Fitness in a Fat City

Liza Levin

Liza Levin

There's a revolution going on in sports, and Memphis doesn't get it. The revolutionary vanguard includes hardcore athletes of all ages whose passion has nothing to do with the Grizzlies, Tigers, Rebels, Vols, or Redbirds. Some of them are relative newcomers to Memphis, bringing fresh ideas and attitudes with them. They're doers, not spectators, and they have better things to do than spend four hours watching — live or on television — professional and college athletes play games in between commercials for beer and pizza. Their fulfillment comes from their own often considerable achievements in sports as varied as basketball, biking, distance running, skateboarding, racquet sports, and yoga.

When it comes to being fitness-friendly, Memphis is working from an outdated top-down model. In the last decade, Memphis has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on facilities, including FedExForum, AutoZone Park, and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Ordinary citizens are encouraged to use them — as ticket-buying fans. Despite a daily barrage of publicity from television and newspaper sports reporters, game attendance has declined drastically at every one of those venues since they opened or were upgraded.

The future of the blighted Mid-South Fairgrounds is being driven largely by the University of Memphis football program and the promoters of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl game and the Southern Heritage Classic. Those three tenants use the stadium a total of nine times a year, and two of them target their marketing to television viewers and visiting teams. Their primary concerns are parking and multi-million-dollar improvements to the 61,000-seat stadium. They have clout with business, government, and the media, and they drown out the voices of potential everyday users of the fairgrounds.

The "big project" mentality also rules downtown. Mud Island River Park is so expensive to operate and so little used that it closes for five months at the end of October. The most popular park on the river for locals is the no-frills Greenbelt Park on Mud Island with its mile of green space, sidewalk, great views, and easy access. Tom Lee Park's signature events are the Beale Street Music Festival and the Memphis in May barbecue contest. Coming soon: The Riverfront Development Corporation is spending more than $30 million on architectural excess and a landing for nonexistent overnight touring boats at the park.

The Memphis Division of Parks Services is struggling to manage a far-flung and outdated collection of golf courses, tennis centers, community centers, swimming pools, and baseball fields that are being closed or cutting their hours, being subcontracted, or turned over to churches and nonprofit organizations. The premier privately operated youth sports facilities in greater Memphis — First Tennessee Fields, Snowden Grove, and the Mike Rose Soccer Complex — are outside the interstate loop. The proposed Kroc Center at the fairgrounds, tied to funding from the Salvation Army, will shoulder some of the sports and fitness load when it opens, but so far no one has turned the first shovel of dirt or done the first bench press since the fund-raising campaign was announced five years ago.

While Memphis adorns the list of America's fattest and unhealthiest cities, suburbs like Collierville, Germantown, Bartlett, Southaven, and Olive Branch are attracting thousands of families, college-educated workers, and sports-minded retirees with public and private fitness centers and sports facilities. Call it fitness flight. In the last four years, Collierville alone has opened a privately operated Life Time Fitness and a Prairie Life center to go with its well-equipped YMCA and public DeSoto Activity Center, which has indoor courts, acres of park trails, ball fields, and lighted tennis courts.

Although Memphis as a city shows little imagination or zest for fitness, Memphians who love playing sports and staying fit are making the best of what they have. Outdoor basketball courts and city streets are their proving grounds, park steps their StairMasters, vacant lots and backyards their skate parks. Some are quietly but persistently pleading for Memphis to focus more on user-friendly parks, bike trails, jogging tracks, boat launches, and gyms that are accessible to all comers. Others are winning regional and national recognition in races and tournaments. The sports they are passionate about are often not the ones they grew up playing in school.

They're hardcore, unsung, and really good.

"A K" calls "Game"

If you call "game" in playground basketball, you better have it. Especially if you're the only white guy on the court, a newbie, and your last name is Stoneking.

"I've heard it all," says Isaac Stoneking, who moved from Florida to Memphis last summer to work for Fidelity Investments.

Searching for an outdoor game on a day when it was about 100 degrees, he got in his old silver Cadillac and drove to Morris Park at Poplar and Manassas. The regulars sized him up, and eventually someone picked him for their team. He's played there several times since. His nickname is "A K," as in AK-47, the handle bestowed on playground gunners, black or white, far and wide.

Stoneking grew up in Arkansas and played high school and AAU basketball but didn't get any college offers. After a while, he went into the Navy, where his shots started going in and his overall game improved. "I played on the best teams with the best players I ever played with. There's a lot of wasted talent in the Navy," he says.

The games were structured, because the Navy can throw you out if you blow up too much and don't follow the rules. Playground baskeball in Memphis has looser rules but rules just the same. Be careful where you park your car and leave your stuff. Take a little trash talk but not too much. Calling "game" gets you the right to play the winners, but you better be good or you'll never get picked by anyone else.

