On Friday, July 27, athletes from around the globe will converge in London for the XXX Olympiad. But here on our own sands, thousands of under-the-radar athletes are training every day of the week — often for hours at a time, usually when everyone else is still asleep, and without any fancy gold or silver medals to motivate them.
Forget, for a moment, the pending excitement of the badminton, fencing, and canoe championships half a world away. We poked around right here in South Florida and found fascinating athletes engaging in offbeat, "extreme," and street sports. They may not be Olympians, but their talents are remarkable nevertheless. Though some of them make a dollar or a thousand from their sport and could therefore be called "professional," most do it simply for the love of the game.
The 13 people featured in these pages share a few qualities. Aside from killer abs and optimal BMIs, each has achieved a level of renown in his or her sport. Their physical prowess? Considerable. Their natural talent? Impressive. Their dedication? Ridiculous.
Meet the masters.
BMX Racing (member of team Speedtech/Ssquared) and Mountain Biking
Karrie Norberg's introduction to BMX in 2007 was as a self-described "proud sports mom," sitting on the sidelines and watching her son as he raced around the track during practice sessions in Miami. But then she bought "the cheesiest little BMX in the universe" and started pedaling.
The first year, she'd "go around the track and think, This is so much work." She kept at it and tracked her progress by counting the number of laps she was able to do during each of her son's practices. The world of racing opened up to her when she accompanied him to his first BMX championship and she impulsively signed up for her own race. "I did terrible," the emergency-room nurse laughs.
Bitten by the bug, she began taking coaching tips from her son. She worked her way up the ranks in state competitions and eventually the national level. Things culminated in a trip to Adelaide, Australia, for the 2009 UCI BMX World Championships, where she finished seventh in the world in her age group.
Now a full-fledged bike chick, she has a room dedicated to her wheels, and she has found a passion for mountain and road biking. "I think a lot of people don't understand what I do," she says, though other moms do ride BMX. "Anybody could come out and do it. I'm not some Amazon, and I was never that much of an athlete in high school. The one thing I had going for me was that I wasn't a quitter."
One of Peter Miller's fondest memories of his sport has nothing to do with tournament trophies — although he has dozens of them for all types of competitions, from marlin to sailfish and beyond. It also has nothing to do with cameras, even though he has served as a spokesman for numerous national brands and hosts a popular NBC Sports show, Bass 2 Billfish.
His best memory is of the time he headed out onto the Atlantic, alone, on a whim. He had just dropped his son off at school and was pulling out of the carpool lane. "I looked up to see a light breeze of about five to eight knots out of the north and just got the feeling like I had to get out there." Struck with angler intuition, he headed directly to his boat without stopping to pick up food or water. "I knew it was going to be a great fishing day."
His intuition was right. "The sailfish were pouring through in 120 feet," he says wistfully. Miller spent the next ten hours battling sailfish and tuna, one after the other, as he watched nearby boats with full crews doing the same. Mentally tracking his take versus everyone else's, Miller stayed out for hours, his competitive spirit and love for the sport willing him to push past bleeding fingers and battle sea monsters for hours on end. "I was playing that little game with myself," he says. It's a "game" he's been playing since he was 3 years old. "The obsession starts early and gradually grows and grows."
They say that when things go right, your career chooses you instead of the other way around. A career of water and waves planted itself in David Hernandez's path after a dispassionate go at academia.
"My parents said, 'Go to school, go to school,'" he says. He opted not to go but then had to deal with the realization that his love for baseball wouldn't manifest itself into a viable career. Having been fascinated with wakeboarding since the early '90s, Hernandez switched gears and forged a career in it, not only as a pro rider but also as a coach and instructor. The two-time Pan American champion — he placed third in the men's open in 2007 and first in the men's II in 2008 — is a coach at Miami Wakeboard Cable Complex, in Hialeah's Amelia Earhart Park. His "office" is essentially a lake, his commute conducted on the wake of a motorboat. "I never go out mad," he says. "I never get tired of it."
