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Golden opportunities: 4 ways to train like an Olympian

July 25, 2012|By Piet Levy | For RedEye

Every four years, a handful of fairly obscure sports seize the spotlight for a short time in the Olympics. In the meantime, you might be tuning in and thinking, "I want to do that." Well, if you know where to look, you can live the dream! In a manner of speaking that is. As the Games kick off in London this week, you can have your own Olympic-style experiences, be it in adult gymnastics, fencing, field hockey or team handball.


When Juliet Petrus woke up on a recent Thursday, she didn't expect to find herself tumbling about at Lakeshore Academy of Artistic Gymnastics.

The 33-year-old opera singer from the South Loop had intended to try a tap dancing class that night. But after watching a viral video of 86-year-old German gymnast Johanna Quaas, Petrus decided to revisit gymnastics, a sport she abandoned when she was 14 after hurting herself in a trampoline accident.

"I didn't think there'd be any adult gymnastics classes. I usually [associate gymnastics] with 12-year-olds in sequined unitards," she said. "But it's really great when you walk in and you smell the chalk and the sweat. It all comes back."

Petrus held her own at a class whose students ranged from novices who struggled to stick landings to 17-year-old Ikayla Gregory, who dazzled with gravity-defying flips.

The adult class ($20 per session or $100 per month), taking place Tuesdays and Thursday evenings this summer, has been a Lakeshore staple for 35 years, said instructor Jeremiah O'Connor, who used to dance in the Joffrey Ballet.

"It's an opportunity for coaches to use the facility to maintain their skills, and people who have a background in gymnastics to be able to continue," said O'Connor, 45, a Lakeshore instructor for 16 years. "I find some adults want to explore some desires they had as children they didn't have an opportunity to discover."

For 26-year-old Matt Zimmerman, a loan originator from Lakeview, gymnastics was originally a way for the high school diver to stay in shape in the offseason. After breaking both his arms on separate occasions, he got out of gymnastics in 2004 before joining the Lakeshore class three months ago at a friend's insistence.

"There's a little bit of risk, but there's a lot of reward," Zimmerman said. "You don't realize you're working out; you're just having a good time."


Eliza, Robert and Gracie Stone share more than blood and a family name. The Hyde Park residents are all Princeton University students and award-winning saber fencers. Collectively, they've amassed around 70 medals since they were children.

"It's often called physical chess," said Eliza, 21. "When you're fencing, you have to decide what you are going to do in a split second. You have 20 different options."

"More like 100 different options," said Gracie, 18.

When in Chicago, the Stones are students at the Midwest Fencing Academy under the tutelage of Hristo Etropolski, 53, who competed in the 1980 and 1988 Olympics for Bulgaria. His academy offers classes weekdays for $20 per session for casual members (equipment provided) to $200 monthly for academy membership (students bring their own equipment), said Etropolski's wife and club manager Patrycja Matuszczak, 33.

Robert Stone, 20, got into saber fencing because it most closely resembled sword fights he'd seen in movies, but there are two other kinds of fencing in the Olympics and available in Chicago.

Foil fencing, the form most start with, is taught at RedStar Fencing Club. The club offers classes for beginner and advanced fencers, with prices ranging from $80 for four classes a month up to $265 for monthly membership and a weekly private lesson, coach Peter Habala said.

The third type of fencing uses the épée. "The weapon is like a modern rapier," Habala said.

Jeffrey Sherman, a 34-year-old computer programmer from Lincoln Square, said he initially pursued épée in 1992 because "you didn't need to be that physically fit … I was 40 pounds overweight." (He has since dropped 30 pounds.) He said club membership was too expensive in New York City, where he lived after college, but his membership as part of the Chicago Fencing Club costs only $40 a month.

"I thought I would be road kill," Sherman said of getting back into fencing in 2010. "But with the weight loss, I'm in so much better shape, I'm a pretty decent competitor."


Under the bright lights at a Northwestern University field on a recent Tuesday, the approximately 50 women of the Windy City Field Hockey open adult league are in a constant state of movement in side-by-side scrimmages. One exception is 20-year-old Kenilworth native Meredith Rowe, an incoming junior at Middlebury College in Vermont, sitting on the sidelines with an ice pack against her head.

"It was a ball to the face," she explained. "It hit me in the left cheek under my eye, which was really lucky."

Just a few days later, sporting a shiner, Rowe was back on the field.

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