From the archives: The Railbike Chronicles

From the archives: The Railbike Chronicles

Featured Human Power Sport

From Explore magazine, August 1999.

Quinton Gordon photos

When you look at a grand old railway trestle from afar, it’s impossible not to feel something stir just there, below the sternum. The little matchstick beams crosshatch the sides of the bridge, and the whole effect is so delicate and spiderwebby, it seems an astonishing engineering feat that the structure can support a train’s passage over a chasm hundreds of feet deep while those aboard tranquilly sip their drinks. But try to cross one on anything but a train and you’ll enter into another kind of experience. Oh, you’ll feel something stirring below the sternum, all right: naked fear. Not only are you way, way above the ground, there are no guardrails.

The good news for us, on this crisp day in October, was that no trains would be coming along any time soon. This is because the trestle was condemned. The question was whether it would hold the railbike, though we were fairly certain it would. There were some rotting timbers, and in places damaged ties left gaps you could peer through, down, down. But it felt solid. The sweep of mountain across the pretty lake on Vancouver Island would have made a great Hey-Martha photograph if either my pal Drew or I had had the nerve to take a hand off the handlebars, which we didn’t.

The exposure revved our hearts, no matter how many mind games we played to prevent it. Random thoughts descended: To do this on a live track is probably a rite of passage to manhood in some doomed cultures. Drop anything up here—the pack, a crucial nut, ourselves—and this strange little adventure is done.

The sport of railbiking is the sort of thing that lodges in your imagination the moment you hear about it. For devotees, it crystallizes in crude plans you can buy through the Net, and comes to life in suburban garages, amid the clank of metal and the fizz of spot welds. To say it is a niche sport is to understate the matter; there are, by one reliable estimate, around 200 serious recreational railbikers in North America. And though it’s becoming more common in Europe, railbiking will be hard-pressed to upgrade its way-off-Broadway status, for reasons that will soon become clear.

But railbikes have some uniquely cool attributes. Like that handless riding: you can clean the bugs off your glasses without missing a beat. You can keep a roaring clip, in theory, because you never encounter a real hill. When you get on a bicycle built to ride on railway lines, you can go places cars can’t, see things few humans ever encounter wild and up close. Like?

“Wolves, cougars, foxes, badgers, deer, and, let’s see: 14 bears.” Dick Smart, a dentist from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was recalling a single trip through Northern British Columbia. “It’s silent, so you can come right up on them and look them in the eye. On a rail corridor there’s a whole different wildlife perspective; there’s foliage around the track, so the animals have a little cover when they cross.” Periodically he’d run into hobos out there, heard their tales from a vanishing culture. That particular trip, 550 kilometres over 11 days, accounts for but a tiny fraction of the distance Smart has logged on a railbike. It is an Earth-girdling 52,000 kilometres, a Gretzky-like tally among railbikers, who regard him as The Dean. When I reached Smart he was heading out back to tinker with his custom “suitcase” railbike that folds into a case and then magically pops open at its destination. He was adapting the bike for the quirky narrow rail gauge of Patagonia.

If you found yourself sitting next to Smart on the bus, and he started talking about this strange hobby of his, and maybe brought a couple of pictures up on the iPod, chances are you’d be doing some serious recalibrating by the time you reached the office. (At the very least how to angle for more vacation time, and a vehicle that can take a railbike on the roof.) Smart’s patter on the subject is so spellbinding you might forget even to consider a question you really ought to be asking: What about trains?

It’s unsettling that some railway employees call railbikers “Darwin bait.” But Dick Bentley, another veteran railbiker, from upstate New York, put my own fears, at least, to rest. “If you’re careful and watch yourself, you never see anything,” said Bentley. “In an extreme emergency you can just lean in the direction opposite the outrigger. You sort of fall in slow motion. You replay your life story in your mind three or four times.”

I first heard about railbiking years ago on an airline flight (the guy hadn’t done it, but knew someone who had). And not long after I paid a visit to Chris DeKerf—whom you could call The Dean of West Coast custom bicycle building without starting a flame war. Chris headed the handbuilt division of Rocky Mountain bicycles before he struck out on his own. At his shop in Richmond, B.C., bikes in various stages of completion hung in racks. (Including one, for a Colorado surgeon, who asked that his paint-job look like “a glass of Guinness, with foam.” It did.)

Chris is not a man to avoid a challenge, but he needed data on my strange proposition. How had others built their rigs? It turns out there’s virtually no end of design variations for the wheels alone—from paired, flat-sided rings that enclose the tracks to a superwide front tire you just free-ride on top of a rail, on the theory that you could walk even on the blade of a knife if you had a fat enough pair of shoes. There have been railbikes with sails and railbikes with sidecars for passengers or canoes. Dick Bentley’s position is that you want to work with a proven set of plans, rather than just Red Green-ing it. And the design he’d mailed me had kept his own bike on the Adirondack Railroad track for decades through pretty straightforward means. You ride on one rail, an outrigger extends across to a wheel that rides on the other. A guide mechanism keeps the front tire going straight, and Bob’s your uncle.

Except that I’d bought a tandem, which neither Bentley’s designs nor anyone else’s accounts for. A little muscle twitched at Chris’s temple when I wheeled it in. I thought I heard some module in his right brain powering up. This was already fun, though Chris had yet to turn a single screw. The whole enterprise felt like Neil Young converting his Lincoln Continental road pig into a battery-powered electric with a biodiesel backup. It felt revolutionary, even though it really isn’t. Because railbikes have been around almost as long as there have been rails.

In the early days railroad companies (and telegraph companies, whose wires ran along the rail corridors) used railbikes to get maintenance guys out to remoter reaches, and many of them kept one in the baggage car like a lifeboat: in case of a breakdown the brakeman could ride for help. By 1908 you could actually buy a railbike kit in the Sears & Roebuck’s catalogue, for $5.45. The ad sat nestled between frontiersmen’s revolvers and magic-lantern projectors and the first phonographs—as if these technologies all had a bettor’s chance of taking the world by storm.

Railbiking fused the railway boom with the bicycle craze: a promising marriage. The problem for recreational railbikers was that there were just too many trains. It would take 70 years or so before a kind of sweet spot appeared—when rail travel was in decline but no one had got around to turning the tens of thousands of kilometres of neglected track into razor blades. (And there wasn’t yet, as Dick Smart puts it, “an attorney lurking behind every tree.”) There was a spell, in the 1970s, when a cool railbike design could land you in Popular Mechanics. One 1976 feature, running under the banner “It’s New Now,” showed a gentleman in a sportcoat rising out of his saddle, all techno-chic against fields of waving grain.

That was the time the modern popularizers emerged, including the two guys named Dick, all following the lead of The Founding Father of the modern era of railbiking—The Dean of Deans—a Canadian, no less, named Florian Grenier. Grenier, who died a couple of years ago, had a railbike on the tracks before the Allies had troops out of Germany. He was a marathoner, building a bike “with enough room to carry gear and grub” for weeks in the bush. He once rode 381 kilometres of BC Rail track between Chipmunk and Fort St. James—roughly the same route Dick Smart would later follow and call “the greatest adventure of my life.” Grenier proved that railbiking is really, foremost, about doing your homework.

“Florian was supposed to come with us but had to cancel at the last minute,” Dick Smart says. “But I used all his information because he was so good about mapping out the trip and knowing where we could get to.”

You’d think that that homework would be easier now, in the age of Data Smog, but it isn’t. There are no up-to-date atlases of abandoned track. “You can’t write a book on it because things change so quickly,” Smart says. “By the time you learn where to ride the track’s gone.” What’s left is spadework. “I call libraries and fire stations in the middle of nowhere and ask them if their tracks are still there and in use.”

