Michigan's Great Indoors

As the bright autumn days fade and air temps drop, ice rinks, heated pools and gyms start pulling exercise buffs inside. But southeast Michigan offers a lot more than tromping on treadmills or wielding weights at the gym; there's a panoply of offbeat pursuits to please the mind, body, and competitive desire – brute strength not required.

My turn, Grandpa

Long associated with lazy summer afternoons and elderly Italian men sipping table wine, bocce has become a year-round sport that has attracted a new generation of players. More a game of strategy (and hand eye coordination) than brawn, bocce has been around since early Rome. Though rules can vary, play comprises two to four people rolling or tossing 4½ inch bocce balls down a 12 x 86 foot court in an attempt to land nearest the pallino (a golf ball-sized ball). Similar to bowling, bocce lends itself to relaxed play and socializing.

But national champion player Jason Wisniewski says the game is built on strategy. "You have to play some defense and some offense," he explains. "There's not always one shot that can be done. It depends on who you're playing against and where the pallino is."

Anthony Battaglia, a former national bocce champion, opened the Palazzo di Bocce in 2004. The 32,000 square foot grand edifice, located in Orion, has 10 indoor courts, a full-service restaurant, and true to the social aspects of bocce, two full service bars. Wisniewski, its manager of bocce, says the palazzo is unique to this area and a premier world venue. It hosted the world championships in 2005, and "all of the countries said it was one of the best bocce facilities they had ever been to." Let the palazzo's promotion of the sport continue: the Battaglia Bocce Invitational, held every October, fields teams from all over the USA, Canada, Italy, and Brazil.

Palazzo di Bocce offers a versatile learning experience for all – from international and competitive league players to couples out for dinner and romance with a little game rolled in.

A need for speed

If you're in search of something a bit zippier than lawn bowling, harness up and pull onto the area's only indoor go-kart track, Kart 2 Kart in Sterling Heights. But there's no rest for the fearless – 10 to 15 mini-cars at a time zoom up to 40 miles an hour around the 20 foot wide, ¼ mile looping indoor track.

Do you have dreams of being Michigan's version of Richard Petty, Mario Andretti or Ricky Bobby? In the grand heritage of motor sports, go-karting is the starting line. Most NASCAR and Formula One drivers started their careers in go-karts, explains Aaron Bambach, Kart 2 Kart's general manager. He says the same principles involved in high performance auto racing --such as carrying the most speed around a corner without sliding and being careful not to over-slow the car-- are applicable to the go-kart track.

And athleticism helps tame the manic machines. "These karts are a handful. You're always using your shoulders, arms, and back to steer the kart," Bambach describes. "You feel up to two Gs of force going around the corner, pushing on your sides and pushing your knees over. At the same time, steering and holding that body in a straight-up position, keeping your head and neck straight. It just challenges your body against those forces, left to right, pretty violently back and forth." Piloting a go-kart is like riding a rollercoaster – intensified because you're in control.

Get a leg up

After months of frigid winds and overcast skies, Michiganders start climbing the walls. So, why not burn some energy while you're at it? Planet Rock climbing gyms in Pontiac and Ann Arbor offer world class climbs in temperature-controlled facilities.

In 1994, owner and former gymnast Nick Cocciolone and his wife Andrea designed and built the area's first gym to train for competition in the full-body sport of rock climbing. Now, with two facilities, Planet Rock provides 38,000 square feet of 50-55 foot high climbing wall space. Cocciolone claims the newer Ann Arbor location --with 24,000 square wall feet-- is second-largest in the U.S.A..

For a region notorious for its lack of elevation, the mid-west, primarily Michigan, boasts the third largest climbing community in the country, according to the number of people registered with USA Climbing. Cocciolone attributes this to the 88,000 people that have played hard in his gyms. Planet Rock offers comprehensive instruction and access to the three branches of climbing: bouldering, top roping, and lead climbing. And if you're preparing for adventure racing or just want the know-how, try ascending, rappelling, and the Tyrolean Traverse.

While competitions are rocking – Planet Rock just hosted the youth national championships (the largest indoor competition in the world)– Cocciolone describes the climbing culture as pretty laid-back. "Wherever you go, you're climbing at the maximum potential for you. Yeah, it's kind of an individualistic sport like gymnastics, but you're relying on a partner to hold your rope so there's a huge amount of trust involved."

In what he calls a game of "vertical chess", the gyms mix up hundreds of constantly changing routes with all manner of handholds, slopes, and ledges. Myriad challenges exist, as the moves are not repetitive. "It involves the entire body and is based more on technique than strength," he says, adding, "you can progress a lot faster by just learning how to use your feet and hips and stuff, as opposed to doing some weight regimen to get physically stronger. … You don't need to do pull-ups to climb."

Cocciolone also takes his climbers to the big rocks outdoors – West Virginia's New River Gorge  and California's Yosemite National Park are his favorites. Locally, he advises heading west of Lansing to Grand Ledge to top a 20-30 foot high, 400 foot long cliff lining the Grand River.

En garde!

But maybe you need something a little more swashbuckling… or just plain lethal.

"It's one of the sports that everyone's heard of but no one's really seen," says Todd Dressell, founder of Troy-based Renaissance Fencing and head fencing coach at University of Detroit-Mercy.

Derived from ancient combat, fencing is one of the original four sports included in every modern Olympic Games since 1896, according to the United States Fencing Association (USFA). "We're not necessarily something that comes out of the Renaissance festival, with silly clothes on and swinging from chandeliers," Dressell emphasizes. "It's a serious sport with a serious sport culture to it."

Ask any beginner and they're bound to offer their burning quads and hamstrings as proof. Fencing's combination of squatting and lunging lends itself to very strong legs and lower body while developing balance, timing, and grace, Dressell explains.

Opponents clad in masks and protective white uniforms brandish one of three weapons – epee, foil, or saber – in a simulation of a duel, called a bout. The aim is to score touches on a sparring partner in a series of attack and defense moves. Bouts are fought on a 6 x 44 foot strip – reminiscent of battling in confined quarters such as a castle hallway, according to the USFA.

Dressell claims it's a thrill to watch because, "you have that sense of individual combat. Fencers are famous dramatists. Their behavior on the strip is usually designed to pump themselves up and get a favorable call from the referee."

Renaissance Fencing gives instruction for people of all ages and skill levels and open fencing time for its 100 regular members. Practitioners range from those suiting up for year-round local competitions to those dressing for a show of strategy and a fab workout.

Tanya Muzumdar is a regular contributor to metromode. Read her previous metromode article In Pfizer's Wake


Climbing at Planet Rock - Pontiac

Bocce at the Palazzo di Bocce - Orian

Rapelling at Planet Rock - Pontiac

Go-carting at Kart 2 Kart - Sterling Heights

Fencing (courtesy of istock)

Photographs by Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved
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