Sports Town, U.S.A. Its San Diego

In participant sports, you name it, San Diego has it. Exertion for fitness and fun is now so pervasive in this sun-kissed city that the lazy have become pariahs
December 25, 1978

Go anywhere," said Steve Cushman, gesturing expansively as he jogged around a palm-fringed lagoon. "Go up to Mount Soledad, down to the Embarcadero or out to Crystal Pier. Go anywhere in San Diego, anywhere, stop for a moment, make one complete 360-degree turn, and if you don't see at least two dozen people engaged in a minimum of three different sports, well, it's either four o'clock in the morning or you've taken the wrong turnoff and ended up in Tijuana."

Cushman, a former minor league pitcher, recreation leader, racquetball promoter, exercise physiologist, soccer coach, tennis ace, weight lifter, bowling hustler, marathoner and guide to the city's sporting life, does not jest. He doesn't slow down, either. Taking him at his word, a winded visitor accompanying him on a running tour of Mission Bay Park, a 4,600-acre playground that is just a brisk jog from downtown San Diego, gladly stopped, turned full circle and duly noted not a few dozen but several thousand people at play.

Along with countless swimmers, sail surfers, water skiers and jet skiers, the waters were brimming with an armada of pleasure craft: kayaks, sloops, sculls, cabin cruisers, pontoon barges, paddle boats, catboats, catamarans, hydroplanes, hydrofoils—you name it, it was afloat and moving. Ashore, scattered across 27 miles of bayfront that meanders around a maze of coves, peninsulas and islands, park-goers were bicycling, skateboarding, fishing, practicing karate, sailing Frisbees, batting whiffleballs and playing badminton, volleyball, kickball and touch football. And everywhere there were joggers, including one fast-stepping woman towing a tot on roller skates.

"Slow day," said Cushman, pausing between deep knee bends to explain that on peak days the park attracts 80,000 persons, nearly two million a year. "But you get the idea. San Diego is a year-round sports festival."

Like many San Diegans, Cushman is a transplant from the North, one of the thousands of Americans who each year migrate to the subtropical coastal city that has become a mecca for anyone interested in participant sports, physical fitness and the great outdoors. Oh, the collective pulse rate of the jog-happy residents of Eugene, Ore. or Gainesville, Fla. may be a tad lower. Per capita there may be more backpackers in Denver, more canoeists in Minneapolis. But for sheer numbers of participants, diversity of pursuits and intensity of involvement, San Diego must rank as the sports and fitness capital of the U.S.

If there be any doubters, let them follow the streams of people who pour out of City Hall and downtown offices at noontime and hoof it to nearby Balboa Park for group jogging sessions; judges and lawyers over there, secretaries to the left, dentists to the right.

Balboa Park is a hilly green oasis of 1,158 acres that not only encompasses one of the nation's finest zoos but also the facilities to host a participant sports Olympics. Each week some 8,000 tennis players make use of the park's 25 courts, while a like number crowds its field house and two gymnasiums for table tennis (8,000 players a year), badminton (2,000 players a week) and volleyball (55 teams).

Along with two municipal golf courses, there is a wooded 18-hole layout for the latest rage, disk golf, which is played with a Frisbee. In addition, the park has archery ranges, lawn-bowling greens, shuffleboard courts, horseshoe pits, a casting pond, a football stadium and 10 athletic fields for everything from flag football (600 teams) to youth and adult soccer (350 teams). That plus a new velodrome that will host trials for the 1980 Pan-Am Games.

The fruits of all this energy are enshrined in the park's cultural complex, a cluster of neo-Moorish and Spanish rococo buildings that were erected for two world expositions. There, amid the art and science museums, is the Hall of Champions, "a living monument to the American way of life...created to honor our sons and daughters who have brought fame and glory to San Diego County."

One may view the memorabilia of baseball greats Ted Williams and Don Larsen, pro football's Lance Alworth and Ron Mix, boxer Archie Moore, Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick, Wimbledon queens Maureen Connolly and Karen Hantze, and golfers Billy Casper, Mickey Wright and Gene Littler. Not to mention former world-record holder Bud Held (javelin) and Olympic gold medalists Billy Mills (10,000 meters) and Lowell North (sailing).

