Invented in 1887 when George Hancock, a Chicago Board of Trade reporter, hit a wrapped boxing glove with a broomstick, the sport is played by an estimated 30,000 locals. The best teams are now in the suburbs, and in the past 40 years only one team from outside the Chicago area has won the national American Softball Association title.
PLAYING IT SAFE There’s no foolproof way to avoid jammed fingers, says Tom O’Neill, commissioner of the Chicago Metro ASA, although catching the ball "soft" usually works. "You just let it hit the palm of your hand and drop in front of you, and then pick it up and throw the person out."
SPECIAL SKILL Batting .300 is considered a coup. "The trick is to hit the ball square and to hit it down," says O’Neill, adding that if you hit it in the air you’ll get thrown out at first base 75 percent of the time. Rick Gancarz, a pitcher for Mount Prospect’s Miller 45’s, says batting is a placement game. "Place the ball down the lines and hit the gaps," he says. "There’s a thing called the ‘cut’ or the ‘dump,’ which only a few people have mastered, where you cut the ball over the third baseman’s head."
GET OFF THE COUCH Most leagues form in February. Local tournaments take place every other weekend; the biggest are the Chicago Championships in Mount Prospect June 26th to 29th, the Forest Park No-Glove Nationals July 26th to 29th, and the ASA Men’s 16-Inch Major Slow Pitch in Crystal Lake on Labor Day weekend. For more, visit ilsoftballreport.com or chicagoball.com.
Long-distance running is not just for the fast and serious but also for casual "lifestyle" runners.
TRAINING MISTAKE Too much too soon. Runner’s World columnist, book author, distance running coach, and former fat guy John "the Penguin" Bingham recommends having a solid year of regular running under your belt before starting a training program, which typically lasts 20 to 26 weeks. Bingham’s wife, the running coach and author Jenny Hadfield, adds that people also tend to go too fast during their long runs. "That’s not where your speed comes from," she says. "It comes from doing shorter speed workouts during the week."
RACE DAY TIP Don’t try anything new—whether it’s socks or an energy drink. "You have to trust your training," says Bingham, who has run some 40 marathons. "I’ll number my socks if I find a pair that really works—along with shorts, shirts, all that stuff—so that everything I put on on race day, I’ve tried."
GEAR Bingham recommends getting fitted professionally and test-driving shoes at a running specialty store. "In general, you want to wear the least amount of shoe you can run in comfortably. And you have to understand that as your body adapts to training, you may need a different type of shoe." The foot changes, he says, as the distance increases.
GET OFF THE COUCH The North Shore Half Marathon in Highland Park is on June 8th, and Bingham’s Distance Classic takes place August 10th. The Chicago Marathon is October 12th (chicagomarathon.com). There are shorter races almost every weekend; see the listings in Windy City Sports and Chicago Athlete magazines.
Born on the shores of Santa Monica in the 1920s, this fast-paced take on the indoor game became an Olympic sport in 1996. It’s a huge hit in Chicago, where 95 nets are set up all summer at North Avenue beach.
SPECIAL SKILL Developing sand legs. "It took me a month or two to get used to moving around in sand when I first made the transition from indoors to beach," says coach and former pro Jeanette Simenson. "You have to dig in with your toes instead of going heel-toe, and you have to teach your calf muscles to work in a different way."
PRO TIP A ball hit or served into the wind is more difficult to return. "The ball will move or change direction on the opponent a lot more," Simenson says. "When the wind is at your back, the ball can drop right in front of you; it’s a lot harder to play." Simenson adds that beach volleyball should be played more offensively than the indoor game. "We’re used to playing very defensive volleyball," she says. "But you have to be attacking the ball all the time."
THE GOOD NEWS Simenson says there are fewer injuries than in indoor volleyball because the sand is more forgiving. The beach version will also give you better control and more leg strength.
GET OFF THE COUCH The Chicago Sport & Social Club offers leagues for all skill levels. Watch the pros at the Extreme Volleyball Professionals tour June 21st and AVP pro tour July 11th to 13th. All events are at North Avenue Beach.
With Cog Hill’s world-famous Dubsdread course closed for renovations and the Bank of America Open at the Glen Club already over, there will be no big tour in town this fall. So golf fans will have to swing their own clubs in Chicagoland’s anything-goes climate.
WET WEATHER TIP "If the turf is wet, you want to try to pick or scoop the ball—which is something you ordinarily don’t want to do," says Jennifer Shillington, the director of instruction at the Ritson-Sole Golf School in Romeoville. "Instead of hitting the ball in the back or the middle of the stance, you put it forward and swing with your arms only, not using weight transfer or your core muscles." The good news about rain: "If you call for a Saturday and the course is booked, try again if it’s raining—there will be openings."