He's seen some interesting things: A crazy woman with a broken wine bottle who threatened everyone until a teen-age girl nearby pulled a knife and backed her down. A guy who lost a game and smashed a beer bottle against the goal, where it shattered and sprayed bits of glass a few feet away from him. A girl who howled in anger when "that white boy" got picked ahead of her. But no guns and no bad fights.

click to enlarge Isaac "A K" Stoneking
  • Isaac "A K" Stoneking

When Stoneking came to visit Memphis, a cop in Overton Park told him the city was a loser and to move somewhere else if he could. He took the job and came anyway. He got an apartment in Midtown. He asked a neighbor where he could play outdoor ball and ignored his warning. Sometimes the hardest test in a sport comes before the game begins.

The 84-Step Fitness Plan

You don't have to join a fitness club to get in great shape. There's the mother of all Memphis StairMasters on the south bluff across from Tom Lee Park that helps urban athletes like Liza Levin stay in shape.

Levin moved to Memphis from San Diego 10 months ago. Her urban workout routine would test a triathlete, and it doesn't cost a cent. She starts with a three-mile run along the riverfront. Then she hits the stairs connecting the bluffwalk to Riverside Drive at Butler Park. She runs the 84 granite steps at least 20 times. (Walking them twice can leave you winded if you're not in shape.) Then she goes home and works with weights. She has noticed that for some reason more people are running the steps during her workouts.

"I was in better shape when I lived in California," says the 43-year-old mother of sons ages 21 and 17.

The Egyptian Magician

Magnets don't always work like they're supposed to. When Rhodes College built two squash courts, the hope was that they might attract some students from the Northeast, where the sport is popular with the prep school set. That didn't happen, but the courts have attracted an international following from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Mohamed Elmeliegy, 27, is from Egypt, which, like Pakistan before it, excels at squash. He's working on a doctorate in pharmacy. His grandfather used to play squash with Egyptian president Hosi Mubarak, and his father taught him to play when he was 8 years old. By the time he was 19, Elmeliegy had a national ranking and was playing with two pros now ranked in the top three in the world. For two years, he trained at a squash academy in Cairo, practicing three times a day for several hours.

Then he hit the wall. Everyone else in his family is a doctor. It was "weird" to face a choice between medicine and a sport in which mid-level pros scratch out a living. When he was playing squash he was thinking about school. One day he quit cold to study pharmacy.

"I overtrained," Elmeliegy says. "When I thought of squash, I associated it with training. It was not fun."

For six years he hardly hit a ball. Then a month ago he joined a group of local players. He was out of shape, had a bum ankle, no equipment, and tired quickly. Fasting for 30 days from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan will do that to you. Half-a-dozen outings later, he was beating the best player in the city. He's the new guy, the Egyptian magician who's enjoying the game again. It takes his mind off school.

The Mentors

You don't need fancy facilities to produce great athletes if you have great mentors like Hosea Hill and William Foster.

For more than 50 years, Hill and Foster helped hundreds of Memphis boys and girls literally run to success on high school cinder tracks, college and Olympic stadiums around the world, and later in their professional lives as doctors, police officers, and businessmen and women.

Hill and Foster both graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in the 1950s. At the old Mid-South Fairgrounds in those days, black athletes ran on a pock-marked cinder track at the Orange Mound side of the grounds, where Libertyland was later built. Hill and Foster helped lead the push for a new track at the stadium on Central and did countless small favors for athletic kids who were poor. For boys, track was a stepping stone to football. For girls, track was a way to be like the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles and Wilma Rudolph.

click to enlarge Aaron Shafer
  • Aaron Shafer

Before there was LeBron, Venus, and Serena, there was Wilma, one of 22 children from a family in Clarksville, Tennessee. In the 1960 Olympic Games, she won three gold medals, and for years after that, if you were young and female and fast, you were "another Wilma."

Thirty years later, a girl at Melrose High School began showing exceptional talent in music and running. Her name was Rochelle Stevens. In the 1996 Olympics, she won a gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay.

"Mr. Hill was a great inspiration to me," says Stevens, who owns Rochelle's Health and Wellness Spa in East Memphis. "He has been in my life since I was 12 years old. I did not know that I was one of his favorites. He would just take the initiative to go out and raise money on my behalf so I could go to the nationals every year. He made sure we were never mistreated on or off the track. I never forgot that."

The Skateboard Evangelist

Dr. Aaron Shafer, a researcher at St. Jude's, is the driving force behind the push for a public skateboarding park in Memphis. The California transplant has been skateboarding since he was 10.

"My first board was one of those small weenie ones that a lot of people broke their wrists on," he says. "I didn't get serious about it until I was 14 and moved to Newport Beach and took up surfing and skateboarding at the same time."