If any skeptics remain, like the man says, let them go anywhere in the city and stop and look around. For example, on a back road leading to the University of California, San Diego, one can see regally attired equestrians on one side, while on the other motorcycles, dune buggies and comical all-terrain vehicles skitter across the hills like jackrabbits.

Near the Salk Institute, on an oceanfront bluff overlooking Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course, all seems tranquil until—vroom!—a single-engine plane jounces across a field and takes off with a glider in tow. A port for sailplanes and gliders within a city's limits is rare enough, but even more so is the spectacle of hang gliders soaring off the same 400-foot sandstone cliff as the sailplanes, while far below, as far as the eye can see, surfboarders ride the rollers and strings of joggers take in the stunning scenery, which includes a group of nudists playing soccer at Black's Beach.

There is no escaping the San Diego sports scene. Plunge into the translucent waters off La Jolla, a deluxe community encircling a Riviera-like cove of sculptured rocks and caves, and there seem to be as many skin and scuba divers exploring the reefs as fish, for here too is an exquisite playground, called the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park.

Though the city has 249 other parks and playgrounds, any open expanse is fair game. On weekends when the Chargers or Padres are not at home, the parking lot of San Diego Stadium is shared by drag-strippers and the handicapped, who hold downhill and slalom wheelchair races in four classes (stock, modified, unlimited and electric). Even amateur ice hockey is flourishing in balmy San Diego; the demand for ice time at the five rinks is such that some teams have to practice at 2 a.m.

The catalogue goes on and on: stock-car racing, go-karting, sky diving, ballooning, 21 sports-car clubs, 350 yacht races, 1,500 bowling leagues. Jim Dillon, editor-publisher of the monthly San Diego Sports Digest, sums up the myriad happenings as "unbelievable. For a jock—and I don't know anyone here who isn't—living in San Diego is like being on an eternal vacation."

The reasons for the city's preeminence as Sports Town, U.S.A. are several. First and foremost is the climate. The average temperature is 68° in summer and 57° in winter. The average annual rainfall is a modest 10 inches. One result is that there are more golf courses (72 at last count) and more tennis courts (1,200) in San Diego County than there are in many states. There are no real sports seasons; at any given time of the year more than 1,000 softball teams are in action. "We get seasons here," says one native. "May and June are our cloudy months."

As if having the mighty Pacific for a front yard were not blessing enough, nature has also endowed San Diego with the kind of topography that most sportsmen know only from travel brochures. Its grandeur is best perceived from the Cabrillo National Monument, a craggy promontory on Point Lorna that is the most southwesterly point in the U.S. To the south can be seen the five-mile sweep of a sandspit called the Silver Strand, which is crowned by the Hotel del Coronado, a magnificent old (1888) gingerbread castle that is a sports center unto itself. To the north is the teeming sandbox of Mission Beach, with its promenades patrolled by hundreds of roller skaters and bicyclists. And that is but a mere glimpse of the surfside action, because the county has 70 miles of public beach, nearly half of all the public ocean-front in the state of California.

Turning east, the evidence for San Diego's promotion of itself as "America's Finest City" unfolds in a vast panorama. First, framed by skyscrapers and the protective arms of the Silver Strand and Point Loma, is hook-shaped San Diego Bay, pronounced "one of the world's finest harbors" by the Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo when he happened upon it in 1542. On weekends, when the city's entire fleet of 15,000 pleasure craft seemingly is under way, when charter boats are heading out for marlin, albacore and yellow-tail, the bay resembles a seagoing freeway at rush hour.

