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May 11, 2011

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Getting the most fun out of sports

Taking part in regular sporting activities is essential for health, but for most athletes, having fun in sports is much more attractive than the health-benefiting effects. Three athletes share with us their fun experiences of the sports they take part in.

Zhou Bin

29, has been hiking for five years

Escape from the pressures of the city and embrace nature. Hiking miles across beautiful natural landscapes where few other people have trodden has been Zhou Bin's favorite pastime for the past five years, and became his job in 2009 when he started his own hiking club business with friends.

"It is not about conquering nature as many people say, but conquering yourself - whether you can surpass your limitations and finish the journey," says Zhou.

Zhou's first experience of hiking was actually an assignment for his job in 2006. As a reporter at the time, he joined a hiking club to get first-hand experience for a story he was writing. And that two-day hiking experience on a small island in Zhejiang Province has resulted in him taking part in countless hiking activities ever since.

It was an easy start for Zhou, as the island was quite small and only took about an hour to cross. For most experienced hikers, like Zhou is today, such journeys taking less than three hours are just a "corruptive" activity rather than a real "self-torturous" hiking experience. But that "corruptive" two-day activity revealed a bigger picture that he previously wasn't aware of.

The island was quite small with few traces of other humans, according to Zhou. With no docks or similar mooring facilities, the team had to climb across countless reefs and rocks to get on the island, and then set up camps with fires and cook their own food.

"There was nobody else but us there," says Zhou. "We lit campfires, ate fish, drank beer, talked and laughed freely. We felt like we owned the island."

Most hiking fans are outgoing and love to share as opposed to the many cautious and self-centered team members that you might meet in tour groups, according to Zhou. You don't need to be familiar with each other to give or receive a helping hand. You feel like a family the moment you join such a group.

"It hit me suddenly that night that I should belong to this group, who were passionate and crazy about exploring the natural world rather than those who confined themselves to a busy scheduled urban life," says Zhou.

Since his initial experience, hiking with friends two or three times a month became a routine weekend activity for Zhou until he quit his job and established the 7782 Hiking Club with friends in 2009, with the aim to recommend the great activity to more "urban prisoners."

"Hiking miles without stopping like ascetic monks in remote areas is not only about building a strong body, but also helps us cherish what we own," says Zhou.

Zhou still remembers a 14-hour hike in the snowy mountains in Sichuan Province several years ago. Bad weather prolonged the journey and exhausted most of the members in about 10 hours. "I will give up anything I own for a hot drink," said a member of the team who owned a company.

"Those extremely tough conditions helped us look at what we owned in our daily life and helped us become optimistic and mentally strong again," says Zhou. "While footsteps became heavier, my heart just became more bright and peaceful."

Relatively short hikes during the summer are a more suitable start for beginners, as all that is required is a pair of mountaineering shoes and a sleeping bag.

Peng Jian

25, has been doing parkour for four years

Parkour sounded like a cool sport worth trying for taekwondo coach Peng Jian the moment a friend told him about it in 2007.

Without any aids or protection, the practitioners of parkour, known as traceurs, throw their bodies around like stuntmen, propelling themselves forward, flying over hurdles and tackling obstacles that they see as opportunities.

They aim for fluidity, strength, originality and speed. They scale walls, jump over benches and railings and even, if they're really good, leap between buildings.

The mere pictures in his mind of such amazing moves captured Peng's imagination before he actually saw any videos of parkour or tried any moves himself.

"It sounded so cool and must have been beautiful in reality. I told myself that I will definitely have a go," says Peng.

He quickly joined Shanghai Parkour Union but didn't get as much coaching as he expected.

"Parkour was still quite new in Shanghai, most of the group members were beginners themselves," says Peng, "so it was more like a pioneer group with members groping and exploring together."

At that time, video clips were the main source of instruction for the members to view and imitate the moves.

Practicing martial arts at a young age and having two years of military training, Peng thought that he was physically fit enough and wouldn't have much trouble in any sport.

But parkour wasn't as easy as it seemed at first.

"Basic movements like the monkey vault, swing, cat balance and cat grab in the video all looked quite simple, but when I tried them, every part of my body was uncomfortable at first," says Peng.

And psychological pressure was a much bigger obstacle than the actual physical movements.

"Most of the movements in parkour are actually what our ancestors did all the time. It is in our blood and it shouldn't be that difficult to achieve. But the fear of getting hurt often holds us back," says Peng.

To tackle the fear problem, Peng chooses to try movements with witnesses around so as to push himself to a point where he doesn't have the chance of going back.

"If you dare to do it now, you can accomplish it sooner or later; otherwise, it will just be never," says Peng.

Of course, padding and safety precautions are always needed for beginners; and constant training is a must to achieve the movements.

Peng mastered most basic movements within a year and became a coach in 2009. "How far can I reach? What's my limit? That's what I always ask myself," says Peng. "Parkour is a way I get an answer."

Though most parkour practitioners range from teenagers to around 35, Peng objects that it is a sport only for young people.

"The key to parkour is to get yourself from A to B by whatever means you can, you don't always need dazzling vaults and loops to achieve that. A cool mind, quick reactions and bravery are more important focuses in practice, which can be achieved by people at any age," says Peng.

Peng set up Huta parkour club with friends last year to invite more amateurs to participate. Though they got an indoor training venue that they had been dreaming of for years, Peng still regularly practices parkour in outdoor public places such as parks and squares.

"Indoor practice is just training, parkour needs the real open-air environment to be alive," says Peng, "and of course, applause and cheers from the audience are always encouraging."

But traceurs should be alert of police driving them away if their energetic performances attract too much attention from the public.

Nathan Power

29, has been dragon boat racing for one year

Compared with the above two athletes, Nathan Power is not such an expert in his particular sport, as he only started rowing dragon boats last year.

For him, the fun comes from not only partaking in a sport but also from getting involved with Chinese culture.

A great interest in the Chinese language and culture drove the American to Shanghai two years ago, and he started by learning the language.

When he heard about a dragon boat competition taking place on campus during the last Dragon Boat Festival (traditionally the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar), he was very keen to take part.

"I knew about the dragon boat racing tradition in China, but had never participated in one," says Power. "I could not let the chance slip away."

Boating is not new for Power, as rowing is a popular sport in universities in the United States, and in which he often participated.

Both rowing and dragon boat racing are river-based team efforts, and both have a conductor who organizes and keeps every member in line, according to Power. The only difference is that the coach for rowing uses a loudspeaker, while the coach for dragon boating uses a color flag to conduct, and a drum is beaten to inspire the participants.

Though familiar with boating sports, Power was astonished by his first glance of a real dragon boat because of its delicate design and decoration.

"The design was so cool. Most boats in the US have a very simple appearance, as the Americans always think of function first - how to make the boats run faster. But the beautiful dragon boats overturned my idea about boats - they are not merely for the racing itself, but also the culture and spirit of the nation," says Power.

Most members of his first dragon boat racing team had barely known each other before. And they only had one hour to practice before the race started.

"It was more about coordinating the chaos in that hour. And that made us even happier about boating, as we didn't take it too seriously as a race, but a fun game," says Power.

Power's team didn't win the competition but they were very happy that they weren't the last.

"For me, dragon boating is more about participating in Chinese culture and getting together with people that you barely knew before and making friends.

It was a real international team last year with members from different countries. And Power is really looking forward to the event at this year's Dragon Boat Festival which falls on June 6.

"I will definitely get myself on the dragon boat again this time," says Power.


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