The Winter X Games are now behind us and Malibu is cracking down on the skateboarders who are racing downhill on the switchback roads that mark the tony Pacific coast town. So, where are the daredevils and adrenaline junkies among us now going to get their much-needed fix of high-octane competition? Answer: Waterbury. Next Saturday morning is the annual Winter Croquet tournament in the central Vermont town, and the competition is one of the inspiringly stupid cures for cabin fever (and I mean that in only the best sense).
Make no mistake: Winter croquet is very different from the mannered version that people play in the summer. Croquet in July demands a precision stroke, a good eye and white pants. Croquet in March demands mud boots, a parka, and the grit of a mountain climber making an assault on Mount Everest — or, in lieu of that, an absolute willingness to be undone by the elements and the periodic blasts of frigid water from fire hoses. “It’s a game of great skill and great endurance,” says sport founder and WDEV sales manager Tom Beardsley. “It should be an Olympic sport. In fact, we should petition the Olympic Committee.”
The annual competition has been around for close to three decades, but even Beardsley isn’t completely sure when he and some of his friends first decided that playing croquet in the snow might be a good way to kill a few hours until spring finally reached the Green Mountains. He thinks it was somewhere between 1980 and 1982. “I was doing the morning show at the time for WDEV and it began as a morning show gag,” he recalls. “What can we do to break the winter boredom?”
Ever since, it has been a WDEV tradition. Once again next weekend the radio station will broadcast live updates from the Rusty Parker Memorial Park in downtown Waterbury, where the tournament will be held.
The game begins each year at 7 a.m., which is a good thing because it dramatically decreases the odds that people will be drinking. The early morning hour doesn’t guarantee sobriety, of course, but it helps. The last thing anyone wants is a tipsy winter croquet player.
Eric Michaels, the WDEV general manager, says that the game goes on regardless of the weather: “We’ve played in stormy wind and near blizzard conditions. We’ve played when the wind chill factor was 30 below zero. We’ve played when there’s been four feet of snow and we needed to create a conga line to pack down a path between the wickets.”
The worst, however, was when the ice was so thick and so solid at the park that the organizers had to drill holes in the ice to plant the wickets.
Actually, that wasn’t the worst. The worst was when a group of volunteer firefighters were eliminated early on and took their fire hoses and sprayed the course, creating a pool of water across an already slick surface. “It wasn’t great sportsmanship, but it was also just one more hazard,” Michaels recalls.
And then there are the costumes. If you go, don’t be surprised if you see some of the players decked out as if the date were Oct. 31, not March 14. Players are as likely to be wearing flowers and antennae on their heads as they are wool caps.
One final warning from Beardsley: “Cheating is only against the rules if you get caught.”
Frankly, I approve of a game this anarchic. And it seems to me if the Olympics can make curling an official sport, then I say let’s bring Chaos Croquet to the next winter Olympiad.
* * *
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 8, 2009.)