Though he has devoted years of intense training to the sport, he never forgets those first challenging trips behind the boat. "I didn't get up the first time," he says, though he was hooked from the beginning. "You can't just settle" with wakeboarding, he says. "It's hard enough to get up. There's always something new to learn, and that's one of the cool things about it."
Motorcycle Racing and Kiteboarding
Jonatan Sredni is an adrenaline junkie who gets his fix from two disparate highs. Kiteboarding is all about chill vibes. "It's just you, the board, and the wind," he says. "The connection to nature is cool." Motorcycle racing, naturally, is about speed.
Kiteboarding is a fickle beast. It requires proficiency with the kite and the board and several skill sets, all working in tandem for things to go correctly. And because South Florida doesn't get many ideal wind days, "You have to drop everything and go when the conditions are right."
Motorcycle racing feeds the gearhead in Sredni. Racing since December 2007, he delights in the highly technical nature of racing, the minor adjustments and alterations, both to his form and to his equipment, that are necessary to compete. "Time stops on a motorcycle," he says. "It's a physical workout, and it's a mental workout."
For the sake of balance, there's a give-and-take with his "opposite" interests. If it's an ideal day for kiteboarding — which he also took up in 2007 — but it happens to be a bike-race weekend, he'll still dutifully get on his bike at the starting line. But if it's just a practice day at the track and the wind is blowing at ten knots or above? He'll kowtow to nature and skip the bike.
Confines are not for Joel Meinholz. He was drawn to skateboarding a quarter-century ago precisely because it was the antithesis of restraint. "It was just something to do without any sort of team or controlled environment," he says. "It's just you and the street."
A pro rider, he's been sponsored for about ten years by MIA Skate Shop, Hopps, Vans, and Independent, among others. He supplements his skateboarding career by throwing parties and events through promoter I Am Your Villain, which hosts skate-culture-friendly throwdowns like magazine-release parties, street-bike rides, and musical events. He doesn't log as much time on a board as he did in the early years, but no day is complete without a few hours of riding.
"Every day is entertaining," he says. "Every day in the streets, you come across something that makes you laugh or smile."
Meinholz moved to South Florida in the mid-'90s — initially, to pursue surfing. "I grew up in the Midwest," he says, "wanting for waves." A Milwaukee native, Meinholz says part of the initial draw of skateboarding was that it gave him something he couldn't otherwise find in Wisconsin. "It chose me. It's just something that I was attracted to."
Teen boys emulating YouTube videos is often a recipe for disaster. But that wasn't the case when Brad Short and some friends stumbled on videos of "free running" about five years ago. Fascinated, Short set about learning the philosophy behind the French movement of parkour, a mostly noncompetitive sport that involves moving around obstacles (walls, benches, shrubs) with combinations of jumps, flips, balancing maneuvers, rolls, and sprints.
"It's kind of like a martial art in that it's disciplined," Short says. "The sport [is helpful for] overcoming mental blocks and fears and building body awareness."
The Florida Atlantic University student — he's an exercise major, naturally — immersed himself in the study of form, control, and movement necessary for parkour. He recently competed in Davie at a "free movement" event sponsored by Vitaminwater, a big step for a fledgling sport. Like skateboarding, parkour is sometimes, shall we say, unappreciated by owners of shopping plazas or cops patrolling public spaces who wonder why some dude is doing backflips over the shrubbery. Short, however, says serious parkourers are respectful of private and public property and will leave a property if asked.
Short devotes at least two hours a day to conditioning and practice during the week and even more on weekends, carefully watching his diet to keep his body in peak condition. "You use your body in a completely different way," he says of the sport. "You're always told: 'Here's the sidewalk; walk on the sidewalk.' 'Here's a wall; you can't go past that.' With parkour, your mind is open."
