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Leagues Beyond Fields: Less Than Traditional Sports Leagues


Yes, we like football. We played a little basketball back in school. But sports are so diverse. We dig in to these less-than-traditional sport leagues. We want to learn how to spar, shoot, and skate.


We are familiar with the old adage that exercise is good for your health and, while you may be down to exercise, it doesn’t always mean there’s an appeal in your traditional sports leagues – I’m talking soccer, basketball, football. Some of us just aren’t cut out for it; some of us just don’t like it. But sports offer tremendous benefits: it builds confidence, teamwork and leadership; helps develop discipline and boosts self-esteem; it teaches problem solving skills and has loads of physical health advantages. Who says that needs to come from your average sports team?


Ninja Nation Colorado

“All of our obstacles are scaled for age and ability,” he says. “I think a really good way to look at it and what’s defined our programs is play, train, compete.”

We’ve probably all sat in our front of our televisions and watched American Ninja Warriors compete through various obstacle courses on the hit show and thought, ‘me too’. Well not me, but some of you out there. As the American Ninja Warrior phenomenon continues to grow, they’ve been building gyms to help train future warriors and others looking to climb up a warped wall, hop over water, and complete a jumping spider.

The Ninja Nation Gym in Lafayette brings that show experiences to their gym. Each obstacle is design by Geoff Britten, who used to compete on the show and designed many of the obstacles audiences see when watching ANW. There are two other gyms in Colorado, and occasionally they will meet to face off in obstacles, but since the sport is still relatively new for young people, the local gym is often the connection to the regional and national leagues.

Caleb Tucker and his friend Logan Staggs shout encouragingly to each other as they swing along a rope and try to grab onto the pillar on the other side. After his run, Caleb turns to Logan sharing with him what he learned during that last run – “you’ve got to get your legs up,” he says.

The skin on the faces of the two young boys, ages 10 and 9 respectively, pulls into a smile as they run over to race each other. Logan’s dad is nearby with an iPad timing the boys. They are agile. Moving swiftly through the obstacle course, hopping from peg to peg, swinging lithely and moving up the wall with strength, speed and apparent ease.

“They definitely have a wide variety of skills they can master. It’s that challenge based play fitness, where there are always new things set up. It’s always very creative and keeps the kids engaged,” Rainer Jundt says.

Some kids are serious competitors like Logan and Caleb, who met when they were traveling to compete on the Ninja Warrior Jr. television show. Caleb lives in Colorado and trains at the Lafayette gym “every day” he says. His favorite thing about the competition is the friends he’s met, including Logan who lives in San Antonio.

Anyone can come and play on the obstacles in an open gym format – there’s no instruction, just time to test skills or blow off some energy. If participants are more serious about it, or enjoy doing obstacles and want to do it more, the facility offers a training program, which is a development program for doing competitions.

Rainer Jundt, who recently got onto the American Ninja Warrior show, has been coaching the Lafayette team since the facility opened nine months ago.

“I think very quickly it’s waterfalling into its own sport: obstacle racing, and it’s cool to see it’s building. It’s a new found niche and it’s a nice alternative to those kinds of big sports,” he says.

Participants from Ninja Nation Gym who go on to compete on the teams have monthly competitions and regional and national competitions, as well as a friendly competition every Monday night.

“Ninja Warrior isn’t about beating other people, it’s about beating the course. Kids really cheer other kids on, it’s what they bring on the show and bring it in the gym,” Britten says.

What’s unique about Ninja Warrior is that it puts your body into all these different scenarios that require a total body strength as well as challenges particular abilities. Not to say other sports don’t do that, but as a former competitive runner, basketball and soccer player, I could get away with having weak upper body strength, because it wasn’t totally necessary for me to excel. With Ninja training, you have to use every part of your body, even your fingers and hands.

Britten says that being active provides some great benefits for kids in long term injury prevention by teaching their bodies to anticipate adjustments if they step off a curb wrong or roll an ankle.

“When you get [kids] out and active, and you are swinging, jumping, landing – you give yourself an advantage of learning your body for life.”

And the kids are really talented. They have no fear.

“They are closing in on the adults pretty quick. These kids are just incredibly talented and strong and are doing things that are very similar to adults and doing it faster.”

