cluttered boy’s club than other sports because women’s greater flexibility gives them an edge; men’s greater strength serves little purpose.

Of course, short of getting some suction cups and admitting Spider Dan (remember him?), Chicago remains a little sparse for al fresco  climbing. For that, you’ll need to head toward more mountainous areas, such as Southern Illinois or Wisconsin. To learn the ropes, however, you can hit any of Chicago’s four indoor climbing walls: Hidden Peak at the Lakeshore Gymnastics Academy (335.1200), Gravity Climbing Gym (733.5006), Mt. Chicago at the Sporting Club-Illinois Center (616.9000) and Vertical World (708.752.8604).

Ultimate: Despite rising popularity and international competition, ultimate, a.k.a. “Frisbee football” or “Ultimate Frisbee,” manages to retain much of its charm. A fluid, fast-moving game like soccer, ultimate demands constant motion from players as they try to pass the disc upfield and into the goal area. Drama abounds as players “lay out” horizontally for discs and churning drives get stopped cold by a single mercury-rapid defensive “stuff.” Plus, players make all calls themselves, based on a Utopian “spirit of the game” concept that works in all but the most testosterone-laden situations. Competitive ultimate players rely on a half-dozen throwing methods, including “the hammer,” a careening, air-slicing upside-down throw that suddenly drops like a shot bird into the receiver’s hands. But to start playing you only need a minimal degree of fitness because, a few wrong-headed exceptions notwithstanding, most ultimate players welcome the chance to promote the sport.

Some pick-up ultimate can be found at city parks such as Montrose Harbor or the Midway Plaisance adjoining the University of Chicago. But joining Chicago’s summer league stands out as the best way to get started; organizers mix beginners with more experienced players and smart captains keep a few tyros in the game in order to rest the better players. As in climbing, strength counts for little in ultimate, and well-coordinated women play a key role in coed summer-league play, where tradition requires teams to match up an equal number of women on the field. Summer play starts this weekend, with a Memorial Day kick-off tournament at 10am on Hyde Park’s Midway Plaisance. To join in, call 604.1964.

Sea Kayaking: Currently benefiting from major “buzz,” sea kayaking falls into the increasingly hip “adventure-sports” category. It revolves around large kayaks outfitted for greater stability and buoyancy and capable of storing enough gear to allow solo camping trips. In kayaking, the rower’s entire lower body rests sealed within the boat’s cockpit, while the upper body propels the adventurer using a twin-bladed oar. Experts describe the kayak as something that is worn, rather than rowed, attempting to describe the highly visceral experience created by being so intimately close to the water, buoyed by strong waves as every fine-tuned stroke reasserts your direction and positioning.

Wilmette’s Northwest Passage Outing Club holds several $38 after-work sea kayaking classes weekly, throughout the summer at Gillson Beach in Wilmette. The club also organizes one-day sea kayaking trips on Lake Michigan and longer adventures in far-flung exotic locales such as Belize. To check out the club, call 1.800.RECREAT. More advanced kayakers can call Vic Hurtowy at the Chicago Area Sea Kayak Association (777.1489), which organizes trips on a regular basis.

Roller Hockey: Two years ago, hockey on in-line skates existed merely as a ragtag group playing on a makeshift rink in Diversey Harbor’s parking lot. Now, the Chicago In-line Hockey League (665.0561) counts two suburban leagues and daily games at the North Side’s Alcott Elementary School. Using a ball or a specially built puck with plastic runners, amateur roller hockey resembles ice hockey without the checking. Players need only basic turning and stopping skills atop their skates to start.

Unfortunately, roller hockey remains fairly male-dominated. But CIHL organizers dislike the gender imbalance and have established women’s divisions with different levels to attract new players. The league’s new affiliation with the Chicago Social Club should also bring in a host of new players, and specifically more women, who remain a scarce commodity within roller hockey’s initial breeding ground, converted ice-hockey players.

But as league play and formalization starts to encroach on the sport, many question-authority types may shy away. They need not, however, hang up their skates, because a new sport looms on the horizon: roller basketball. You heard it here first, three-on-three roller basketball, invented by former NBA pro Tom LeGrand, has started sweeping the East Coast, and he actually played a game in Chicago against CIHL organizers. This weekend, I ran into daredevil skaters who planned to try the sport at Foster Avenue’s lakefront courts. Then again, those same skaters once took me cruising down the Michigan Avenue median on a Saturday afternoon, a traffic-dodging, pedestrian-terrorizing, curb-grinding trip that left me so high on endorphins I had to sit down. (Marc Spiegler)

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