Clarice Zayas, 29, Hollywood (formerly of Kendall until May 2012)
The words roller derby might conjure visions of tatted-up chicks on a hard-core schedule of boozing and brawling. Clarice Zayas, however, works her ass off to stay on top of her game. The registered dietitian trains three days a week on her skates and usually spends another three days hitting weights or working on her endurance off the rink.
"I'm a firm believer in cross-training," she says. The training is necessary so she'll have the speed, strength, and stamina required to compete in the increasingly demanding sport. "There's so much challenge; there's always something to work on," she says.
Like a lot of women captivated by the roller-derby reboot, Zayas hadn't signed on for an organized sport until derby. Always active but not necessarily a team player, she joined up with the nationally ranked Gold Coast Derby Grrls a little more than two years ago. Playing under the name "Kitten Not Submittin'," Zayas skates primarily as a jammer — the fast one who is charged with scoring points for her team by passing members of the opposing team on the track; the team with the highest score at the end of the one-hour match wins.
In a recent bout against one of the league's biggest rivals, she came away as the game's highest-scoring jammer. She also puts in time as a blocker, a complicated position that requires both offensive and defensive strategizing. "Every derby player is waiting for the moment when roller derby goes pro," she says, acknowledging that the sport is still saddled with a lot of misconceptions. "People think it's a race or that there are no rules," she says. "There is an objective."
Wakeboarding and Wakesurfing
They haven't even made it out of high school yet, but already these athletic brothers have the world at their water-pruned feet. Competitive since they were toddlers, Noah and Keenan Flegel have secured more championships, sponsorships, and accolades in their short careers than many board-sport devotees could hope for in a lifetime.
Last year, Noah's role as a world champion in wakeboarding and his prowess for surfing and wakesurfing landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids as the magazine's "SportsKid of the Year." He's also part of an effort to get wakeboarding into the 2020 Olympics, an accomplishment that would look really nice on a college application. "To me, it's the best sport to be in the Olympics," he says, noting how cool it looks to watch boarders spin through the air with apparent weightlessness. He intends to go pro with the sport and attend college in Orlando, a world hub for wakeboarding.
Keenan, meanwhile, frequently takes top honors at wakesurfing competitions while exploring what's possible in the new sport. He'll likely head to college in Southern California so he can advance in wakesurfing while pursuing a degree. He says that though people initially paid attention to him in competitions simply by virtue of his youth ("Everyone was at least ten years older than me"), he soon "earned" that attention by advancing to the professional level before he was old enough to drive a car.
North Broward Preparatory School, where Noah and Keenan are students, has been supportive of the boys' training and competition schedules. The proximity of their home, school, and the lake on which they train means they're able to devote plenty of time to homework at night and still get to bed on time. Perhaps predictably, the brothers maintain above-average grades, even in their honors classes.
A surfboard doubles as a passport for Cheyne Cottrell, whose sport has given him a chance to travel the world in search of waves. He's surfed in Australia, Hawaii, and Central America; throughout Europe; and at Skeleton Bay in Namibia, where he says he encountered "the most perfect waves ever." Growing up the child of a devout surfer — his late father, Kirk Cottrell, opened Island Water Sports in Deerfield Beach — Cottrell enjoyed early exposure to water and an active lifestyle. "I've been surfing for as long as I can remember," he says.
In 1997, the elder Cottrell moved his family to Cape Town, South Africa, for missionary work. The move meant Cheyne Cottrell spent most of his teenage years in the vicinity of some of the best surfing beaches in the world. He moved back to South Florida in 2005 at age 21, even though the state simply doesn't provide the kinds of waves that make for a great surfer. "Getting into the big-wave scene can be a challenge," he says.
His time in Africa, combined with his wanderlust, gave him the confidence to break into the pros and earn sponsorship from Oakley. "Going from amateur to professionally ranked was a gamble... I had to put everything on the line and go for it." He once ranked as high as 90 on the Association of Surfing Professionals' World Qualifying Series. Cottrell — who now works full-time at Island Water Sports — will pass along the fundamentals of the sport in a series of ten, one-week surf camps this summer in Deerfield Beach.