Of course there’s the Net, but because the railroad companies are as eager as anyone to know where the bandit fish are jumping, you won’t get the real goods on pirate riding if you just Google “railbiking.”“We’ve gone underground, basically,” Smart says. There’s a website run by Peter Hoffman, founder of Bicycle magazine, but it’s impossible to find. “We have a code word for it,” Smart says. “There’s like 20 of us who belong.”

On a fall day in 2005 the call—actually an email—came. “Interested in a railbike?” said Chris Dekerf. “I happen to have one.”

It wasn’t finished finished, but it was ready to be tried: a prototype, the X-1. It was fairly beautiful. The outrigger tripoded down onto a skateboard wheel. He’d made the whole front-end weatherproof: stainless steel with brass bushings, and aluminum skid plates like a cow-catcher to kick the whole rig up in the event of a collision. To stop the skid-block from dragging, there was a hand-carved “lift-rod” mounted on the handlebars, so the rider could “fine tune” the guide-wheels while riding, keep them low enough to grip the rail but high enough to stay out of trouble.

“You’ll be amazed at what’s stuck on the side of rail lines,” he said. “There are cables, there are bolts.” There are also “greasers” that stick up and, activated by the weight of the train passing atop them, pump grease onto the wheels. “You hit one of those things at a good speed,” Dick Smart had warned, “it’ll stop you.” Higher up, the seams between the rails aren’t always tight. A half-inch gap is nothing to a train, but it’s enough to send the rider into orbit.

“Crashing is nasty,” Chris said. “If you come off at anything over 15 kilometres an hour, it’s ugly. This design minimizes the problem, but no matter how well the bike’s built, you can’t fully avoid accidents. You just don’t know. At some point, I think it’s safe to assume, you will come off this bike.”

Up in his office, Chris produced a liability waiver.

“Have you ever had to make one of these things out before?”


The railbike had taken Chris “probably 10 times longer than I thought” to build, and if he heard a call coming in asking for another one, he might pretend to be in Phoenix, indefinitely. And yet the project had lodged in him—like a deer tick, but in a good way. Chris had made a railbike you can assemble with a number-five Allen key, folding up the outrigger and bungying it to the frame. He was proud of it. He just wasn’t so sure about me.

“Don’t get yourself, or anyone else, killed on this, please,” he said as I shook his hand. “Then I’ll want my stickers off it.”

We tested the X-1 on a rusty urban rail line that slices through the tony heart of Vancouver’s West Side. (Since the CPR stopped running trains here five years ago, the corridor is used only by coyotes and raccoons in their nocturnal commutes.) Drivers slowed and stuck their heads out the window to gawk. “What is that? Did you guys build that? Hell of an idea!” Within 90 seconds of our actually getting the bike on the rails, three little kids materialized, and they were quick to diagnose problems: “The seat needs to be higher.” “The tires need more air.” A bigger issue, it turned out, was that the outrigger was light—if we leaned at all away from it it lifted, and once we crashed that way. (On an actual ride the weight of the pack would hold it down—we hoped.) Plus which, I’d brought the wrong wrench, so couldn’t adjust the guide wheels properly. The kids ran along beside us as the sun went down. They tried to organize another play date so we could all try this again.

The second test, a month later, was more promising. Chris had made adjustments to the X-2. A sandbag kept the outrigger down on the rail, but the rig, heavy to begin with, was now a bear to move. Couples, children and people’s aunts on one-speeds were overtaking us on the parallel service road. We were sweating like donkeys. I took off my down vest and strapped it to the outrigger, where blackberry canes sliced it to ribbons, and then it tangled in the rig, stopping us as abruptly as a drag chute.

In places the outrigger suddenly and inexplicably went off the rail—and when it did, with the weight of the sandbag on it, it slammed down hard and bucked us off. It became clear that the width between rail lines vary by as much as a couple of inches. How could that be? You’d think that measurement would be perfectly consistent, maintained to vanishing tolerances by an expensive machine—but apparently some co-op student was eyeballing it.

Not only that, from time to time our perfectly adjusted guides would suddenly start tightening up, slowing progress to a crawl. Turns out the width of the rails themselves varies wildly, as the weight of trains over time squashes and spreads them like a pie crust. This is something you don’t quite believe until you’ve seen and felt it. Train wheels allow a huge margin for error in this. They float, shimmy-shammying back and forth, bumping back toward the middle when they drift too far, like a blind man in a supermarket aisle.

As we approached a road crossing another issue loomed. Our great brainwave was to adapt a tandem bike—double the power, double the fun. But the tandem was so long it needed a back guide as well as a front, and our back guide was fixed. Which meant getting off and walking the bike across pavement. At one point the grade levelled out, and began to descend. We got some speed up. Then: Boom. A seam between the rails caught the rear guide, and the shock was conveyed up through the frame directly into the huevos of the two riders.

We travelled three kilometres in 2 1/2 hours. As Drew helpfully pointed out, “We could have walked this same distance probably three times.” But we were railbiking, baby! With a little tinkering we’d be ready to log some serious mileage, Out There, where the signals of the city die. The bike went back into the shop for some final tweaks.

Cut to: a calendar, its pages turning. At intervals, when I called, Chris seemed to have all-but finished with the bike, and at the same time was unwilling to give up. “Let me go another round with it,” he’d say. The X-3 became the X-4.

By the time the bike was finally ready, almost five years had elapsed from the time I’d first approached Chris.A lot had changed. Chris had bags under his eyes that I didn’t remember seeing before. We had both become parents. Different things were important now. Back when we started, I was better able to contemplate a lifestyle in which railbiking actually fit in—a nimble, low-overhead, light-out-for-the-territories-when-the-mood-hits kind of thing. And he was better able to imagine sinking endless hours into a weird lark that didn’t pay the rent.

Railbikes are a consummate do-it-yourself project. They depend on the same “fly-a-little, test-a-little” ethic that is driving the private rocket builders in Mojave to build a space-tourism industry. In this respect, it’s kind of sacrilege to have someone basically build one for you. But that disconnect between builder and user was only one of the things that had held Chris up.

“I’ve figured out why I’ve struggled so much with this,” he said, as we lashed the bike to the roof of the car. It’s because he is a perfectionist. His impulse is to do one thing at a time, do it very well, and then move on. He was able to scratch that itch with the front guide, its delicate machining. But railbikes are not bikes, and tandem railbikes are off the map. There’s nothing to compare the work you’re doing to, and no way to anticipate all the potential problems, and no literature on them even if you could.

“ When I got frustrated,” Chris said, “I just reminded myself, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to work.” It’s hard to imagine that more professional expertise has ever gone into a railbike.

NASA had done all it could. Now it was up to the astronauts.

It would tax an FBI profiler to come up with a “type” of person who railbikes, since the sport is full of contradictions. There’s a greeny, save-the-planet dimension to it that would seem to attract progressives. Yet the image of the lone frontiersman, pursuing a simple pleasure, asking nothing but freedom and shouldering what comes, is textbook libertarian.

If you’re a railbiker, you’re probably a gearhead, comfortable around power tools; you may be a history buff, and probably a railroad enthusiast; you hold strong opinions, and love nuggets of historical trivia, like the one posted on Dick Bentley’s railbike webpage: Why is the standard railroad gauge in North America such a weird number: 4 feet, 8.5 inches? The answer goes back to the original specifications for the Imperial Roman war chariots, which were made just wide enough to accommodate the hindquarters of two war horses. That funky rail width, the railbike enthusiast notes, determined the size of the engines that power the Space Shuttle. Those big boosters have to be shipped by train from the factory in Utah to the launch pad, and they have to fit through a couple of tunnels, which are only slightly wider than the track. “So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.”

