These Olympic events may not play in prime time, but by trying them out you could lose weight, get in shape--and have a ton of funBy: Greg Presto
You'll see plenty of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Carmelo Anthony, and Jordyn Wieber on the coverage of the London Games, but there are thousands of athletes participating in medal sports you won't see in prime time. And while you probably already know if you can shoot a basketball (maybe) or swing the uneven bars (maybe not), these lesser-celebrated sports—from fencing to table tennis to trampoline—may be the competitive passion you never knew you were looking for. Unleash your competitive juices, increase your focus, or just get a shirt-soaking new workout by trying one of these six sports.
Related: 10 Fitness-Boosting Secrets from America's Greatest Athletes
In his most difficult routine ever, trampolinist Sean Kennedy completed three twisting triple flips, followed by seven different double flips, each with multiple twists. He completed these 10 tricks without a rest or reset between jumps—and did them while flying more than 30 feet in the air.
Yes, trampoline is an Olympic sport, and Kennedy, a former US national team member and now a coach at The Trampoline Place in Plainfield, CT, says all those flips and twists are the norm.
Competitors have 10 consecutive jumps to perform their sky-high maneuvers, with their score calculated out of a predetermined maximum score based on difficulty.
"[Trampoline] uses different muscles than what you get with other sports," says Kennedy, who played basketball and soccer before taking up the trampoline. (Related: Train different muscles to beat boredom) "You'll use your whole core, and work on stability muscles--if you want to feel those, try standing on one foot and then closing your eyes. See if you can still stand easily."
Achieve that high-flying feeling by finding a facility with rectangular trampolines (they’re better than the kind you could buy for your backyard). From there, you can seat drop--jump up, then come down to land on your butt. You'll bounce back to start, and repeat without stopping.
Once you've done the seat drop 20 to 30 times consecutively, you'll be laughing, sweating, and ready for the next skill--landing on your stomach. On a backyard bouncer or at a gym, do a similar move as you did with the seat drop, only this time, land on your stomach rather than your booty. Return to start, and repeat 20 to 30 times consecutively. From there, Kennedy says, you're ready to tie the tricks together and ultimately move on to twists and flips--either with a coach or at your own risk.
Where to try it: Kennedy says to look for a trampoline center that has a history of working with competitive trampolinists, or at least one with the competition-style trampoline. Search for classes near you or visit USAgym.org to find a representative of the US Trampoline and Tumbling Association in your state.
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"Water polo is like Greco-Roman wrestling in the water," says US National Team member Shea Buckner. Buckner has just finished a four-hour pool workout, and describes his game this way: "It's four 8-minute periods. We sprint 30 meters--the length of the court--as fast as we can, wrestle with another 230-pound guy, and sprint back. Your pulse is always at 180, but you've still got to think critically and act with finesse." (Video: How does a swimmer prepare for the Olympics? Find out.)
With all that swimming, it's no wonder they train for so long. During the day's four-hour pool session, the team practiced shooting and grappling while wearing 15-pound weight belts, swam for more than two hours consecutively, and took shots while straining against resistance bands tied to their waists.
To get a taste for the game, Buckner suggests this simpler pool session: Start by treading water. Sprint the length of the pool as fast as you can. Without touching the wall or the bottom, stop at the other end and tread water for 10 seconds with your hands in the air. Repeat the sprint and the treading. After this second round, rest for 15 seconds. "Do that [complete sequence] 20 times," Buckner says, "and you'll have an idea of what it's like to play water polo."
It's the half of the game spent in the vertical, treading position that gives even competitive swimmers trouble, says Michael Reid, coach of the Manitoba provincial water polo team in Canada, and owner of waterpolotraining.net, where he posts videos and workouts. If you're interested in trying water polo--or even if you just want to tread water more efficiently--try trading your energy-wasting flutter kick for a move more akin to a breaststroke kick, says Reid.
To do this, try treading the water by bringing your knees high and wide--this creates a larger base of support in the water, and helps you move more water. As you move your legs, bring them wide and raise your knees almost all the way to your chest. "For a land-based equivalent," Reid says, "think of the defensive position in basketball or soccer."
This isn't the exact kick used by water polo players--they employ a move called an egg beater--but it can help you stay afloat and save some energy should you try this grueling sport.
Where to try it: Rec leagues form at clubs across the country. Find one by using the search form at https://webpoint.usawaterpolo.com/website/search/SrchClubs.asp
Forrest Gump gave us all a glimpse at the speed and power of international table tennis, but the tournament is nothing compared to the off-the-table training done by the competitors, says Doru Teodor Gheorghe, chief operating officer and performance director for USA Table Tennis.
In a sample circuit workout, Gheorghe says players might move between five or six exercise stations, alternating upper body, lower body, and core movements. They'll work for 10 to 20 seconds for each exercise, breaking for 10 to 15 seconds before moving to the next movement. The entire sequence is repeated six times, and is often followed by three or more miles of running.
Seems like a lot to hit a virtually weightless plastic ball just 10 feet, but the idea, Gheorghe says, is for the players to never get tired during the match. Because when your body starts to slip, you can't make the split-second moves your mind is calling for.
"The moment you don't reach the ball because your legs are getting softer--you don't want that," he says. "If I train hard, I won't get tired. You can then react to his ideas."