Now 39 years old, he admits he's "probably on the tip of the old new wave of skateboarders who are in their 30s now." He moved to Memphis in 2006 and quietly began talking up anyone who would listen about the personal and civic benefits of a sport he believes has great possibilities as a youth magnet. He has his own skateboard park set up in his backyard.

Shafer estimates there are 500 hardcores and more than 2,000 casual boarders in the Memphis area, but there is no skateboard park inside the city limits. That will change next year when the city's first skate park opens in Glenview Park on the south edge of Midtown.

"It's been a good distraction and confidence booster for me, and I'm confident it will help other kids too. Of course I want a place to skate too," Shafer says.

Mr. Racquetball

Every once in a while, the arc of an athlete's life almost perfectly reflects the arc of their sport. Randy Stafford is one such athlete, and the sport is racquetball.

Racquetball was invented in 1954, the year Stafford was born. By the mid-1970s, it was one of the hottest sports on the planet, and Memphis, with more than 150 courts, was its epicenter. Rich men played it and promoted it. Even Elvis Presley had a court built at Graceland. Memphis also produced a world champion, Andy Roberts. At its peak, the sport claimed to have 14 million players.

Stafford was one of the first people to play racquetball recreationally and professionally, promote it, organize it, write books about it, and build courts all over the world. He is also the sport's unofficial historian and still was winning senior events until a couple of years ago when his knees failed him.

Like the knees of an aging athlete, racquetball is not what it used to be. Its appeal waned, and fitness clubs stocked with half an acre of exercise machines replaced those space-eating, energy-sucking courts that could accommodate, at most, four people at a time. There are about five million players today, but Memphis is still home to racquetball's U.S. Nationals for pros and amateurs, which starts this week at the Racquet Club.

click to enlarge Anthony Siracusa
  • Anthony Siracusa

Bigger racquets and stronger players have made the game so fast that Stafford calls it "bullet ball."

"I don't know that the speed of the game hurt its popularity," he says. "Young people like the speed. It's older players who complain."

Stafford's company, the Court Company, built the portable glass court for the tournament, and he'll be there watching and setting up his history exhibit. His current sport is paddleball, a variant played with a wooden paddle that, fittingly, was played by a lot of seniors 40 years ago.

The Trainers

Recent studies have shown that the most popular professions for college graduates are law, business, and personal training.

Not really, but if you work out regularly, everywhere you go there seems to be a staff of personal trainers. Their methods range from yoga to outdoor boot camps to group training to one-on-one sessions.

Once known as Far Eastern rocket fuel for spiritual blastoff, yoga has migrated to your neighborhood shopping mall, campus, church, and health club.

"It's turning more mainstream," says Karen Moss, owner of Better Bodies Yoga. "More Western medicine is recognizing the benefits of this Eastern philosophy."

It's recession-friendly, too. The only equipment for yoga is a mat. For those who like their yoga hot, there's Bikram Yoga Memphis, where people twist themselves into pretzel shapes in a studio heated to over 100 degrees.

Plain old Memphis outdoor humidity, plus a calming view of the river, is the hook for trainer Staci Chick, who teaches classes for all levels at Greenbelt Park on Mud Island. Other trainers specialize in working with people who need to start running but aren't in good shape and want the benefits of group activity.

Star Ritchey, 35, a trainer at Inbalance Fitness, coached 43 women and 10 men, ages 19 to 58, in the "Couch to 4 Miler" race in September.

"I started it so it would be conducive to true nonrunners," she says.

The first week, the "couchers" ran a total of eight minutes in one-minute intervals. Over eight weeks, the running intervals gradually got longer and the walking intervals shorter. Eighty percent of the group finished the race, the slowest in just over an hour.

"It's about finishing," Ritchey says.

Or, for Memphis, about starting.

Changing the World one Bike at a Time

Anthony Siracusa was riding a bicycle in Frankfurt, Germany, when I caught up with him by e-mail last week. He is in the middle of a one-year bike trip that also will take him to Denmark, the Netherlands, China, Mexico, and Australia. And he's getting paid $25,000 to do it.

The 25-year-old Rhodes College graduate is on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. His quest is to learn the secrets of bike-centered communities, how bike shops and companies are started, and how sporadic bike promotions and bike lanes are sustained.

While Memphis is borderline bike-friendly, Siracusa is trying to improve that. In 2002, he founded Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop, a bicycle repair and recycling shop in the basement of First Congregational Church that aims to "change the world one bicycle at a time."

"Creating a place where folks could build a bike for themselves out of donated, recycled materials certainly created a more diverse, stronger, and more coherent bicycle community, but it also created a vital workspace where anyone and everyone could find a sense of belonging," Siracusa says.

"I developed friends by riding a bicycle, and I became a part of a community that rode together," he continues. "I learned to savor both the built and natural environment on daily rides across the city. As I've grown older, I've come to see the bicycle as a solution to some of our nation's most grave problems, including urban sprawl, oil dependence, bad health, and lack of social integration."

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