Should Tree-Planting Become a Medal Sport, Here's Your Winner

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1997


Should Tree-Planting Become a Medal Sport, Here's Your Winner

Looking for some real athletes? You know, the kind without massage therapists and sports psychologists and closets full of shoes? Good, because rather than wasting energy running in circles or lifting heavy objects and putting them right back down, the beaux ideals pictured here derive their strength (and, some might argue, their character) from simple workaday tasks. They rise every morning, punch the clock, and then spend the day squatting, lunging, curling, and sprinting. All for a paycheck that looks, well, real.

By Susan Enfield

Just another morning in a British Columbian clear-cut. Yuri Tricys digs a hole, bends over to wedge in a baby tree, straightens up, hikes three yards, and does it again — as he will 1,200 more times in the next eight hours. It's a routine that earns veteran tree-planters like the 24-year-old Tricys some seriously solid abs. Rookies, however, generally earn little more than "gurgly gut," a gaseous excess caused by extra air breathed in during bending. Paid between 20 and 60 cents per tree, the six-foot-six 200-pounder must maniacally sprint up slopes carrying 45 pounds of seedlings, pausing only long enough to cram in a few of the 4,000-plus calories his body incinerates daily. Kinesiologists who tested a crew of top planters a few years back were amazed to find their subjects sustained heart rates of 135 beats per minute, about the same as some poor schmo pedaling hard on an exercise bike at the gym, for eight solid hours. In fact, according to Simon Fraser University kinesiology professor Eric Banister, planters often suffer symptoms of overtraining, among the most common maladies of endurance athletes. Thus Tricys is prudently taking a hiatus this fall to study nutrition at Langara College in Vancouver, where his opponents on the basketball court will see that the forest wasn't the only beneficiary of his labor. "My vertical leap, speed, and endurance have all increased significantly," Tricys says. "A basketball game doesn't seem like much of a workout anymore."


Remember spinning around in circles until you collapsed on your parents' lawn and watched comic-book stars and cuckoos swirl woozily before your eyes? Well, for 46-year-old whirling dervish Camille Helminski, a 45-minute "turning" session induces neither gasping nor vertigo, but rather a profoundly serene "harmony of body, mind, and heart." For 700 years, followers of Sufi poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi have whirled as an act of prayer. As codirector of the Brattleboro, Vermont-based Threshold Society, Helminski has been teaching the movement for 18 years, and though she emphasizes that the ultimate aim is spiritual well-being, she reluctantly allows that "it's very aerobic and strengthens the heart." Indeed, the flat-footed, counterclockwise pirouette entails feats of balance and endurance that would elude most Olympic gymnasts. A 1920s Turkish dervish is said to have been timed at one turn per second for 22 minutes, and in Egypt dervishes still whirl barefoot on gravel for hours. (And as therapists working with autistic children discovered, spinning also stimulates the inner ear's vestibular system, improving motor control and coordination.) Of course, it can take up to six weeks to learn to whirl without an accompanying hurl, but Helminski says you can help the process along by keeping focused on the ultimate benefit: "As the Koran says, 'Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.'"

It was the groupies that hooked Peter McCormack. Trotting revelers around from club to club in an archaic, human-drawn carriage that looks more Calcutta than Winnipeg, Manitoba, may not initially seem glamorous. But in his first week on the job, the 19-year-old became a teenybopper celebrity. He and a buddy ran a marathon with their rickshaw — they split the distance, dragging the resting partner (plus a local DJ who broadcast live from the carriage) and finishing in 4:47:39. Yes, McCormack could barely walk for two days afterward, but his fame was set: For the rest of the summer, quadriceps-obsessed girls trailed the pair, gigglingly commissioning joyrides all evening long. (Winnipeg police also took an interest in the buff, cell-phone-equipped crew. "They figured it was a male prostitution ring," McCormack says.) On a $50 dare a few years later, he lugged nine adults, weighing 1,600 pounds, three blocks. Last year, in search of an endless rickshaw summer, McCormack sold the Winnepeg branch of his six-year-old company, Green Limousine Rickshaws, to set up a 40-runner operation in San Diego's balmier climes. Now 29, McCormack still gets in 15 miles on a good day, enough to maintain muscles that would turn Popeye green-eyed with envy. "One lady passenger told me, 'Those aren't calves; they're cows!'"

Little Patty Giovanniello was marked for greatness as a lifter of all things heavy, most notably refrigerators, sideboards, and credenzas. "My whole growing up, I never knew my own strength," she says. "When I was a baby, my mother said I was holding a baby chick and I squeezed it to death. Terrible things!" After a misguided stint as a secretary, Giovanniello, 31, found the proper outlet for all that brute strength: Amazon Movers, New York's only all-women moving company. Fueled by a breakfast of black coffee, the five-foot-six, 148-pound blond and her crew of sometime actresses and students grunt and strain up and down staircases 75 to 100 times per move — think six-floor tenement walk-up — and tackle as many as three moves a day. Such stairmastering forges formidable arms and legs, but Giovanniello admits, "Moving doesn't do much for your stomach, and some of these girls keep a pretty fat heinie." (After five years of nonstop success, this winter Giovanniello will make some personal moves, relocating to Virginia, where she's toying with the idea of launching a new enterprise: Amazon Plumbers.) Whatever her outlet, she says, "I'm the strongest girl I ever met." Want proof? Giovanniello recently came upon a man who had sunk a tire on his four-door Japanese import deep into a pothole on 96th Street. She strolled over, calmly lifted the one-ton vehicle free, and wordlessly resumed her errands. "I use my power for good!" she laughs.

Swoop the red-tailed hawk may look and act like a hyperactive avian stuffed into a XXXL football jersey, but to Jeff Winegar, the 26-year-old who animates the 15-pound synthetic-fur costume during University of Utah games, Swoop represents not only a free ride to a degree in consumer finance, but a rare opportunity to be the best darn anthropomorphic embodiment of school spirit there is. Go Swoop! In his fledgling season, Swoop soared off with this year's National Mascot Championship, a kudo that's helped him win over alums who were less than revved up about losing Runnin' Ute, the face-painted Indian-impersonator who used to gallop around during halftime, to a politically correct raptor with a three-foot-long tongue. But Winegar, a clean-cut Snowbird ski instructor, recreational cliff-jumper, and sky diver, just doesn't quit once he's zipped in. Running up to two miles per game in the sweltering suit ("More would put just about anyone in the hospital"), he sweats out five to eight pounds as he executes his repertoire of crowd-pleasing stunts: stilt-walking, stair-skiing, sumo-wrestling, even bungee-jumping. Breaks are few and far between, Winegar explains, because the sight of a giant hawk loitering by the sidelines tends to be a big blow to the suspension of disbelief so essential to top-notch mascotry. "You know people are saying, 'Boy, he sucks. That's just a human being in a costume,'" he says. "And that's pretty dumb."

Photographs by Robert Kappa, Sam Walsh, Ty Allison, Daniela Stalinger, and Tyler Gourley

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