Railbikers can be obsessive. Whenever he’s on vacation, and driving over a rail crossing, a man named Dom Bencivenga told me that he instinctively looks for rust on the line—because rust means no trains and no trains means railbiking. Never mind that Bencivenga, who once built a recumbent railbike, no longer rides. (Not since his little-used stretch of line in Erie County, Pennsylvania, was bought by a shortline rail operator from New York, and many trains now ply the route.) It’s enough that he could. A railbiker is always recovering, never recovered.

Bencivenga “had the bug bad,” he admits; but his friends did not share his enthusiasm. And that’s why railbikers make up a weirdly oxymoronic group: a community of outliers.

“It is lonely,” Dick Smart told me. “It’s a sport you have to kind of keep inside yourself. It’s not like you can go into a bar and share railbike stories, because nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.”

If you’re a railbiker, you’d better be thick-skinned, and able to tolerate the feeling that around the next bend may well be someone who really, really doesn’t want to see you.

“In 31 years I’ve been stopped a dozen times by people in high-railers [track-inspection vehicles] and told to get off—though never thrown in jail,” Smart says. “But I never wanted the same guy to tell me to get off twice.”

In the early days, Smart tried to make a commercial go of it, selling “Railcycles” of his own design, but liability issues put an end to that. “I formed a corporation and did everything I needed to do. I had people sign their life away. But still I had railroad officials treating me like I was making an AK47 or something.” He dropped the business plans and simply tried to ask permission to ride on abandoned lines. Which is easier said than done. How do you tell who owns the land, when tracks pass through streets and public parks? Again and again he was refused. Finally he threw up his hands, and a semi-organized outlaw railbiking ethic was born. “It’s easier,” he says, “to seek forgiveness than it is to seek permission.”

Other entrepreneurs like Smart have tried to develop organized railbiking in Canada, but everyone has been crushed by government red tape and liability issues. So Drew and I pretty much had no choice but to be renegades—albeit of the bespectacled, pencil-necked kind.

For a number of reasons, an awful lot of rail has been removed across the country in the last 10 years. But that still leaves thousands of kilometres of non- or lightly used track that is simply catnip to a railbike like the DeKerf X-4. We zeroed in on one of the most inviting stretches, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo (E&N) line, which snakes halfway up Vancouver Island. Inviting for its landscape—ocean, mountains, pastureland, high trestles over plunging gorges—and its history. (The true “last spike” on the CPR was pounded in not at Craigellachie but here, at the village of Cliffside, a little north of Victoria.) Best of all, it is barely used. Freight mostly stops moving on weekends, and a single passenger train goes the distance once-daily. Perfect.

“You’re not getting on that track until you show me the schedule with what times that train leaves,” my wife, Jen, said. She made it clear she was going along with this plan only under duress. Drew, too, was having misgivings. We are aging men who enjoy staying alive, and are supposed to be modelling responsible behaviour to our kids.

There was another way. Off of the main Victoria-to-Courtney line, a branch extends westward from beachy Parksville, over the mountains, to Port Alberni. The tourist steam train that chugs the 10 kilometres to Port Alberni’s historic Mclean sawmill was down for the season. The track is otherwise empty, and has been for six years.

In the morning mist of an October Sunday, sleepy Port Alberni was positively comatose. The plume from the pulp mill hung like a pall. The three mills on the harbour were all operating at way below capacity because of the depressed market for wood. It was easy to imagine a railbike-tour operation spiking the place’s metabolism a little.

Fifty-five kilometres of riding lay ahead. We’d power north to the sawmill, then follow the rail east, through bear country, past the old rail stops of Bainbridge and Bostock and Stoke, climbing the three per cent grade to the summit and then down through the northern hem of mighty Cathedral Grove and on through to Parksville.

We set up next to the Port Alberni train station, and as we did, two cars pulled into the lot, and the drivers exchanged cash for marijuana. This was an extremely good sign. It meant the area was lightly policed.

There’s something vaguely embarrassing about, as an adult, having to skulk around avoiding detection. The CPR gifted this line not long ago to a not-for-profit group called the Island Corridor Foundation, which was less likely than some to release the hounds on us, but it still seemed wise to move quickly along.

Speed! We rolled out of the train station, bound for Parksville. Only to find ourselves—Hello, Cleveland!—half a kilometre down the track staring at a locked fence. And so was born yet another new sport, even more marginal: urban portaging. We humped the rig through downtown Alberni, past brake shops and burger joints. I doubt it looked heroic, but it felt like a real expedition, like sledging heavy gear across the tundra. Railbiking inverts the old equation: the city is the country and the country is the city. The wilderness, laced with those smooth rails, is the zone of comfort and easy mobility; the city, with its fences and switches and progress-stalling traffic lights, is the inhospitable frontier, and the faster you put it behind you the better.

We pitched up finally near a train trestle on the outskirts of town, and plopped down to rest. “You know, if both people weren’t equally on board with this, it’d be tough,” Drew said, shaking sweat from his head. “Because that sucked.”

The way ahead was now clear. But the track itself was a mess. The century-old iron rails were pitted and cracked like old teeth, the outside worn to a sort of pinking-shears edge that seized Chris’s beautifully engineered guide wheels and shook them like a Rottweiler. It may have well suited Dick Bentley’s backyard track in the Adirondacks, but here the limitations of our design were becoming apparent.

Just as Chris had warned, there is no end of little things that can halt progress on a railbike. Some are predictable—like rocks that have rolled down the embankment and snugged against the track—and some not so much. It had rained, and the tracks were slick. And because train rail isn’t flat on top but rounded, if your tire is even a little off-plumb it can suddenly slip off, knocking the wheel assembly out of alignment.

As we sat trying to repair the front guide, we were suddenly aware we weren’t alone.

“You need a flange, eh?”

Bob Jones, a retired logger and heavy-duty mechanic had spotted us from the window of his house near the tracks. Laconic. Feed cap. Hands in his pockets.

The outrigger was providing balance, Jones had noticed, but it wasn’t keeping the bike on track, and a guide wheel with a big lip on one side might do the trick. Actually, he happened to have a few.

Apparently, when you take a train out of a community you create a vacuum that people’s imaginations try to fill. Jones told us he’s been meaning to adapt his snowmobile to run on the tracks. Meanwhile, Ken Wilson, a local electrician and welder, test-drove a railbike his Dad built, from the summit 15 kilometres east of here. “It was pretty Mickey Mouse but it worked well enough,” he recalls. Except that the outrigger couldn’t account for the hiccups in the gauge. The track went wide and the bike didn’t, and Wilson shot over the handlebars. “It wasn’t too good,” he remembers. “Shoulda had a helmet.”

Wilson decided a more skookum vehicle was called for. So he outfitted a little railway pump car with a 12-hp engine. He finished his last weld at midnight and decided to test-drive it then and there with his son and his son’s girlfriend. The car bucked violently to life—the drive system generated far too much torque—and was suddenly away, kerthumping over automobile crossings, picking up speed, hitting at least 50 kpm by the time they reached the trestle on the edge of town. A fine slime of slug guts peppered their faces, and a lawn chair and picnic cooler and the sticks Wilson had rigged for brakes flew off and vanished into the blackness. When they hit the summit, Wilson cut the engine and they all waited for their breathing to stabilize. It was good, but it wasn’t too safe. “Shoulda had a helmet,” he says.

Near Cameron Lake, the air was perfumed with the smell of a controlled burn on a nearby mountainside. It was the kind of setting where you long to feel the wind in your hair. (Drew and I, we longed for hair so we could feel the wind in it.)

But there is no wind without speed, and speed was not part of this afternoon. It turns out that trains are great lawn mowers. Take them away and the land very quickly reclaims a rail corridor. Here the scotch broom was happy to get a beachhead uncontested, and it screamed against the tiny steel cowcatcher as we crawled along. Soon it was as high as our waist. Our neck. Over our heads. It lashed our faces in a way that felt medieval. (This is of course why it’s so tempting to railbike on active track. Abandoned lines on the plains of Saskatchewan are one thing; abandoned lines in a temperate rainforest are another.) We had to stand on the pedals to get enough power. The brief unweighting made the wheels spin.

