Athletes On a Mission

By Bob Cooper

They seem to have little in common: the surfer, the hang glider, the competitive equestrian and the “vintage” baseball umpire. What binds them is their passion for niche outdoor pursuits that are far from the spotlight. Pursuits that few individuals would dare attempt. (Hey, vintage baseball is more dangerous than it looks.) Which raises the question: What kind of daredevil repeatedly risks death to hang-glide above the sea? Meet four enthusiasts whose fervor runs deeper than the Pacific.

Ana Teresa Fernandez, surfer

All photography by Tri Nguyen.

Ana Teresa Fernandez, 37, is forever looking out the living room window of her Great Highway apartment, checking on the Ocean Beach waves. When they look just right — not too calm, nor too tempestuous — she asks her boyfriend and texts her three other regular surfing buddies to join her at the beach. Then she slips on a wetsuit, armor against the mid-50s ocean temperatures; chooses Pepe, Maggie or one of her six other nick-named surfboards in the garage; and strolls on over to the beach for a taste of saltwater-scented joy.

“The ocean has always been a primordial magnet for me,” she says while gazing out that window. “Surfing lets me turn off the hamster wheel in my head and plug into nature. It’s like a reboot because suddenly I’m seeing the land from the water instead of vice versa.”

Living at the ocean makes perfect sense for this national record-setting youth swimmer (while living in Mexico), latecomer to surfing (she started at 30) and lifelong resident of coastal places (San Francisco since 2001). She even does her frequent 5-mile runs entirely alongside the ocean, and water is a theme in much of the art she creates at her Hunters Point studio on the bay.

Whether at dawn or dusk — at Ocean Beach or Pacifica or occasionally Santa Cruz when she hears about really swell swells — surfing is her muse. “I don’t get ideas for my art when I surf because it’s much too demanding to disassociate,” Fernandez says. “But when I come out of the water, it’s like I’ve taken a physical and spiritual bath. I’m in the right place to create.”

Her award-winning photorealism paintings are currently in museums in three states, including the San Jose Museum of Art, and her experimental short films have screened at film festivals in five countries. Be-sides water, migration is a common theme, motivated by her experience as an immigrant. “I try to create art about immigration in an abstract and personal way to make it relatable,” she says.

She calls Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border) her seminal piece — a multiyear performance-art campaign to paint segments of dark border walls sky blue so they appear to be “erased” at four U.S.-Mexico border towns. She’s only been allowed to do so on the Mexico side of the walls — none have been painted over — and deported Mexican families and asylum-seeking Hondurans have assisted her. Paintings showing her swimming in the Mediterranean inside bedsheets (representing a shroud or womb) have similarly drawn attention to the North African refugee crisis.

Fernandez has combined her twin passions often — surfing at remote beaches in Brazil and Haiti, for example, where she served art residencies — but she says that few surfing experiences compare to playing on her home waves at Ocean Beach. “OB is the scariest place to surf because the waves and currents are so powerful and unpredictable,” she says. “They’re the size of buildings and they sound like trains roaring toward you. I’ve hit the floor [the sandy bottom] so many times, but it gives me so much fulfillment. Surfing is like modern dance because you’re drawing lines and circles on the waves.”

John Rinaldi, hang glider

Like Fernandez, John Rinaldi often looks out toward the ocean from his living room window. In his case it’s only a distant patch of blue seen between folds of the San Bruno Mountains from his South San Francisco hillside condo. He looks not for waves, but for fog. Thick fog makes hang gliding hazardous — and it doesn’t get much thicker than at San Francisco’s Fort Funston, where he, ahem, fell hard for the sport when he first tried it one year ago.

“I used to see them circling up there and I thought it was crazy,” he recalls, “but I was hooked after my first lesson.” Now he “flies” every weekend — except in the winter, when wind-direction shifts make it unsafe — and on summer weekdays when he can leave his IT biotech job early enough to get in a few flights before dark.

It’s an odd choice of activities for the 30-year-old. “Getting over my fears was the biggest challenge,” he says. “I still can’t stand on the top step of a ladder or at the edge of a cliff without fear or even vertigo.” Yet he enjoys frequent jumps off a cliff wearing what amounts to a large bird costume. Go figure.

“I thought about the danger constantly during lessons and I considered giving up,” he admits. Those sessions were mostly tandem flights with an instructor or solo flights off small hills. But eventually he learned to trust his “wings” — and his safety-first instincts. “Complacency is what gets people into trouble,” he says. “If the winds are too strong or they’re gusting, I don’t go out. I honor the old saying, ‘There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.’”

Rinaldi always liked the idea of flying. He once took a few private aviation lessons. But in hang gliding he found just the right kind of flying for his tastes: relatively simple, affordable (hang gliders cost about the same as high-end bicycles) and unencumbered.

“It’s a different kind of flying, less procedural than piloting a plane,” he says. “The glider is like an extension of your body, so it’s just you and the wind in your face. It’s very in the moment — a way to free your mind and get a different perspective from up there.”

He has flown for as long as two and a half hours and as high as 1,000 feet above the fort, high enough to behold breathtaking citywide views. There are few rules. Flyers must only stay below the FAA’s 3,000-foot ceiling, pass each other on the right, possess at least an H3 (intermediate) skill rating, and belong to the alliterative Fellow Feathers of Fort Funston.