Beyond the bay, the land rises to foothills and mesas creased by canyons and broad valleys, climbs to the 6,000-foot peaks of the Laguna Mountains and then drops sharply to a desert floor that extends through the 550,000-acre Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

The Lagunas, which are snow-capped in winter and only a 40-minute drive from the ocean, offer picturesque cross-country skiing through hills dotted with old gold-mining towns and mountain wineries. But members of the city's eight skiing clubs are inclined to drive more than two hours to Big Bear and other ski resorts in the Sierra Nevada. Nonetheless, there is no disclaiming—or suppressing—the repeated boast of San Diegans that they can go surfing in the morning, snow skiing in the afternoon, have a picnic supper in the desert and still be back in time for a game of racquetball before the 11 o'clock news.

All told, the accessibility of such varied terrain—tide-land lagoons, hot springs, mountain forests, painted deserts—affords a range of activities not ordinarily associated with a seaside tourist haven. For the 4,700 members of the San Diego Sierra Club, the city is a base camp for hiking, canoeing, rock climbing and mountaineering forays. There is a duck-hunting season on city-owned lakes, and trout and bass fishing in the county's 12 inland lakes. Pheasant and quail abound in the high meadows, and farther on in the "back country" there are also deer, bear, bobcat, bighorn sheep and mountain lion.

As the final proof that Somebody Up There likes them, citizens point out that San Diego is roughly 150 miles south of the San Andreas Fault and has never suffered a damaging earthquake. "Would you believe that San Diego is the center of the universe?" says Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala, a psychiatrist and the author of The Joy of Running.

So many folks do that the city has become something of an endangered locality. After all, it is a metropolis, the ninth-largest city in the U.S. But not so anyone would notice, its 797,000 citizens being spread out over 323 square miles as compared to New York's 7.6 million over 332 square miles and Chicago's three million over 223. A big small town, as they say.

Still, with 40,000 new residents pouring into the county each year, and as one of the few major cities still gaining in population, San Diego is feeling the crunch. That it hasn't already succumbed to death by affection is a result of a happy mix of luck, laissez-faire and what Neil Morgan, a columnist for the Evening Tribune, calls the "accumulative failures of the Establishment for a century."

Yes, in its perverse way, history too has been uncommonly kind to San Diego. In 1887 a flood caused the terminus of the second transcontinental railroad to be diverted to Los Angeles. At the turn of the century, San Diego figured to be the state's major port, with its superb natural harbor, until Los Angeles built an artificial one in 1911 and attracted most of the shipping. Then in the 1920s San Diego was supposed to be the western anchor of the first southern transcontinental highway, but once again upstart L.A. won that distinction.

"Naturally, with all those failures—shipping, railroads, highways—San Diego couldn't attract much industry," says Morgan. "For years this kept the city free of pollution and overcrowding. Now we have industry and tourism, but the things people did wrong in the past have helped make this a golden place."

Left to prosper in their own sweet time, San Diegans did much that was right. As early as 1868, when the citizenry numbered only 2,301, officials had the foresight to set aside the tract of "pueblo land" that became Balboa Park.

At the end of World War II, when San Diego was still known as a Navy and retirees' town, voters passed the bond issue that allowed Mission Bay to be dredged and transformed into the world's largest aquatic park. Subsequently, two resort islands were built in San Diego Bay and the glittering esplanade of Coronado was linked to the city by a curving two-mile bridge of such ethereal design that it seems to float across the water like a thruway to Oz.

A wizard was needed, however, to accommodate a population that has nearly tripled in the past three decades. And so in 1971 Pete Wilson was elected mayor on the strength of his pledge to ward off "Los Angelization, the reckless, uncontrolled and costly sprawl and rapid degeneration of our prize environment." With a few exceptions, Wilson's campaign to control growth and attract only "environmentally acceptable" industry has so far been largely successful. Congestion is under rein, air pollution is relatively minor and the bays are untainted.

Another Wilson pledge, "to make San Diego the fitness capital of America," was a cinch if only because many of the new arrivals are unreconstructed jocks. Every other person one meets in San Diego these days is either an ex-linebacker who's into boogie-boarding, a tai-chi convert or the push-up champion of Davenport, Iowa—or all three, for rare is the Diegan who is not at least a triple threat.