And so we were thrilled—thrilled!—to arrive at that condemned trestle. It was toothless and scary, but it was also broomless, which made it beautiful, and we nosed along it, toward some kind of lesser immortality.

I will not lie outright and tell you that we railbiked the entire 55-kilometre route. Nor can I claim that forest creatures gathered at our feet as we stopped to drink deeply from mountain springs. We did not so much “glide effortlessly on ribbons of steel,” as one railbiking book promised, as we did grind out yardage like fullbacks. There were bursts of exhilaration punctuated by our standing around scratching our heads.

And yet we came home strangely giddy. It felt like the opposite of failure, just to be out there. You probably couldn’t talk to more strangers in a day if you were handing out 10-dollar bills. You couldn’t learn more about how to do something right by doing it wrong. (We should probably alert Popular Mechanics now that the DeKerf X-5 will be a showstopper.) And all that iron somehow got into our bloodstream. Train rails—bearing their stamped dates of completion—throw you a century back in time. To be a railbiker is to be intimately inserted into the creation myth of our nation. Lots and lots of now-forgotten people laid track to the sea. And on it a whole country grew, developed Rep-by-Pop, the two-line pass rule, peacekeeping, Muskol. And the freedom to at least debate breaking the law, sometimes, just for the hell of it.

Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Essays Featured Nonagenerians Psychology Science Sport What Makes Olga Run?


TO A CERTAIN kind of sports fan – the sort with a Ph.D in physiology – Olga Kotelko is just about the most interesting athlete in the world. A track and field amateur from Vancouver, Canada, Kotelko has no peer when it comes to the javelin, the long jump, and the 100-meter dash (to name just a few of the 11 events she has competed in avidly for 18 years). And that’s only partly because peers in her age bracket tend overwhelmingly to avoid throwing and jumping events. Kotelko, you see, is 94 years old.

Scientists want to know what’s different about Olga Kotelko. Many people assume she simply won the genetic lottery – end of story. But in some ways that appears not to be true. Some athletes carry genetic variants that make them highly “trainable,” acutely responsive to aerobic exercise. Kotelko doesn’t have many of them. Some people have genes that let them lose weight easily on a workout regime. Kotelko doesn’t.

Olga’s DNA instead may help her out in a subtler way. There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined. It’s an advantage that could help NYGoodHealth explain the apparently Mars/Venus difference between people for whom exercise is pleasure – the Olga Kotelkos of the world – and the coach potatoes among us for whom it’s torture.

In a spacious cage in a cramped lab in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside, there lives an albino lab mouse who has no name, so I will call him Dean. Dean is small and twitchy, with slender musculature. He may be the world’s fittest mouse.

Dean is the product of a long-running study of voluntary exercise. Twenty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Ted Garland, then at the University of Wisconsin, gave a small group of mice access to a running wheel. The mice who liked using it the most were bred with each other, so that the trait of running fast and far was amplified in each successive generation until, almost 70 generations later, Dean emerged. When Dean wakes up in the evening (mice are nocturnal) he typically goes straight to his wheel – before eating, even – and just runs full out, making the wheel squeal. He has run as much as 31 kilometers in a night.

Garland and his colleagues believe that, genetically and physiologically, Dean is different from other rodents. “Marathon mice” like Dean seem to find exercise uncommonly satisfying – likely because of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry. Exercise stimulates dopamine production, which in turn causes a cascade of other molecular effects – a process known as “dopamine signaling.” Dean’s dopamine signaling is unusual: when he runs, some as-yet-unidentified molecule, downstream from the dopamine receptor, gets altered so that it now provides reinforcement that normal mice don’t get.

Those differences, the scientists believe, may help explain why some of us merely tolerate exercise and why others, like Olga and Dean, love and perhaps even need a whole lot of it. If your genes predispose you to loving your workouts, as Olga’s appear to do, and if your environment offers the opportunity to work out constantly, as Dean’s wheel does for him, a certain chain reaction can start. Physical effort feels fantastic, which prompts even more effort, which delivers even bigger dose effects in mood and energy.

How does any of this matter for the rest of us schlubs, who may not be similarly endowed? File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?

“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population, says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?” An up-and-at-‘em drug might increase our desire for exercise or, conversely, create uncomfortable restlessness if we sit too long.

It’s pretty clear that Dean the mouse experiences something way beyond uncomfortable restlessness if he sits too long. He is a full-on exercise junkie. When researcher Justin Rhodes, an experimental psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who joined the study at generation 20, took away his wheel, depriving him of his fix, Dean was miserable. Rhodes scanned Dean’s brain and found high activation in the area associated with cravings for drugs such as cocaine. Both “drugs” – indeed, all drugs – goose similar reward circuitry. “But I think there’s got to be some differences,” says Rhodes. “Because it’s not as if an animal that’s addicted to running is necessarily going to be addicted to cocaine or gambling.”

And therein lies another weird direction for the research to go. What if addicts could take a pill that exploits those minute differences, redirecting their jones from a harmful one to a positive one – a kind of running-as-methadone plan?
Such a pill is conceivable in principle, says University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge, who studies how desire and pleasure operate in humans, but developing it presents an enormous challenge. Without knowing exactly how the brain assigns urges to specific objects of desire, how do we ignite a yen to exercise without also stimulating the yen to do things that will land your customers in rehab? Or blunt the urge for drugs while leaving healthy urges untouched? Scientists within the big pharmaceutical companies are no doubt working on it, nonetheless. “I’m waiting for them to contact me and offer me funding,” Garland says dryly.

It’s the kind of drug that Olga – normally one to Just Say No – might even endorse.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Congrats, you’re a Dad. Time to dial back the risk-taking?

Congrats, you’re a Dad. Time to dial back the risk-taking?

Essays Featured Kids Psychology Sport


Not long ago, a French-Canadian skydiver named Pascal Coudé, who hopes to break a world record by freefalling for 6 to 7 minutes from an altitude of 30,000 feet, was telling me about his preparation. He plans to make the jump in a baggy costume known as a “wingsuit” – a specially designed jumpsuit with webbing that catches wind and creates massive air resistance. Sounds fun, but in fact it’s incredibly dangerous. If you tire and lose your stable position, you can start tumbling uncontrollably.

When the time seemed right I asked Coudé: “Do you have kids?” He replied that he does – a 19-year-old son.

“Do you think about him as the plane nears the drop zone?”

No, Coudé said. “I’m thinking only of the jump: nothing else.” There could be no distractions up there, in the brief prelude to glory.

Everything about “adventurers” tends to be writ large – which is what makes them such appealing profile subjects. Over the years I’ve covered a guy trying to skydive from the troposphere; a woman diving unprecedentedly deep in the ocean on a single breath; a Norwegian explorer walking across remote northern Canada, without support or even a phone. These are seriously brave people, and very often there’s poignancy to their motivations.

For years I never thought to ask such people, the takers of ungodly risk, if they have children. But now I always ask. It strikes me as an essential question. Seven years ago, when my wife called her dad to tell him his first grandchild – our daughter – had just been born, his first word was: “Congratulations!” He left a beat, and then said: “Your life is no longer your own.” Welcome, in other words, to the world of real, adult responsibility. His statement raised questions about the costs of adventuring. Did morally defensible risk now begin and end with serving past-the-date spaghetti sauce once in a while?

British mountaineering writer Robert Macfarlane makes the distinction between “acceptable risk” and “gratuitous risk.” The moment you become a parent the dividing line shifts, he suggests, and those life-threatening ascents that once earned you praise for courage now fall into the zone of indefensible. On this subject utilitarian philosophers are likewise pretty clear on the rules. To put it in Spock-ish terms: the needs of the many trump the needs of the one.

