Have a ball in a Zorb

The Columbia News Service operates as a feature syndicate. The stories are conceived, reported and written by students under the guidance of Columbia Journalism School’s faculty members. These stories are distributed by The New York Times News Service for publication in some 400 daily newspapers throughout the United States and Canada.

Turn Your World Upside Down

ZorbBy Deena Guzder

Syndicated by the New York Times and published in the Chronicle-Herald in HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA,  The Arizona Republic,  Rutland Herald, VERMONT,  Manhattan Mercury,  St. Louis Post Dispatch , and the front-page of the Anchorage Daily News on April 26, 2007

If you have ever wished you could walk on water or effortlessly cartwheel down a mountain range, the Zorb will fulfill your dreams. This latest extreme sport, which already has a cult following in New Zealand, will arrive in the United States this summer.

A Zorb is a huge round clear polyvinyl chloride inflatable ball that looks much like a giant soap bubble. It weighs 200 pounds and spans 10.5 feet in diameter. It has two skins–one inside the other. A person stands inside the smaller skin, or what would be the yoke of an egg, and is suspended by a cushion of air 2 feet off the ground.

“They put you inside the ball and tell you to run like a hamster to pick up some momentum,” said Andrew Peter Spencer, a Zorb aficionado.

After a Zorb is launched down a hill, it can hit speeds of up to 31 mph. Securely cocooned inside the Zorb, the person tumbles, flips and slides back and forth like a rag doll during the three-minute ride.

“All of a sudden you’re all over the place doing cartwheels and getting completely disoriented. It’s awesome,” said Spencer, a 21-year-old Vermont native who currently studies at Massey Palmerston North University in New Zealand.

Zorbing is a rite of passage for people in New Zealand, said Spencer, who enjoys other extreme sports like sprint car racing and bungee jumping. “You have to be a bit of a risk taker to go Zorbing. It gives you bragging rights.”

So far no one has died from Zorbing, according to Lizzie Dean, a spokeswoman for Zorb Ltd., which makes the human-size hamster balls. The company is based in New Zealand but has franchises in more than a dozen countries, including Argentina and Hungary.

“It’s not a dangerous sport,” Dean said. “It’s a lot of fun. You laugh all the way down the hill, and you keep laughing afterward.” She added, “We’ve had over 100,000 Zorbonauts and not a single one has even vomited inside the Zorb.”

Although Zorbing was invented in 2000 in New Zealand, the sport has not yet rolled onto these shores. The first Zorbing range in the United States will open this year in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a mountain resort area less than 10 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“We think Americans will love it because they’re already the largest group of tourists giving it a go here in New Zealand,” said Keith Kolzer, general manager for Zorb.

For the privilege of climbing into an inflatable ball and careening downhill for a few minutes, Zorbonauts pay 45 New Zealand dollars, or about $30. Prospective Zorbonauts get to choose between being harnessed in the Zorb like a splayed starfish or trying to run like a hamster in a rotating wheel. One, two or three people can Zorb together in a single orb at the same time. Alternatively, a Zorbonaut can opt for “hydro-Zorbing,” which involves adding a bucket of water into the ball and letting it slosh around as the Zorb revolves. Although a water Zorb is often compared to a zealous washing machine, it only rotates once every 32 feet, Dean said.

“The revolving sensation is not stomach turning, although it is very bizarre,” she said.

Dean refused to say how much a Zorb costs. But avid Zorbers can’t buy them anyway. The company sells Zorbs only to licensed operators.

“It would be like buying a bungee rope; what do you do with it?” she said. “Where’s the bridge to jump off, and how do you get yourself back to the top when you’re dangling on the end? Similarly with Zorbing you need a safe location and all the equipment to support activities.”

The Zorb is the brainchild of New Zealand brothers David and Andrew Akers and Dwayne van der Sluis. They had their first Zorb test run in 1994, Dean said.

Whether or not Americans will embrace the sport remains to be seen, but some college students seem very interested.

Once harnessed inside a zorb, a person rolls down a steep hill at speeds of 31 miles an hour. (Chris McLennan/courtesy of Zorb Limited)

Once harnessed inside a zorb, a person rolls down a steep hill at speeds of 31 miles an hour. (Chris McLennan/courtesy of Zorb Limited)

“I’m fascinated with Zorbing because it really is an odd thing,” said Ryan O’Toole, a 22-year-old anthropology student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Why would anyone play basketball when you can roll across pastures in a hamster ball and see the blue sky one second and the green ground the next?” He added, “I wonder what effect it will have on my body. I wonder if I will barf inside the ball.”

Although O’Toole has never Zorbed, his fascination with the sport led him to start a group on the social-networking site Facebook.com that claims a few dozen members who “really want to Zorb.”

“Given the popularity of baseball, basketball and football, I’m not sure how much room there is for something new,” said Melissa Littlefield, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Zorbing doesn’t fit into Americans traditional definitions of a sport because it’s not competitive and there are no rules.”

Each year Littlefield starts her class on “Sports in Modern Society” with a video clip of Zorbing from YouTube.com and gets very favorable reactions. “I want my students to think of sports more broadly as ways for personal edification and challenging physical activity,” she said. “But my students want sports to be competitive, they want Zorbing to be like a race.”

When asked how people think up crazy ideas like rolling around in giant inflatable beach balls, Littlefield noted that popular literature had often inspired creative minds.

“Weird sports come from people’s very imaginative, fictional worlds,” she said.

“Winnie the Pooh” gave life to Pooh Sticking, which consists of finding a stick, dropping it in to a river and then seeing how long it takes to get to the finish line. And “Harry Potter” fans have popularized Quidditch on college campuses. Quidditch is a wizard-friendly sport that in the fictional series involves broomsticks but in the real world is played on unicycles and even vacuum cleaners.

Zorbing is not science fiction come to life, but the derring-do activity did spring from the imagination. “People here [in New Zealand] have too much time on their hands so they come up with crazy ideas,” Spencer said. “Zorbing is great fun.”

Original Source: Columbia News Service

Copyright © 2009 Journalist Deena Guzder
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