Which is precisely why Dr. Mark Shipman, a psychiatrist who is establishing a center for the study of leisure time, selected San Diego as the ideal city in which to live and pursue his research. "In New York and other big cities," he says, "there are lots of people who are terrified of having 'time to kill.' But in San Diego no one has to ask what to do with themselves. You get here and you just want to go outdoors and run or swim or, yes, go fly a kite. This is where people come to prove that staying alive doesn't have to be work, it can be fun."

Shipman, a marathoner, says that "for decades the formula has been 20 years of education to prepare for 20 years of production to prepare for 20 years of dying. Well, San Diego attracts the kind of risk-taking people who defy that routine by living their lives out all the way. In a very real sense, San Diego is America's last frontier."

The effect is far-reaching. Indeed, if all of Southern California is a pilot project, as one critic asserts, then San Diego is a preview of what America's passion for participant sports bodes for tomorrow. The most obvious result is a new strain of athlete whom the flabbies like to call "fitness freaks."

Take Patti Hurl, an aerobics dance teacher and the wife of a San Diego fireman. Last year she ran six miles on a Monday, had her second daughter on Tuesday and was back running again on Sunday, albeit "gingerly." Far from a burden, she found that "running through pregnancy was a great training aid."

An even better aid, she says, is running while pushing one of her children in a stroller, which she has done off and on for two years and a total of 1,500 miles. At last year's Balboa Park Eight Mile Run, at least one man dropped out when she whirled by him on a steep hill, pulling the stroller behind her. "I couldn't get a baby-sitter that day," says Hurl, who averaged eight minutes a mile despite her handicap. She says, "I do more than I have to for health's sake because, well, I guess some of us area little fanatic."

The Patti Hurls are legion and they indicate that the great American fitness race is more than a craze; in prototypical San Diego, it has become a way of life. The movement also has an open-air cathedral, a grassy hillock in Mission Bay Park where each Sunday at 8 a.m., 500 or more of the faithful assemble for the San Diego Marathon Clinic. Started in 1974 by Thaddeus Kostrubala, who says that he was a "fat, anxious, discontented psychiatrist" before he came to San Diego in 1971 and was born again through running, and a few friends who met at his home for jogalongs, the sessions became so popular that they were soon moved to the park and opened to all comers.

There, on a recent Sunday, clinic director Austin (Ozzie) Gontang chatted amiably while directing stretching exercises ("C'mon, enjoy the pain"), then turned the congregation over to group leaders who conducted runs of varying distances up to 25 miles. Newcomers were invited to sit beneath the "beginner's tree," where Peter Saccone, a junior high school English teacher, began his lively 60-minute sermon on the joys of jogging by saying, "All of you are an experiment of one."

No Sunday school was ever more upbeat. Which is only fitting, says Kostrubala, a leader of a new branch of mental health that promotes jogging as a form of natural psychotherapy. Based on his own experiences on the jogging trails, during which he shed 60 pounds and "plugged into a new area of the unconscious," in 1973 he began treating his patients while jogging alongside them for one hour, three times a week. The workouts, he says, produce "psychologically catalytic" changes that help integrate mind and body. He has found the technique effective in treating depression, drug addiction and schizophrenia. Kostrubala, who recently moved to the mountain resort town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. to be closer to nature, concludes, "Modern man is a running animal in a poorly run zoo."

In her new book, The Psychic Power of Running, Valerie Andrews argues that weekend clinics like San Diego's "could well be the basis for the nation's first grass-roots movement in community mental health."

"What's happening," says Gontang, a marriage counselor who also practices therapy-on-the-run, "is that people are getting in touch with themselves. They're expressing their individuality in a megasociety and getting a sense of self-confidence. They ask themselves, 'If I can run 26 miles, what else can I do?' Forget the Bionic Man and Wonder Woman. People are plugging in to some energy they never knew they had and they've become their own heroes."

Neither age nor sex is a barrier to participation, as Laura Dodge can well assert. She ran her first marathon at age seven and now, a seasoned veteran of 11 who logs 45 miles a week, she would no more miss a workout than she would Young Athlete. If she does lay off, she says, she gets fat, and these days a girl has got to watch her figure.

