When John suggested a photography trip to Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire to watch canoe racing I was a little unsure – cats, water, mmm! But never let it be said that Shad the Cat is anything other than bold and adventurous. Yes I know I’ve got my sensitive side, but this was a moment that called for the courage of my convictions, the vavavoom that lights my fire, the curiosity and tenacity of my ancestors the sabre toothed tiger. Being anywhere near the canoeists could result in the moistening of a paw or the dripping of an eyebrow but I was willing the take the risk. And anyway John would be there and he always looks after me.
The water park has a purpose-built slalom course that was constructed to host the canoe slalom events of the 2012 Summer Olympics and it cleverly creates rapids, eddies and drops through a system of pools and pumps. As we walked towards through the gates to the park, I heard the gushing of water and my whiskers tingled with the moisture in the air. The thought of the water overflowing sent shivers down my spine and as the fur on my back bristled, I look anxiously up at John who smiled serenely back at me. Providing the water was contained in one place and I was not in it, I’d be fine.
Soon my unease was replaced with excitement as I watched the canoeists hurtling through the cascades and chutes with nothing but a paddle and a dream. They seemed to be going so fast and appeared to be completely out of control, the water being far more powerful than any of them. But that didn’t stop the competitors in the Canoe Slalom British Championships that were being held there from continuing their daring water activities with gusto. Anyone being swept into that water would have a terrible job getting out so I kept a safe distance from the edge and managed to avoid getting splashed. I even evaded a giant splodge of water that hit the ground not 2 feet away from me thanks to my super swift reflexes and a warning from John to look out! To my delight, he took out a soft fluffy towel from his bag just in case my paws had got damp and I remembered why I find him such a wonderful human.
Planes, trains and automobiles are not the only things that roar as I discovered on a recent photography field trip to the Honourable Artillery Company stadium in London for the pre-season friendly between Saracens and London Scottish. As a thrifty feline adapted to conserving energy, I don’t normally approve of unnecessary physical exertion although I am accustomed to guttural grunting having lived with John for the last 6 years! There was quite a cacophony of snorts and bellows coming from the pitch during this physically demanding match but I can’t say I was surprised given the extraordinary stamina and strength these lads displayed.
As a cat I’m genetically programmed to nap for 18 hours a day and chase various objects to practice my hunting skills and maintain my muscle tone, as well as gawp at anything that moves and seek out nourishment in preparation for my next nap. Therefore I am naturally fascinated by the human condition of competition – the innate impulse in 99% of human beings to excel at a task and try to beat others at the performance of that task. These lads were a great example of a contest between rivals using strength, speed and strategy to move a ball around in an opponent’s territory. I understand the need to protect your territory and I guard mine furiously with daily patrols around the garden, a strict regime of scenting and guard duty at every window in the house. Any potential invaders, usually consisting of neighbours, dogs walking by and impudent pigeons that delight in cooing and flicking their tails at me just after dinner, are given my most fierce stare. A skill the rugby players have also mastered judging by the scary scowls and shoulder shoves they gave each other throughout the match. The strange thing was, as soon as the game was over, they all started cheering and the twisted expressions of pain changed quickly to happy smiles like jovial buffalo. In case you were wondering, Saracens proved their might with a 73 to 7 victory.
Cricket. John has explained it to me 7 times and I still don’t understand it. I simply accept that it is what it is – a bat and ball game between 2 teams which involves scoring runs, something about wickets and dismissing a batsman. While spectators cheer, clap and guffaw in all the right places as they follow play, I adopt a more holistic approach. As outdoor cricket matches tend to take place in lovely locations, it gives me a chance to ponder the natural world and exercise my imagination while the ball flies across the pitch and into the stumps. Some of my favourite outdoor deliberations include counting how many seconds a bird can soar along the air currents without flapping its wings, guessing the appearance of the odd-shaped clouds and following those helicopter shaped leaves as they fall from the sycamore trees.
This particular match was Surrey versus Warwickshire and I let John take all the photos while I concentrated on other pursuits such as working my magic on the lovely ladies and gents in the tea tent. I meowed and gazed lovingly at them with my pupils as dilated as possible which humans always find enchanting. They gave me a saucer of weak tea and a small piece of a chicken sandwich and I was so grateful that I hopped on the friendly lady’s lap and gave her a big wet kiss on her ear. She giggled and everybody said how cute I was. Isn’t that nice?! With a full belly and a smile on my face, I trotted happily out of the tea tent and found a shady spot close to John for my afternoon nap. How civilised!
John likes to challenge his photography skills by shooting sports and as he’s the one with the car, the wallet and the opposable thumbs, I tend to follow willingly. Don’t misunderstand me, I admire the commitment and stamina displayed by the athletes in competitions and I’m glad that they have a means of channelling life’s emotions and frustrations through the performance and community of their sport. For those of us who lack the motivation or talent for such strenuous activities, dealing with life’s idiosyncrasies is often a more sedate affair. There are many other options including reading, writing, puzzles, photography and singing. I frequently sing along with John in the car when he cranks up the Michael Bublé although lately he’s been going through a classic rock phase and I’ve enjoyed the discordant and often thunderous sounds of AC/DC, Van Halen and Metallica.