And so when my daughter Madeline was born I decided, with some encouragement from my wife, that my own Darwin-baiting escapades were over. No more aimless multi-day rambles in the British Columbia wilderness; no more solo kayaking across the Strait of Georgia or scrambles across snow bridges on Rainier. It was an easy choice for someone like me, who really was just goofing around under the flag of extended adolescence. Risk was a hobby, not a calling, and I happily let it go.

But what about professional adventurers like Coudé? For them it’s not about growing up: they’re grown. It isn’t really even about choice. Risk is so much part of what they do, and what they do is so much part of who they are, and who they are is so closely linked to a script that they feel was written for them, that thinking about stopping doesn’t compute. Force them to change and they would simply … cease to be.

“How could I have stopped her?” responded James Ballard when reporters asked what business his wife, Alison Hargreaves, had in summiting K2 – a far more treacherous peak than Everest – when she had young children waiting patiently for her to return. Hargreaves, considered by many the world’s best woman climber, was blown off the mountain in a violent storm in 1995. Hers became a morality tale for the issue of acceptable risk. Harsh judgment tarnished her legacy – harsher, arguably, than it would have been for a man. (Putting a mountain ahead of one’s kids struck many as antithetical to the natural mothering instinct.)

But Hargreaves had her defenders. After the climb that left him a widower, Ballard received letters from women who praised her for not capitulating to domestic life and setting down her ambitions. Her life, even shortened, was a victory for women, they said; becoming a parent doesn’t foreclose on our questing human nature, or at least it shouldn’t. We’re here to see what we can do. Hargreaves had inspired them to follow their own trajectories, these mothers said, no matter what anybody else thought or said.

Of course, Hargreaves’s children never got a vote in the matter. Their mom went to work and one day she didn’t return, plain as that. But her daughter, Kate, and son, Tom, 20 and 22 respectively, are now in a position to weigh in. Both say they are proud of their mother. Tom in particular has become a seriously skilled mountaineer. He’s currently in training to summit the peak that killed his mom, and he may become the first to scale it in winter. He understands her compulsion to push the limits of the sport because, he says, it’s in him too.

Maybe the Spock doctrine about “the needs of the many” and the “needs of the one” is insufficient. It gives equal weight to every life without measure of the quality of that life – how enhanced or impoverished it becomes when you add or subtract risk. The question What do we owe to others? is incomplete without its corollary: What do we owe to ourselves?

Sometime this summer, probably over Arizona, Pascal Coudé will leap from a plane in his wingsuit. And I’m positive that, as he falls — a flying squirrel fighting to hold position in the sky —he won’t be thinking about moral calculus, or utilitarian philosophy. Neither will his son.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Court Jester

Court Jester

Featured Profiles Sport

Can squash have an enfant terrible? Oh yeah. Meet Jonathon Power

From SATURDAY NIGHT, October 1998

In November of 1993, at the world team squash championships in Karachi, Pakistan, Canada drew Scotland in the first playoff round. But when the team bus arrived at the courts, Jonathon Power, the nineteen-year-old prodigy from Toronto, wasn’t on it. Coach Gene Turk tracked Power down at his hotel, where he was still sleeping, and brought him to the stretching area, where other players were warming up. Power was there in body but his head was far, far away. He stood, heavy-lidded, in a tearaway basketball tracksuit. “What do you want me to do?” he asked Turk. “Well, stretch!” Turk said. Power bent over to try to touch his toes. A cigarette pack fell out of one jacket pocket and a lighter fell out of the other. A few feet away, limbering up on the mat, the world champion, Jansher Khan of Pakistan, watched this little bit of vaudeville. He couldn’t believe it. He was looking at a clown.

He was looking at the future of squash.

Team members today tell that story with bemusement, partly because they know how things turned out. Four years later, Power became the first North American ever to beat the long-reigning Khan, and created the tantalizing possibility that he might one day tame his demons and become world champion.

But mostly the story circulates because it captures Jonathon Power in amber. He is not as other men. Or at least not any other elite professional athlete.

When he walked into the office of Graham Carter, a top Toronto money manager, a year ago, Power projected an oddly contradictory image: the worldly naïf. “Here was a kid who had had no real advisers for his whole career, and the guy is number three in the world, and prior to six weeks ago he’d beaten the number one six times in a row,” observed Carter. Like those eccentric math geniuses who tackle complex theorems all day but have trouble boiling an egg, Power did one thing awesomely well but was almost comically deficient in the routine demands of a professional life. He didn’t have a credit card. He didn’t even have an OHIP card. He’d plied his trade in sixty countries, logging hundreds of thousands of air miles, but had never bothered to get on a frequent-flyer program.

What kind of sponsorship deals did he have, Carter wanted to know. None, Power said. Equipment? No. Shoes? He bought his own. McDonald’s had approached him about doing some promotions, but no deals had been finished. There had almost been a racquet agreement, but that fell through after Power left the court audibly slagging the racquet that had let him down. The rep for the company happened to be in the stands watching, and the net morning, he called to say he would not be doing business with Jonathon Power, like, ever.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

WHEN most people think of squash – if they think of it at all – it’s as a pastime enjoyed by toffee-nosed Ivy League seniors, captains of industry, TV psychiatrists. Or just dorks who spend the summers of their youth bouncing balls off the garage and never outgrew the fascination.

People who actually play squash (a fairly small number), or watch it (an even smaller number), have a model in their mind of how top squash players look and act, what they stand for and where they live. The model is probably someone very like the current world number on, Peter Nicol of Scotland. Small in stature – for squash is a punishing game, and only lightweights can withstand the pounding on the joints over time. Gentlemanly – for squash’s British traditions stress fair play, and historically, exchanges between players and referees would not have sounded out of place in the Old Bailey. (“Let.” “No let.” “Appeal.” “Sustained.”) High focused – for squash, which has been likened to speed chess, is a game of infinite combinations and angles and moves and countermoves and perpetual calculation of risk. Supremely fit – for squash is a game of heavy aerobic demands. Deferential to their coaches – for squash is almost a tradesman’s pursuit, best learned at the hip of an experienced mentor who can groove you in.

Jonathan Power defeats all the stereotypes so completely you’d be tempted to conclude he was dropped into the game by some lesser god just to shake it up, the way John McEnroe landed in tennis in the seventies like a hound on the kitchen table.

He is quite a big man – six feet, 175 – and he seems, eerily, to get bigger the moment he steps on a squash court, the way some actors look bigger on stage.

On court, wearing his trademark red bandana, Power calls to mind the young Christopher Walken in the Russian-roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, where Walken sits zombified in the Saigon gambling den with a gun to his own head, somehow absolutely certain the bullet has the other guy’s name on it.

He is not the scion of some wealthy industrialist, who grew up in the shade of a single private club. He was a military brat, born in Comox, B.C., whose sports-fanatic dad was director of athletics at Canadian military bases and took a fierce interest in the physical education of his kids as he moved them from town to town.

He did not go to an Ivy League school. He didn’t go to school at all beyond grade eleven – he dropped out. Having won national junior titles since the age of ten, and having glimpsed the life that awaits an international squash celebrity when his father sent him to England to train with the coach of the great Pakistani champion Jahangir Khan, he saw no point in waiting to turn pro.

And he did not, having turned pro, instantly settle into a mature, ambassadorial role. In 1990, when he was sixteen and just breaking into the circuit, he lost in the first round of a tournament in San Francisco – an unthinkable outcome. Power wasn’t to be seen for the rest of the week. He hadn’t gone home; he’d drowned his miseries in the local rave scene, conducting private research into how many drugs and how much alcohol an athlete can ingest without its affecting his equilibrium on the dance floor. Squash seemed the last thing on his mind. But two days later he showed up for a tournament in Denver and made it to the semis.