Many of the kids are doing it just for fun, but there are a few that want to compete at the national level in the National Ninja League. There are also world finals that host 1,600 competitors, so if kids can take it as far as they want to. Some can even try to get on TV, on the Ninja Junior League for kids ages eight to 14, although that, as one might suspect, is extremely difficult.

“Getting on the show is hard, you not only have to be good enough and have enough of a personality to get on,” Britten says, “but ultimately you are learning skills that are helpful throughout your life, like bodyweight conditioning, it’s a really special way to feel. This is an incredibly confident group of kids that train with us, they know what they can do.”

Caleb and Logan both made it onto the show and recently just competed in the world Ninja Warrior competition. Caleb finished eighth, Logan finished ninth out of 200 finalists.

As they finish up their workouts, their parents talk about what they’ve done today and watch some video of their training. They both talk about how much the boys motivate each other. Caleb’s whole family is obsessed with the sport – he’s been doing it since he was three, a ninja even came to one of his birthday parties. And now, he’s training to be one.


Northern Colorado Fencers

“It depends on skill: can you be faster than your opponent, can you stay in the ring longer, are you emotionally confident, do you have a sense of distance?” Copeland says.

Sara Proctor has been fencing for seven years. Wanting to model the moves seen in some of her favorite movies (Princess Bride and The Three Musketeers), she enrolled in a summer camp.

“I remember being so excited to do the camp and learn all about the this sport that I had little to knowledge about. I truly didn’t know what to expect,” she said.

At the camp she was trained by someone already competing on the Northern Colorado Fencers (NCF) team, who would later become her teammate. Proctor, 17, has been competing at the national level for four years.

“From day one, it was like a family and an atmosphere that I had never experienced before. I was hooked.”

Fencing is just as much of a mental sport as it is a physical one, says coach Gary Copeland.

“There are all kinds of techniques that take years to learn, but the assessment part is the biggie. ”

Fencing requires the competitors to size each  other up quickly, determine what kind of fighter their opponent is and strategize based on their strengths and their opponent’s weaknesses.

Tean Brooks, who also competes at the national level, says that knowing what’s in your roster and building it is important. She emphasizes knowing your strengths and building off them based on what your opponent brings to the match.

Her strength? The counter attack.

“It’s physical chess,” she says. “It’s individual – you can be competitive but you also have a whole team behind you working for a goal.”

Both Proctor and Brooks are some of the 50 students learning and competing with NCF. While participants often have different levels of investment, both of the young women are two of the 15 that compete on at the national level for NCF, in Boulder. During his 40+ years coaching, Copeland has had multiple national champions. He’s seen his students attend Duke, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn and other universities on scholarships.

“These [universities] used to look at grades only, but they realized anyone could be a library rat…. So they look for other activities that show you have discipline, that you can show up,” Copeland says.

That’s partly what Proctor found when she began fencing at NCF.

“I’ve consistently found it difficult to apply myself. School has always been difficult for me to focus on until I found fencing. Every hobby I tried before, I quit within a couple of years.” she says. “It has taught me how to apply myself.”

Since Proctor began fencing, she feels as though participating in the sport has helped her become a person of conviction.  She is currently ranked 28th nationally. For those like Brooks and Proctor who compete at a higher level, they can be gone every weekend for a competition in the state (mostly in the Denver area). Often the team is flying to a regional or national tournament. NCF finished fourth at the last nationals meet.

Traveling is part of what Brooks likes about competing at the national level. It can make school challenging, she says, but that it’s a great benefit to the sport.

“Our club has a great atmosphere where not only fencers have friendships, but our parents also develop bonds. So while they do grumble about the expenses, I think we are super grateful,” Proctor says.

All of the travel can be exhausting and can be an expense for families, but there’s not much of a cost upfront. Beginners can borrow equipment and you just need clothes to sweat in. Groups are split by age, with younger fencers ages 8 to 12 together and those 12+ together. What’s great about fencing is that some do it recreationally and others competitively, but there is room for everyone.

Fencing is expanding in the Denver area, with more kids finding it a fun alternative sport and a great hobby to get involved with.


High Altitude Archery

“It’s our goal to reach out to the community and help people understand what archery is and how they can participate,” Williams says.

For Paul Williams, owner of High Altitude Archery, archery is a family sport. “I got into it because of my kids. I think it was 10 years ago,” he says.