Despite my affinity for peaceful or solitary pursuits, there are many other cats who engage in sport to varying degrees. Tigers like to swim, bobcats like to climb and I’ve even seen videos of servals at the Big Cat Rescue Centre in Tampa, Florida unravelling toilet rolls like it was the most fun in the world. I know I’m stretching the definition of sport just a tad here but if there were organised competitive grooming events I’d be a real contender! When we domestic cats are kittens we form teams to practice our running and pouncing skills and as we get older, sporting activities generally revolve around stalking our housemates, jumping on anything that wiggles or catching small furry or feathered creatures. Don’t judge us, it’s in our genes and unlike humans we don’t have a highly developed prefrontal cortex that moderates our ethical and social behaviour.
But back to human sports and these hockey players not only have highly developed brains that help them make fast decisions on the pitch, they also have highly developed muscles that give them the strength to propel the hockey ball up to 75mph, that’s as fast as a cheetah. Each team is made up of 11 players and these particular teams were competing in the Hockey Champions Trophy 2016 at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The teams use several substitutes throughout the game to keep everyone fresh and energetic and they often wear protective equipment such as gum shields as I imagine a knock from one of those big sticks would sting a bit! The ones I really admired were the brave goalkeepers who dealt with balls shooting at them, team members yelling at them and opposing players hurtling towards them with grimaces on their faces, hence the leg protectors, chest guard and helmet!
It’s time to get sporty again with the adrenaline-fuelled mountain bikers as they cycled their equivalent of a double black ski slope at the weekend as part of the Aston Hills black run competition. Just like ski runs, mountain bike trails are graded according to difficulty from broad flat paths to cross-country single tracks and extreme forest roads. While most normal people try to avoid obstacles of roots and rocks when they’re taking a stroll through the woods, these mountain bike enthusiasts seek them out. The sport requires endurance, good balance and core strength and is performed anywhere from a gravel road in the Lake District to a sand dune in the Arizona desert. It seems the larger and more unavoidable the features, the greater the challenge!
It is for this reason that I decided to stay at home and leave John to the high speed outdoor action. No lethally positioned jutting out branches or sudden vertical drops for me! Last time I accompanied John to a mountain bike shoot, I came home with dust between my toes and spikes of sticky pine leaves all over my belly. Don’t get me wrong, I love the woods and the wonderful trees that provide homes for wildlife and give us clean air and water, but last time I had a tick scare and thought I caught Dutch Elm disease! After much persuasion from John, I finally accepted that only elm trees can be stricken with this horrible sickness but I have since developed a phobia of fungus which I swear is a result of my experience. Every now and then I get a flashback it sends shivers down my spine, so my lovely John helps by giving me a vigorous brush down, one of my favourite non-food treats. Good times!
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As I opened my eyes from my snooze in the car I was astonished to see the silhouette of a sofa with tree-trunk legs trudging awkwardly towards me. I thought I was dreaming about The Incredible Hulk or some kind of giant from Harry Potter but as my eyes got used to the light I realised that it was an ice-flyer as they like to call themselves. An ice hockey player fully clad in a helmet and face cage, toughened shoulder pads, thick chest protector, padded shorts, hard plastic shin pads and reinforced gloves. If you’ve ever been to an ice hockey match, you’ll understand that the armour is not for show, it’s for protection against the multitude of safety hazards that put the players at risk of serious injury such as the solid puck that shoots across the ice at 90 miles per hour.
John and I were sat on the front row behind a floor to ceiling window of fortified shatterproof plastic and witnessed another safety hazard that seemed to befall many a player. I lost count of how many faces were squashed up against that barrier because after the third one I winced and shut my eyes every time there was a skirmish. One of the bravest guys on the ice had to be the referee whose only safety equipment was a helmet and who was regularly slammed into the sides of the rink during play. But fear not, no cats were hurt during the game and only a few sprains and bruises were sustained by the players who were all willing participants in the match. In fact, judging by the wonky smiles and animated man-hugs, they quite enjoyed it.
The same could be said for the crowd who hollered and cheered at the slightest hint of a clash on the ice and were enthralled whenever the puck was shot through their opponents’ goal. Even more baffling than the blood-thirstiness of the onlookers was the bizarre off-the-rink contest that appeared to be going on to see who could tolerate wearing the least amount of clothes. Considering we were in Kitzbuhel (Austria) at the time and the weather outside was snow and -4°c, the urge for the men to take their tops off could only be explained by some hormonal imbalance or the human desire to compete. Luckily John did not succumb to this urge otherwise I would have been most embarrassed (because of the hair on his chest, not the size of his tummy!).