Few players accompanied Power into the night. But everyone watched, a little bit amazed, as the bell-bottomed boy went down the rabbit hole and popped back up at match time ready to play. The night before the semifinals of the 1994 Alberta Open, Power for forty-five minutes of sleep. He won.

From the Delphic, on-court utterances (“If you choke, you’re a dead man!”) to the basketball slang that so bamboozles European umpires (“Hey, double-pump, ref!”), he earned a reputation as squash’s Yorick. Or perhaps squash’s Howie Mandel. At one tournament, Power walked past an umpire and said, by way of greeting, “Whose life are you going to ruin today?” In the Qatar Open final in 1997, after Power contested a call by the strict Irish referee Jack Allen, Allen leveled a long gaze at the Canadian. “Mr. Power, please do not talk back to me.” Power feigned surprise, raised his palms, put on his best puppy-dog face, then said, quietly, “Jack, I was only having some fun.” The crowd was in his pocket.

You’d be tempted to call Jonathon Power “anti-establishment,” but that would imply a firm position on the other side of the equation. Power isn’t anti-anything. He just is. “He doesn’t do too much to please other people,” admits his father, John, a top player himself and currently the squash coach at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. In interviews, Power has not tended to censor his thoughts – to the delight of the media and the despair of the people looking out for him. After he publicly cut up then world champion Jansher Khan after a loss, Power’s coach, Mike Way, took him aside and said, “What, you wanna give the guy more armor?” Power didn’t particularly care. In 1997, when Power accused Khan of failing to clear back from the wall to allow Power to hit it, yet masterfully hiding the fractions from the inexperienced referees, Khan was reported to have replied: “I never block players. The referee can see everything. All players have this problem. That’s how squash is. I think it’s more of an excuse for losing.” Power figured Khan must have been misquoted, because, he said, “he can’t form the sentences that quick.”

Last fall at the Qatar International, the night before his semi-final match against Jansher Khan, a man named Ali Al Fardan took Power aside and made him a deal. Al Fardan, one of the most prominent jewelers in the Middle buy ambien online canada East, was the tournament’s chief sponsor. “If you beat Jansher tomorrow, and then go on to win this tournament,” Al Fardan said, “any ring in my store is yours.” (Power had endeared himself to Ali the year before at a party at Al Fardan’s lavish penthouse. Al Fardan had arranged for a belly dancer to perform. This caused palpable tension among the guests in the strict Muslim country. The players themselves, unsure of protocol, were keeping a dignified distance. The party was stiffing. Then Power got up and started to boogie. All those years of raving finally paid off. He faced the dancer and slowly gyrated to the rhythm she set. He languorously undid his shirt a button at a time. He was in his element. He saved the party.)

With the ring on the line, Power did beat Khan, and then beat Nicol in the final, and Ali Al Fardan honored his bargain. Power showed up at the jewelery store the next morning with a friend. Al Fardan brought out a couple of display boxes and laid them on the counter. Power conferred with his friend, who knew a little bit about jewelery appraisal. Then he pointed to a ring of white gold; he thought he saw Al Fardan flinch just a little. The ring was going, in that market, for about $12,00 (U.S.). Power paid the tax on it and took the ring home. He put it in a safety-deposit box and promptly booked a couple of airline tickets to Paris. He cooked up a story about having to play some matches there, and then he called his long-time girlfriend, Sita Schumann, and asked if she wouldn’t mind joining him. He gave her the engagement ring by the Seine. They will marry this summer.

Had he not met Sita in a Toronto bar in 1991, and had he not turned on the charm when he needed to, things might have worked out quite differently for Power. Sita’s influence has been a key plot point in his life, in the estimation of many who know them both. He’s still unlikely to be mistaken for Prince Philip, but Jonathon Power circa 1998 is a demonstrably mellower version of the Jonathon Power of even a few years ago. “He’s cleaned up his act a hell of a lot – the drugs and so on – because he knows Sita won’t tolerate that – says former national junior coach Stuart Dixon. “She’s also given him some goals, like, ‘Jon, you can be world champion.’ And he’s starting to believe it.”

After that first formal meeting with Power in Toronto, Graham Carter, the money manager, agreed to take Power on – practically pro bono, initially. He called up his friend Wade Arnott, the hockey agent. “How’d you like to try your luck with a squash player?” he asked. And so began the construction of a crude infrastructure around the young man who had somehow gotten so far without one. Carter and Power have become fast friends, with Carter assuming an additional role as a kind of financial tutor. They took out an insurance policy to save Power’s bacon in the event of a career-ending injury. Carter set up a holding company called Top Seed Inc. to catch the endorsement money, when it comes.

If corporate-sponsorship decisions were made on native ability alone, there’d be no discussion and no worries. Blank cheques would quietly be written on mahogany desks. Power is a unique talent. Even fellow players who don’t like the gamesmanship and just generally find it hard to get around his big backside when he sticks it out as an impediment, doff their hat before his skills. “He does things with a racquet that just make you want to play squash,” acknowledges Nicol.

When Power was a young boy and the family was living in Montreal, his father would pull him out of school and they’d drive to Toronto to watch the top players who were coming through for Tournaments. Thus did Jonathon watch and model and mimic – his preferred method of learning. He soaked up Australian Brett Martin and Kiwi Ross Norman and the Pakistani Jahangir Khan, but in the end developed a style all his own.

The difference between a top club player and a Jonathon Power is hard to appreciate just by watching each of them hit. Oddly, framed by a court thirty-two feet long by twenty-one feet wide, really mediocre players can seem more dynamic than the pros. The dentists and accountants – guys with barely reconstructed tennis or racquetball swings who do scary things like turn and play the ball directly at their opponent saying “Coming around!” – are obviously working out there. They skid on their own sweat and sport raspberries on their naked butts in the shower room afterwards.

The top pros, by contrast, hardly seem to be running at all. They just shark around the “T” in the middle of the court, drifting, finning, conserving energy. From some angles, they look like a couple of clever-bearing chefs hustling around each other in a kitchen. The game looks simple at this level. He ball seems peppy and the court looks small and easily coverable. Tight, compact swings drive balls off the front wall and down the side walls, making a sound like flies being swatted. The chief virtue of the best squash shots is not speed but “length,” whereby the ball is hit so that the second bounce, if you let it come, lands near the junction of the floor and back wall – and from the gallery this looks perfectly innocuous because pros take the ball early, or when they don’t they can still usually dig it out from the back, and so the point goes on and on. No flashy smashes or half-volleys or aces: just the slow, calculated working of the opponent out of position, sitting up an eventual loose ball that can, with luck, be put away.

Power has limited patience, so he’s not inclined to let points drag on. And this is what’s most remarkable about him as a squash player. In a sport in which you’re not supposed to be able to win a point quickly, he can.

“He has the remarkable ability to hit a shot more than one way,” says Mike Way. Many of Power’s strokes start off looking the same. Then, like a baseball pitcher, he directs the ball, with astonishing accuracy and touch, at the last second with a crack of the wrist. “What amazes me is when I watch him send the top players in the world in the wrong direction,” says Gene Turk. “That should never happen at that level. His short game is so good, players must feel they need to get a jump on the ball, so they make a commitment.” And the moment they commit, Power goes the other way. To avoid being cartoonishly wrong-footed, anyone playing Power must come to a complete stop, then start again when the ball is struck—an exhausting proposition over the course of a match. Unlike other top-twenty players, some of whom have crippling workout regimes, Power has never been very fit. But until recently he hasn’t needed to be because he himself reads his opponents like airplane fiction, and because, as British player Tim Garner puts it, “Normally his opponent does four times as much running as he does.”