Once you've tried their workout to get a new respect for the athletes involved, the basement's still the perfect place to practice getting faster. Gheorghe suggests a 500-ball drill, where a partner throws you 500 balls in a row--fast, consecutively, and all over the place--and you try to hit them all back.
Can't find a partner with 500 throws of patience? Join a local club (details below) or find a lobbing robot, says Gheorghe--as with a tennis lobber, this machine can shoot balls left and right, and will never ask for a turn.
Where to Try It: To find a partner or club near you, search by state at the USA Table Tennis website.
A little more than a year ago, Lewis Howes had never played team handball. This spring, he represented the United States in the Pan-American Games, where the national team was unable to qualify for the London Games.
"It's one of the most fun sports I've ever played--I played football, basketball, baseball, and track in high school," says Howes, also a former professional football player in the Arena league. "If you like a high-pace sport, and you like to run and jump and throw a ball, and you like to be physical and rough, this is a sport for you."
Olympic handball (known in the United States as team handball) isn't the wall-based racquetball cousin you've seen seniors playing in the park. It's more like rugby crossed with basketball, Howes says, a court-based running and throwing shovefest that culminates in 40 or 50 total goals per game.
And because there are so few handball players in the States, it's welcoming to beginners, says fellow national team member Erich Weller. At the Los Angeles Team Handball Club, where Weller plays, "we have guys that play professionally, and we have weekend warriors. You can get a brand-new guy to come out, and there are people at his level. And then he can also learn from the pros while he's there."
One way to overcome a skill deficiency your first time out--have the fitness to run and run and run, says Weller. Before coming to handball, he was a Marine, and his fitness helped him keep up where his skills were lacking. For Howes, CrossFit helps him stay conditioned for the game.
A background in basketball can help new players understand spacing and passing, says Michael Tilton, coach of the West Point handball team, where he must turn athletes who have never played into competitive players quickly. But the style of dribbling we grew up with--rolling our hands over the ball to control it--is illegal in handball.
"It's more of a 1950s-style basketball dribble. You have to have a flat palm," says Tilton, who is also an assistant coach for the national team. It's a tough habit to break, and crossing people over can be tough, so he discourages dribbling in favor of lots of swinging passes. "The offensive idea is to work the ball in a semicircular motion. At the end of the ball movement, you want to create a two-on-one."
Another skill that's a little different is throwing, Tilton says. Unlike in baseball or football, a big windup's a hindrance.
"If you wind it up, everyone in the gym knows where you're shooting it," he says. He encourages new players to keep the ball high and near their ear, where they're always in a position to shoot quickly. "If you see a good college quarterback who is turned sideways, he takes the snap and puts the ball immediately by his ear. [In handball,] you want to catch the ball up high, and keep your eyes towards the goal. That way, you're always a threat to score."
Where to try it: If you're in Southern California, you can drop in on Weller and company at the Los Angeles club. For those elsewhere, Tilton suggests contacting Mariusz Wartalowicz, the technical director for USA Team Handball. While many websites for the sport are out of date, Wartalowicz tracks the active American clubs, and can point potential players to a new spot to play. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
It's not the most physically demanding sport at the Games, but a round of archery--like a round of golf--will test your patience and ability to stay calm, skills every office worker could use.
"It's very calming for my mother. She says it's zen-like," says Lindsey Carmichael, a Paralympic archer in both Athens and Beijing, winning a bronze medal during the 2008 Games. Though the sport isn't calming for her, she sees its mental benefits. "It's great for helping with discipline. It's great for thinking positively, and helps with anything having to do with concentration."
Though fitness can help an archer stay consistent--competitors must stand and shoot hundreds of arrows during a tournament--Carmichael says a positive, persistent personality can make anyone a great archer.
And while the sport may not burn away love handles, it can help you meet new friends.
"There's a wonderful emphasis on sportsmanship in archery," Carmichael says of the sport's welcoming culture. "If you're at a tournament and your equipment fails … everyone steps forward to help. Even your direct competitors will put together their backup equipment to help."
Where to Try It: There's an archery shop just a Bing away (search for one in your area), but Carmichael says to find one that has some experience with tournament or competitive archery if you're looking for help with technique. She also suggests contacting Junior Olympic Archery Development at http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Archery/Programs/Junior-Olympic-Archery-Development.aspx. Even if you're not a junior, "a JOAD coach is likely to know what's available in our area for adults and different styles of archery," she says.
When Halim Haryanto slams a birdie, the rubber-and-feathers shuttlecock flies into his competitor's zone at more than 150 mph…and that's much slower than his hits as a professional a decade ago, he says.
"It's a really good sport. You have to use all of your body, all of the time," says Haryanto, a 2001 world champion who now coaches at Bay Badminton Center in Milpitas, CA. "You have to chase the bird. But you're also always thinking--how to beat my opponent."
Competitive badminton--like competitive table tennis--injects a classic rec game with blistering speed and power. Watching a Malaysian, Thai, Korean, or Chinese match on an off-brand TV network is to witness a wave of crowd sounds that ooh and aah with every smash and lob across the 44-foot court. These matches are riveting to watch, and can easily be found on YouTube, though Haryanto suggests trying the game before you watch.
"If you watch, maybe the beginner will think it's too hard to play," he says. "But everyone can play and everyone can enjoy it."
Where to Try It: You don't need your own equipment to start. Just use the club directory at the USA Badminton website.
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