Noel Johnson, alias Battlin' Johnson, now boxes under the nickname of Baby Blue Eyes. "My gal friend named me that," he says. He also runs, lifts weights and plays tennis. Trouble is, at 79 he has trouble finding opponents worthy of challenging his title of world senior boxing champion.

A pro fighter in the 1920s, Johnson retired from his job as a machinist when he was 64, and at 70, he says, "I was nil, drinking too much beer, 35 pounds overweight and I couldn't run 100 feet." Fearing for his health, he began jogging and two years later ran the first of his two races up Pikes Peak. Each Thanksgiving he and four friends in their 60s run a relay race from Hollywood to Las Vegas, a distance of 300 miles.

Between his daily workouts, Baby Blue Eyes is finishing a book on how he became "the healthiest, the toughest and best-looking man my age in the world. Everyone just loves the title: A Dud at 70, a Stud at 80."

Much of the credit for the city's focus on fitness must go to Drs. Fred Kasch and John Boyer and their pioneering work in exercise therapy. Kasch, head of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at San Diego State, has been conducting adult fitness classes for more than 20 years. Symbolic of his contribution is the huge clock on the tower above his exercise complex. Lighted at night, it has only a single sweep hand so that joggers circling in the dark a quarter of a mile away can check their pulse rates.

Boyer's charges can be seen trudging around a field adjoining the Alvarado Community Hospital. Closely monitored, they are in fact running for their lives. All are heart-disease victims, or have had heart attacks or heart surgery; they are outpatients who only a few years ago would have been bedridden or hospitalized. "The emphasis is on healing and getting stronger every day," says Janet Edwards, the program director. Jack Sardo, a 48-year-old bricklayer who suffered a heart attack last year, agrees. He recently took time out from the program to run his first marathon.

Credit too must go to the San Diego Track Club for what Bill Gookin describes as "bringing sports back to the people." Gookin, one of the SDTC's founders, says that a decade ago the club decided to end the elitism of sponsoring a few dozen top athletes and to encourage anyone with a pair of sneakers to join. The first everyman's track club of any size, its ranks grew from 100 to 1,500 and other major clubs around the country soon followed its lead.

Another SDTC stalwart, attorney Dave Pain, struck the first blow for gray liberation. It happened 13 years ago when he found that at 43 he was a middle-distance runner with nowhere to compete. "The only thing I could do was create my own event," he says. So he did just that at a local track meet in 1967. Under Pain's leadership, that first mile developed into an international masters program, a full range of 20 track and field events in nine over-40 age groups.

At last year's World Veterans Championships in Göteborg, Sweden, which drew 5,000 athletes from 50 nations, one of the standouts was San Diego's Win McFadden, the Bruce Jenner of the 70-and-over set. A top collegiate cross-country runner in 1926, McFadden had been "out of action" for more than 40 years when Pain launched the masters program. Rolling back the decades, McFadden, 73, a retired landscape gardener, went into training and in 1970 he won the national over-70 pentathlon championship. Currently he holds the world record for the triple jump in his age group and ranks among the top five in the 110-meter hurdles, 200-meter dash, high jump, long jump and discus.

"My high-jump mark [4'3"] should improve a lot," says McFadden, "because I've just about perfected this newfangled technique." He calls it the McFadden Flop.

The impact of this sweaty activity on the city's life-style is everywhere apparent. Standing in lines at supermarkets or the movies, people spontaneously start doing stretching exercises. Warmup suits have become status symbols, and it is not uncommon for suburbanites to get togged out in their "dress sweats" for cocktail parties. And invariably these social gatherings tend to divide, with the jocks on one side of the room and the smokers and heavy eaters on the other.

"There really is a body-beautiful culture here," says Mary Duncan, head of the recreation department at San Diego State. "If you're overweight, smoke and aren't suntanned, you risk something very close to ostracism." As one T shirt slogan warns, STAY FIT, OR STAY INSIDE.