Few squash players have ever been as dominant as Power is when he’s on. Or have self-destructed as badly as Power has when he’s off. Often he has roared through to the semis of a tournament without dropping a game, only to sink quickly in the cream of the draw with brainlock. “When he gets into trouble, he has a tendency to do one of two things,” says Colin McQuillan, who covers squash for the London Times. “He gets petulant, or he stops.” In the 1998 Commonwealth Games final – probably, because of the live BBC-TV coverage, the most widely watched squash match in history – Power seemed to be cruising to victory when a couple of calls went against him. His opponent, Peter Nicol, started playing tougher and clawing his way back into the match. Power began to cave. At a game-break, fellow Canadian Graham Ryding went over to speak to his teammate, who sat at courtside looking uninterested. “Don’t be such a dick,” Ryding urged. “Don’t let him do this to you. You’re the number-one player in the world.” Briefly reinvigorated, Power played better in the next game. But then so did Nicol, to take the match. At one point Power threw his racquet at a wall in disgust, missing Nicol’s face by inches.

He comes as a boxed set: the virtuoso and the drama queen. And in remote corners of the squash-literate world, they love it all. Next to Jansher Khan, Power may have the biggest following on the circuit. He is routinely asked for his autograph in countries where the sport is appreciated, if not necessarily played, by the masses – the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.

The selling of squash at the professional level seems to be predicated on the hope that if non-players could be seduced into watching this game, they’d be bitten. Hence, exhibitions and tournaments are often held on portable courts set up in some of the strangest, most exotic, most public places in all of sport. A downtown square in Brussels. Grand Central Station. The Palladium dance club. The lower concourse of the World Financial Center. And most spectacularly, the Giza plateau, where last year players fought to keep their concentration as camels moaned in the darkness beyond. Egyptians prayed toward Mecca on courtside rugs, the pyramids loomed through the front wall as the lights went down, and 5,500 fans went nuts in the stands for the local boy, Ahmed Barada.

If he had been born in Cairo, or Karachi, there’s little doubt Power would already be a wealthy man.

The young Egyptian, Barada, to whom Power has never lost, appear on TV there more frequently than the test pattern, bombs around Cairo in a Mercedes, has seen his face on an Egyptian commemorative stamp, has reportedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars in government bonuses for good performances at home, and is one of only a handful of people to have President Mubarek’s private phone number. (Barada is, in Power’s estimation, “just a little shit.”)

Jansher Khan, as an employee of the quasi-state-run Pakistan International Airlines, draws a salary of about $1,000 (U.S.) a month – enough to support four families in Pakistan. (“You can’t be more boring than Jansher,” Power told me a year ago. “He’s no ambassador. He doesn’t really talk to anybody. He arrives at a tournament with his entourage and as soon as it’s over he wants to go home. He’s singlehandedly destroyed the game, I’d say.”)

“If Jonathan moved to England he’s be a millionaire, no question,” says Tammie Sangster, the local rep for Head racquets. Prince, the racquet and apparel company that sponsors Peter Nicol, has said it would jump to the pump if Power transplanted himself, like tennis player Greg Rusedski, to Britain – a bigger squash market. There would also be tax advantages to an offshore move. “Squash players are in an almost unique position to do it, since they’re legitimately out of the country for more than six months of the year,” Carter says. “Until now, he hasn’t really been earning enough money to justify [moving], but he will be if he keeps winning tournaments.”

Power is already a kind of de facto international citizen. He rents a flat in Amsterdam where he hangs out during the European squash season—our winter season – because it’s a convenient halfway point between tournament sites and because “I can make way more money there from exhibitions.” I once watched him trying to settle a hotel bill in Cairo in American currency. He thumbed through his wallet: Dutch guilders, pounds, sterling, Canadian dollars, Egyptian pounds – no U.S. bucks. But Power appears to have no intention of grounding himself outside Canada for good. “I like Toronto,” he says, simply.

Carter believes there is money to be made in North American – by exploiting the U.S. corporate market, doing exhibition matches, speaking engagements, clinics, and so on. Whether there’s serious money here remains to be seen. The powerful American sports-marketing reflex has been unresponsive to squash. McDonald’s did come through with a smallish deal requiring that Power wear the golden arches on that red bandana for every professional match he plays, and a couple of equipment companies now give him free gear, but you won’t see Power announcing plans to go to Disneyland, or slaking his thirst with Gatorade on TV. Big squash tournaments in North America tend to be underwritten by the likes of Rolex or Mercedes-Benz. Power seems a better fit with Airwalk or Jones Soda. Recently, Carter and Arnott sat down with John Nimick, head of the Professional Squash Association in Boston, and raised the question: How can we leverage Jonathon to grow the game while at the same time doing what’s best for Jon?

Carter and Arnott could well make the argument – and no doubt they have – that Jonathon Power is the best thing to have happened to squash since a couple of British public-school boys (or so a prevailing theory holds) invented the modern game when they punctured the ball they were hitting against the school wall and dampened its bounce. Squash needs Power. It has tended to be a boom-and-bust game, enjoying robust health in the seventies and early eighties, then tumbling into a recessionary decade or so when key promoters left the sport, as Power puts it, “people got tired of seeing the same Pakistani guy winning year after year.”

Indeed, you can count the dominant players of the last thirty-five years – Khan, Khan, Hunt, Barrington – on one hand. Squash is desperate for some juicy competition at the top. Now, in the Scot and the Canadian, it has it. The polite, straight, indefatigable little steam engine versus the charismatic shot-maker. Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power, stewards of a rivalry that seems destined to hold and deepen until one of them blows a knee or knocks the other’s block off.

At this year’s U.S. Open at Boston’s genteel Harvard Club, Power roared through to the finals and ran into a confident Nicol, who was feeling he had finally solved Power’s game. In a glass count incongruously plunked down in the middle of a room where heads of state sometimes dine, Power was on (for him) his most excellent behavior. Whether for the benefit of his backers in the crowd – Carter, Arnott, John Power, untold would-be sponsors – or just to see what would happen if he bridled his id, he was practically a gentleman out there. Of course he couldn’t resist a few theatrics. After one questionable call, he straightened up, in mock anguish, with a sharp intake of breath, as if he’d taken a gutshot from the calvaryman on the mesa. The crowd was on Nicol’s side. “Stop wining!” someone snapped when Power queried another call, and the remark drew a little splash of applause. “I was hoping the Scotch boy would win,” one distinguished member told an acquaintance in the locker room after the match,” because the other boy was a pain in the ass.”

Being the “bad boy of squash” is a little like being the bad boy of the philharmonic wind section. The refugees from the arena-rock crowd are going to love you, but you can’t expect the long-time subscribers who came for The Nutcracker to roll over easily. In that Commonwealth Games final, Nicol beat Power in four games. The first three were epic. The fourth was over in twelve minutes. “The one thing that gets me about Jonathon is, I don’t think he has respect for anyone,” Nicol told me last fall. “I see him as being so close to the finished article, and yet so far away because of that. He could be fantastic for the sport, practically the savior of the sport. But in the end he always fucks it up.”

LAST summer, I watched Power on court at the Toronto Athletic Club. He had come to do drills and spar with Graham Ryding, the number two Canadian He was coming off a disappointing showing in a major tournament, having been forced yet again to pull out with an injury. A little square ball machine sat in the front corner of the court puffing out squash balls to Power’s backhand, and Power put down drop shot after drop shot. “Two years ago there’s no way he’d have done this for thirty minutes,” his coach Mike Way said quietly, referring to the tedious drill. Power overheard this remark. “Two years ago I wouldn’t have been in the club for thirty minutes,” he said.

Power was considered pretty much uncoachable for much of his career. Buddha himself – teacher of those who cannot be taught – could not have taught him. “Do you think anybody off the court can tell you what you might be doing wrong?” Way asked Power once. “No,” Power replied.