Rinaldi is the club’s vice president, one of 200 active members who flock to the fort from as far away as Reno to enjoy the “ridge lift” and consistent winds of its dune cliffs. Some began flying there in the 1970s, before Rinaldi was born. His wife, who often walks their dogs at the fort dunes when he’s flying, may be a future convert. “Our ‘deal’ is that we can start having children if she takes a tandem lesson,” he says only half-jokingly.

Amanda Hay, equestrian

It took Amanda Hay so long to heal after she was thrown off her horse during a 2000 equestrian show jumping competition that it’s a wonder she ever literally got back in the saddle. But she did just that after one and a half years of recovery while regaining her ability to speak, walk and use her hands after the severe head injury.

“It never crossed my mind to not get back on a horse,” she says while clip-clopping in knee-high riding boots to the well-kept stables at the Menlo Circus Club, where she is the equestrian manager. “In fact, my first competition back was the same one where I was injured — the Grand Prix, which has the highest [jump] heights.”

Hay was on the Canadian National Show Jumping Team for most of a decade, both before and after the accident that may have cost her a berth at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The horse had tripped in front of a water obstacle and Hay landed face-first. But Hay’s love for competitive sport is strong, as she traded competitive jumping of her own — at 6-foot-1, she was a high school high jumper, long jumper and basketball star in Ottawa — for leading her horse through show jumper and show hunter events in her teens.

She begins a typical day at the Circus Club, a 30-acre Menlo Park country club and equestrian center founded in 1923, by walking through the stable barns to check on all 60 horses, including Ruby, the horse that she co-owns. “They hear me coming and acknowledge me,” she explains, flashing a smile of satisfaction. The rest of the day is a swirl of staff supervision, desk work and training sessions in the club’s arenas. She is responsible for 40 students and their horses. She slips in some riding time for herself, too, as she still competes, at a young-looking 46, as a professional in horse shows year-round through-out Northern California.

“It’s a wide range of students,” she says. “Sometimes I coach a U.S. Olympian, but just this morning I put a 10-year-old on her first pony.” The horses are European warm-bloods, quite different from the thoroughbreds of horse racing. “Success is so dependent on trust and chemistry, just like any relationship, between rider and horse.”

Hay rides as many as 10 different horses, each with different strengths, at competitions. She’s been thrown off 1,200-pound horses many times, though never as catastrophically as the fall in 2000. “It can be a dangerous sport,” she admits, “but so are most sports, like skiing or bike racing, at the professional level.” Nothing keeps her out of the saddle for long.

Carl Gibbs, vintage baseball umpire

Carl Gibbs wears several hats. He deals by day with San Quentin death-row inmates for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center and by night with lager-fueled trivia contestants as the longtime quizmaster at Lower Nob Hill’s Edinburgh Castle Pub. But only when he dons his weekend hat — literally a derby top hat — while calling strikes and balls for the Bay Area Vintage Base Ball league is he always called “sir.”

“Umpires were called ‘sirs’ at games in 1886,” he explains at a cafe near his SOMA office. “They were usually local judges or undertakers, the two most trusted men in town, so they commanded a certain reverence.” BAVBB is all about adhering to 1886 traditions, rules, equipment and even clothing. Besides the top hat, Gibbs wears an Edwardian suit purchased in a costume shop. Players wear baggy knickers and vintage uniform shirts and caps.

The equipment differences from modern baseball’s are even more pronounced. No helmets. Bats are longer and heavier. Fielding gloves are thin, with no webbing, so broken fingers are common. The ball is hard, though not as tightly wound as modern base-balls, so it becomes oblong and softer after a few innings.

Then there are the rule differences. Players, each bearing a nickname chosen by his teammates, must tell the umpire whether he chooses a waist-to-shoulders or waist-to-knees strike zone, which Gibbs relays to the pitcher. Full windups are not allowed and pitches are from in front of the mound — 50, not 60, feet from the plate. A walk is seven balls, not four. Foul balls are not strikes. A hit batsman only count as a ball. And games are seven innings, not nine.

Gibbs developed his passion for baseball growing up on Long Island in a Yankee-fixated family during the Mantle-Maris era and played on Little League, high school and college teams. Bad knees ended his fun as an adult-league softball play-er, but then a player in the fledgling BAVBB league told him about it after an Edinburgh Castle trivia con-test. Gibbs was intrigued and agreed to ump a game at Golden Gate Park’s Big Rec, where San Francisco games are played.

“I was a little nervous, but when I walked toward home plate and the players all doffed their caps and said ‘Good morning, sir,’ I thought, ‘I can get used to this,’” he says.

The bearded, silver-haired 63-year-old from Berkeley works up to 40 games during the March-to-August season. “I once worked a tripleheader when the games went 13, 11 and nine innings,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stand up for two days.”

Players try to win but don’t take it too seriously. They range in age from late teens to late 50s and include one woman. Most imbibe from personal bourbon flasks during games; Gibbs keeps his in a hidden pocket and often puffs from a cigar between strike calls. “It’s kind of an old-timey baseball pageant — more colorful than regular baseball,” he says, grinning. Can’t argue with that, sir.

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