"Our entire social life is geared around people who work out," says Jerry Vickers, a Pacific Southwest Airlines pilot who swims 2,000 meters daily with his wife Sandra. "We seldom go to parties where people smoke and booze it up anymore. It's not snobbism, it's just that we don't have anything in common with them except that they're people. Sandra and I have the neatest marriage, and I know it's because we're in shape."

When his first wife died a few years ago, Vickers says, "Swimming was the only thing that got me through it. It's a real safety valve. If you want to put your head in the water and scream, no one will hear you. You just watch those black lines and forget."

As participant sports have developed apace in San Diego, two dominant themes have evolved. The first, quite simply, is that everybody takes part. Rare is the event that doesn't have categories for both sexes, all ages and, many times, professions. Sandy Lo Presto, a bartender at the Westgate Hotel, has helped teach 420 blind persons to water-ski. Renè Regalot, the city's fitness director, holds classes in which preschoolers wield miniature barbells and senior citizens do side-straddle hops. And while it has been said that jogging is a largely middle-class phenomenon, two months after 11,000 runners poured over the Coronado Bridge in the Heart of San Diego Marathon and 10,000-meter run, another 800 poured under it in the annual Barrio Run. A race that winds through the Mexican-American section, it ended in Chicano Park, where there were mariachi bands and enough jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o peppers and hot sauce to fuel the jets taking off from Lindbergh Field.

The second dominant theme is fitness and fun first, competition and the star system second. The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, the sponsor of Over-the-Line (beach softball) tournaments, wouldn't have it any other way. OTL rules are simple, equipment is minimal (bat, ball and case of Bud) and strategy cunning (e.g., mousetraps buried in the sand). OMBAC refuses to clean up the, er, risquè names of the teams for national TV, and spurns commercialism at every turn lest it ruin the whoopee spirit of the game. OMBAC's headquarters is the nearest bar, which usually means the Beachcomber, a lively sports den presided over by a pair of pro wrestlers. Yet for all its roustabout ways, OMBAC is in fact a group of 150 more or less upright citizens—cops, lawyers, salesmen—who are a vital part of the city's sporting life. Among other things, OMBAC stages a half marathon for the lung association, sponsors a lacrosse team, two softball teams, and three rugby teams, including a women's squad that was undefeated in 20 matches last season.

Under sports, good-time division, there is an annual rubber-boat race in which 50 seven-man crews crash through the surf and a 76-mile, south-of-the-border bikeathon that attracts 5,000 participants for what is more a revel than a race. In a town where cross-country skiers traverse the beaches, where small boats are rigged with wheels for sailing across the desert, there is a built-in passion for the unusual. In Balboa Park a league of 30 women's teams plays volley tennis, a hybrid game in which the net is lowered and the volleyball is allowed to bounce once.

Some parks have jogging trails that feature obstacle courses and exercise stations. And while racquetball was invented elsewhere, it was named and promoted into the latest national sports craze in San Diego. Today the county has 60 racquetball clubs, 500 courts and most of the game's top players.

Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist, has written, "San Diego is a body of land surrounded on two sides by water, on two sides by mountains, and on all sides by apathy. There are two things to do in San Diego. You can go to the zoo or you can join the navy."

San Diegans answer that L.A. is so smog-bound that Murray can't see the truth for looking, that what he thinks is apathy is really contentment. Neil Morgan agrees, noting that San Diego is influenced by a "quaint mix of traits" imposed by its neighbors to the north and south. "I don't think we work as hard here," he says. "That's partly our Latin inheritance, but mainly it's because people have different priorities. On the whole, San Diegans rate bucks, power and prestige lower than leisure and health and sports participation."

Which is what the good life is all about, says Dr. Mark Shipman. By nature, he concludes, San Diegans run counter to the old Protestant work ethic, which dictates that "you can either work or you can have a good time but you can't do both. Well, San Diegans do both. These people have a good time. And they couldn't be more right. All work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy, it means he doesn't live as long or contribute as much to society. San Diego is a monument to the other Jack."