His daughter spent a few physical education classes learning archery and, for two years, bugged her parents nonstop about classes. Finally, in eighth grade, they gave in. She competed for about four years, quite seriously, but her real drive was the enjoyment of the sport.

“It requires mental focus and combines the mental and physical, which is enormously important.”

While archery is now a hobby for William’s daughter, her family picked up the sport with gusto. When she was moving on from archery, as she prepared for college, the coach she had been training with announced he was selling the business, so Paul stepped in. Having found a passion for archery and igniting his dream of owning his own business, they’ve been running it since.

The Longmont shooting range offers group classes and private lessons for anyone ages 5 to 95. Williams says not only do they get lots of young people but some older folks looking for something to keep them active in retirement.

“We get a lot of young families who are trying to find a sport that’s good for them to do as a family or those who are looking for something a little different than peewee sports, but are still looking for something introspective while still having a team sport and a competitive nature.”

Some of your favorite archers – Robin Hood and Katniss Evergreen come to mind – make it look effortless, but it’s challenging. It requires strength and precision to repeatedly hit a target accurately. Williams says learning archery is a 12 step process with 80 to 100 sub-steps. To be an accomplished archer means learning to find mastery in the physical and mental elements.

“One of the other things you notice as you learn more about archery, is you have to manage your mental state as much as you manage your physical state. Working [on] visualization, meditation, lots of mental exercises, it turns out to be really important.”

The mental discipline is key, Williams says. Archery requires consistency, to do the same thing every single time.

There are three styles of archery: bare bow, which is just bow, strings and arrow (the most traditional); olympic recurve, which has more gadgets, a wheel on the top of the bow; and finally compound, which has many more gadgets, technical releases and scopes. Students can pick the style that suits them.

There are four or five organizations around the world that hold archery tournaments. They have different styles of play and rules. There are also variations on archery like archery golf, where players shoot at targets with different elevations and distances throughout a two mile course.

Summer competitions really amp up, says Williams, with competitions nationwide. Regardless of what course or competition appeals to a player, training is similar.

“We have families who plan vacations around archery…it’s really common for families to be competing together and go as a group.” 


Roller Derby with Boulder Bombers

“If you are splayed out, especially with our juniors, we don’t do anything that will put them in harm’s way, but injuries are very rare, especially at juniors level. they do a lot more positional blocking.”

The sounds of skates on the floor is deafening as kids do laps practicing form and movement around the roller derby track. This track is new, after a fire burned down the Boulder Bombers’ last space. The club is rebuilding their juniors program, the Bottle Rockets. They re-launched the league on March 2.

“[Participation] grows pretty quickly,” says Zoe “Chaos” Field, junior league committee co-chair. “It’s mostly word of mouth – kids are always looking for new activities.”

Despite just launching the program already has 27 participants, with more expected to join in April. There are two beginner groups for kids ages 6 to 17 to start learning roller derby as well as one advanced group. It’s not divided by age but by ability. In the beginning coaches and teammates teach the basics like how to stop or how to fall safely.  There are certain assessments participants pass before moving to the next tier, where there’s physical contact.

If you’ve never watched a roller derby bout, you are missing out. Two 14-skater teams play two 30 minute periods, and each period consists of multiple ‘jams.’ Five players are sent out, with four blockers and one jammer. The jammer has to get through both teams blockers before they can start scoring points, which they accrue by passing their opponents.

“The kids, their interest level is always high. They are always excited to be there,” Field says.

The Bottle Rockets practice, Field says, is drills and footwork as well as playing fun games, but the most exciting things are the scrimmages – “we get really excited when we do the scrimmages so they get stoked to play against other kids.”

Once 18, participants can join the certified roller derby league, where it gets more competitive, and becomes a big time commitment. There are a few juniors on the certified team.

Dedication is what makes this sport so special, Field says. Everyone is really into what they are doing, into growing and learning.

“I love the community I’ve become a part of. It’s a group of strong, powerful amazing human beings…It’s inevitable that we get close; especially as a contact sport,” Field says. “These people become your best friends, you get to go through frustrating and fun times.”

It’s the same for the Bottle Rockets: they help each other and listen to each other, learn from each other and their trainers and cheer on their teammates.

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