For most people, a potentially fatal encounter with a five-foot barracuda would put the kibosh on using the ocean as a personal playground. Mary Anne Boyer, however — she's a bit of a badass. The onetime Olympic hopeful in sailing suffered a painful and life-threatening attack from the toothy predator in June 1997, when she was working in Coconut Grove at the Coral Reef Yacht Club, performing a routine maneuver as part of her hull-cleaning business. The barracuda mistook a metal tool in her hand for prey and lunged, sinking its teeth into her left arm. The bite severed the artery and effectively ended her sailing career.
"That took my sport away at 31," she says. But Boyer never lost her love for the ocean. "I grew up on the water," she explains. In July 2009 while visiting Siesta Key, she saw some people stand-up paddleboarding. She and a friend rented some boards, and "that was history": As a self-described "competitive-sport-type chick," she was instantly hooked. By September 2010, she had landed her first sponsor.
These days, Boyer is tearing up the booming stand-up paddleboard scene in Florida and beyond: She now counts six sponsors and routinely performs well at paddleboard races in Florida and elsewhere across the country. In May, she finished sixth overall in the women's division at the Carolina Cup. In April, she took third overall women's at the Florida State Paddleboard Championships in Cocoa. Mobility hasn't completely returned to her left arm, but paddleboarding doesn't require the fine-motor skills needed for sailing. "It's been a blessing," she says. "It gave me my water sport back."
Ultra-Running and Ironman Triathlon
Things could have ended very badly in 2009, when Mandy Miller competed in the Marathon des Sables. It was her first go at a multiday ultramarathon in which racers are required to carry food and supplies for the duration of the race. The course consisted of 156 grueling miles through the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco. The six-day event went from hard as hell to goddamn near impossible when the region was hit with rains that Miller describes as "biblical flood" proportions, washing away course markers and resulting in a fourth-day stage that called for upward of 60 miles in one stretch.
With the course not "particularly well-marked," Miller found herself lost in the middle of the night with no water. In an attempt to get her bearings, she and some fellow racers scaled a sand dune. "What was sitting at the top? A donkey, but no person. It was very surreal," she laughs.
Like most near misses, the unnerving episode became humorous after crisis was averted. "That was kind of an adventure," says the lawyer, who also holds a PhD in psychology. She'll compete this September in the Grand to Grand Ultra, in which participants hoof it 160 miles between the Grand Canyon and Utah's Grand Staircase.
Miller was an athlete in high school but struggled with weight gain in the early '80s. She tackled the issue with diet and exercise (running, in particular) and soon developed a passion for long-distance athletic endeavors. Drawn to the "extreme endurance" aspect of her sport, Miller has competed in marathons for 27 years and frequently participates in Ironman Triathlons. "It's overwhelming, the size of something [like this], but I'm very much the Everyman," she says. "If you find a way to break it down, it's a process, like anything else."
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SHOW ME HOW
Removed from ESPN's X-Games in 2005, rollerblading is the redheaded stepchild of the roller sports world. "There's nobody in it that's not really into it," Rob Squire says. "No one is carrying around skates as a fashion statement."
The rollerblading community is a tight-knit crew, giving Squire an international network of instant friends and couches to surf whenever he's struck with the urge to travel for skating, as he recently was for the Panhandle Pow-Wow contest in Jacksonville.
As one of the "older skaters" in the region, Squire is something of a champion of the cause. He's constantly exploring for new places to skate, and he hosts blading competitions at spots such as "505" Teen Center and Hobbit Skate Park in Delray Beach. He hopes to soon organize an event that brings together skateboarders and rollerbladers to bridge that gap between the two. As with any sport requiring gravity-defying slides, grinds, and jumps, it's all about the individual looking past the very real danger of injury and "conquering your big fear," he says.