COMMON MISTAKE Attacking the ball. "When [players] try to hit it too hard, they lose the form," says Kevin Weeks, the 2005 and 2007 Illinois PGA Teacher of the Year and the director of instruction at Cog Hill.
QUICK FIX FOR THE RUSTY "Work on the short game and putting," says Weeks, who invented the Dynamic Impact Indicator, which uses a laser to analyze a swing. "Once you’re near the green, you can get the ball near the hole. Your score will go down."
MANTRA Don’t think. "Practice, and then when you play, do everything you can not to think and just react and be an athlete. Do your thinking before you get there," says Weeks.
Depending on whom you ask, triathlons either started in France in the 1920s with a race called Les Trois Sports or began in San Diego in 1974. Today’s Olympic-length triathlon is a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike, and a 10-kilmeter run—although distances can range from the daylong Ironman to short indoor "sprint" races.
COMMON MISTAKE Training haphazardly. "People early in the season go out and do too much too soon and get injured or burned out because they didn’t pace themselves in their training," says Elizabeth Waterstraat, a triathlon coach who has earned five national long-course championship titles and a world championship silver medal. Give yourself eight to ten weeks to prepare.
LESS IS MORE Take at least one day off a week. "What most people don’t realize is that it’s not the work we do that makes us strong, but the recovery we take afterwards that allows us to absorb and benefit from that work," says Waterstraat.
SURVIVING THE SWIM Don’t start when the gun goes off; instead, position yourself at the back of the pack, count to five, then go. "That way there is some distance between you and everyone else," says Waterstraat. "If you get kicked, take deep breaths and breathe more often." And don’t stop. "When people stop in open water, they start to panic and look around. Just keep moving forward and relax."
GET OFF THE COUCH The Naperville HRMS Triathlon, a sprint distance race, is August 10th. The area’s biggest competition is the Accenture Chicago Triathlon on August 24th (there’s a sprint version on August 23rd).
In-line skates have been around since at least the 1940s, but the advent of versatile urethane wheels in the early 1970s paved the way for Rollerblade’s founders, Scott and Brennan Olson, to pair them with a standard ski boot in 1980. Nowadays the boots are usually softer and lower, with frames and wheels built for everything from recreation to racing.
KEY SKILL Stopping—whether using the heel brake; doing a T-stop, a spin, or a grass roll; or grasping at whatever’s handy. National Skate Patrol’s Chicago chapter director, Chris Dettmann, recommends the free NSP stopping clinic, held every Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. on the lakefront bike path just north of Oak Street Beach (look for the red T-shirts).
THE OTHER SKILL Crouching gives you a lower center of gravity and more control. Standing tall makes you fall.
GEAR "Most people buy skates that are too big," says Cale Carvell, Team Rainbo’s founder and director and former skate shop owner. "You should feel the end of the liner touching your toe. When skates are too big, your foot starts sloshing around inside."
MANTRA "On your left."
GET OFF THE COUCH Team Rainbo meets for skates every Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9 at Prairie Stone Park in Hoffman Estates and welcomes new members (helmets required). Their Chicago In-Line Marathon on July 26th attracts the nation’s fastest skaters and amateurs to Hoffman Estates; there’s also a one-miler for kids. The Chicago NSP‘s free themed Road Rave trips leave from Daley Plaza at 7:30 p.m. on every first and third Friday from May to October.
In recent years, tennis pros have started using special balls and smaller courts to get new players rallying from the get-go. "It’s the only sport where you don’t enjoy yourself right away. That’s why we lost so many players," says Butch Staples, the head tennis pro at the Midtown Tennis Club. "The gifted ones and those who were overachievers—who could face frustration and keep going—stayed with it. Everybody else thought, I’ll go do something else instead."
QUICK FIX FOR THE RUSTY Use a slower, larger foam ball and play close to the net. "People aren’t worried about being hit with it, but all of its characteristics are similar in terms of bounce and spin—kind of like training wheels," says Staples. "The nice part about graduating the length of the court is that the stroke distance graduates with you." Staples also reassures those returning to the sport that the stroke will come back. He recommends trying cardio tennis, which is a series of drills done to music that focus on footwork, balance, and agility.
PRO TIP Move the feet, not the racket. "The feet get you into position, but then you have to calm down and make the swing rhythm that you need to be successful," says Staples. "The racket doesn’t need to move very fast at impact to keep the ball moving back and forth."
GET OFF THE COUCH New players can try Midtown’s Tennis in No Time, which is nine hours of lessons on a mini court for $105. ChiTown Tennis is a clearinghouse for leagues, lessons, tournament and court information.
Illustration: Nazario Graziano