Way has described his past coaching style as “eggshell coaching” – volunteering suggestions only at opportune times,” waiting until the exact right moment and then planting the seed. He has compared his charge to Andre Agassi, which would make Way Nick Bollettieri, Agassi’s long-time coach. “Nick made Agassi’s practice sessions shorter and shorter to keep the boredom factor down,” Way told me. But now Way was being more directive. Almost stern. And Power was paying attention to every word – as if he had suddenly clued in to what’s at stake.

For years, Power was far and away the best Canadian player. Now, slowly, Graham Ryding is closing the gap between them. “Graham always worried Jonathon,” John Power told me last year. Jonathon is a better athlete, but in some ways Graham is a better squash player. Technically, Jonathon can compensate with strength and imagination.” Ryding knows Power’s game better than anyone. If Ryding has been good for Power, to push him, and Power has been good for Ryding, to pull him, Power and Ryding have been good for the five or six players who are drafting behind both of them and coming up fast.

Peter Nicol is clearly improving. Having lost to Power six straight times, Nicol then won their next three meetings. Shots that Power used to hit for winners are now coming back with interest.

Arnott and Carter have made clear what’s expected of Jonathon Power. “You have marketing value first of all by winning, and secondly by having a presence on and off the court,” Carter says. “We’ve told Jonathon, your job is to win. If you keep winning and you aren’t financially comfortable in the end, then we’re not doing our job. The last couple of years, Power has averaged close to $100,000 in total income. He has always understood that figure could more than double if he were to rise to world number one overall or, especially, become world champion. To leverage the boy to sell the sport, “Number two isn’t good enough,” says Arnott.

Strange as it seems to say about a twenty-four-year-old, time is running out. Squash takes its measure on the human body in invisible increments. The relentless joint-compression and subtle body contact of this “non-contact” sport grind down the knees, lower vertebrae, and especially hips. With few exceptions, the top squash player’s body gives out in the early thirties. There are no Baryshnikovs.

Even more than most players, Power has been struck by injuries, which have tended to come in bunches and always at the worst possible times – a bizarre golfing accident here, an unlucky basketball injury there. At last year’s world team championships in Kuala Lumpur, Power disappeared into the bathroom just minutes before Canada was to play England in the final and somehow send his back into spasms on the throne. I once asked him about the condition of his knees, which had been giving him grief from overstress during the Professional squash Association’s demanding fall schedule.” They wake up sore,” he said, “but once they get going, they’re good.”

Back in juniors, Power had created future trouble for himself by failing to work out. At the world junior championships in Hong Kong, the Canadian team coach, Stuart Dixon, had a couple of experts check out Power’s aching back. “What they discovered is that he was physically very, very unbalanced,” Dixon says. “He hadn’t done the weight training or the strength development. These people told him, ‘Unless you do something about this upper-body imbalance, your life span in this sport will be five years, max.”

And so he had had to catch up as if his life, or at least his career, depended on it. “I hadn’t seen Jonathon in three or four years,” recalls Alex Pogrebinsky, the Edmonton massage therapist who has worked with bobsledder Pierre Leuders and figure skater Kurt Browning, among others. “Then in 1996 he had some exhibition games in Edmonton and he came to me for a massage. His body had changed. He had these big legs. He had done so much training, I didn’t recognize him.” That October, Power chewed through the pack unseeded to win the Tournament of Champions in New York City – his first major victory on the tour. He started stringing some wins together: Hamburg, Budapest, Hong Kong. He shot into the top twenty for the first time debuting in the top ten at number six.

He has since experimented with exercise routines he once would have scoffed at: plyometrics – a system of explosive muscle development. (It gave him shin splints, initially.) Under the guidance of his new trainer, Chris Broadhurst, he recently found himself face down in a dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens with five acupuncture needles in his naked butt. Broadhurst went upstairs to attend to business, and some Leafs players came in and shuffled past with no idea who the skinny guy was or how he hoped to make the squad looking like that.

Power had taken an enormous gamble on squash. “The problem with you Americans is, you go to college,” he told a family friend from New Hampshire. “These are your prime squash-playing years.” It was a joke, but at the same time no joke at all. Without an education, he has, as they say, little to fall back on, but Power has never thought about falling back. This is it. He must make as much as he can now – otherwise, he understands, he’ll be forty-four years old and wearing that McDonald’s bandana under a little headset at the drive-thru window. He must earn back what his parents to painstakingly invested. For twenty years, since Jonathon was old enough to hold a racquet, the Powers lived on a complicated system of debt juggling – continually borrowing, working credit-card floats, taking out loans to pay off interest on other loans, all to finance the development of their kids’ squash. IN the spring of 1997, Power returned from a tournament in which he’d done well. He approached his dad with something to say but not quite the tools to say it. “Here, I’d like you to have this,” Power said. “He gave us $8,000,” his father told me last summer. “In cash. He just pulled out this big wad of bills. His mother put it in an RRSP, and set up a plan to pay it all back.”

But there remained one more thing to deliver.

“I guarantee you Jonathon is not going to keep losing to Peter Nicol,” national-team member Kelly Patrick told me this fall, after Power had dropped his third straight match to the Scot. “He’s too competitive. If this keeps up, he’ll either explode, implode, or play the best squash ever.”

NOVEMBER 29, 1998. Doha, Qatar. Jonathon Power has just come off the court after his quarterfinal match at the Mahindra World Open in the Middle Eastern oil state: the world championships. To his huge relief, he is still alive. He met the man he has most feared meeting, compatriot Ryding. And crushed him in three quick games.

Back in Canada, the squash world is abuzz. Squash Canada’s web site racks up a record number of hits as players and coaches log on to follow Power’s progress. A question mark hangs in the air. Everyone has wondered what a health Power might be able to do if he were able to perfectly focus the beam.

In the quarterfinals, Power plays the Egyptian, Barada, who has somehow squeaked ahead of him in the world rankings. It is all over in twenty-nine minutes. Power, the assassin, decamps quickly. Seven hundred stunned Egyptians, who have turned out to lend their usual raucous support, look for a lightning rod for their rage. A small group of them rush the umpire’s section and are restrained by security.

IN the semis Power meets his friend, Australian Anthony Hill, the only player acknowledged to be as wild as Power. “I’ve been trying to keep out of trouble all week, but it doesn’t seem to have worked,” Hill remarks after losing. He pronounces Power “unbelievable.”

The final is almost anticlimactic. Peter Nicol takes the first game, but then Power, who has ripped off his ankle brace to play unencumbered, cannot be stopped. This time it’s Nicol who gets tired on the fast glass court, and Power who gets stronger as the match goes on.

It takes seventy-two minutes for Jonathon Power to become what the London Daily Telegraph calls “the first World Champion from the New World.” “What was your game plan in the final?’ he is asked by reporters. “I don’t usually have a game plan,” he shrugs. “I just wing it.” In Toronto, Wade Arnott is already fielding calls. The kid who a couple of years ago couldn’t buy a sponsor has just become a poster boy for Dunlop, the world’s leading squash brand. He will endorse a new racquet line, and his autograph will appear on every boxed squash ball that rolls out of the factor in the new year.

On a Qatar Airways flight to London, the pilot makes an announcement: the new world squash champion is on board, and he will be receiving free drinks. A flight attendant cruises down the aisle, past the suddenly anonymous Peter Nicol, and serves champagne to the beaming man in the row behind him.

Bottle this. Exploit it for all its symbolic value. For in a strange way, the appearance of the feral boy, Jonathon Power, actually does honor the game he now seems ready to rule. Squash, as the distinguished squash writer Rex Bellamy observed, was conceived in a prison (the famous Fleet debtor’s prison). Power’s ascension reminds us that squash, like opera, belonged to everyone before the elites kidnapped it. The blood of rebels runs through its deepest plumbing.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail