Members on the Move
Many Congressmen and Women Pursue Athletic Pastimes
Some Members might call life on Capitol Hill an adventure.
But they probably haven’t scaled the side of Mount Everest or surfed the swells off the coast of Wales like some of their colleagues have.
Aside from the professional athletes who occasionally grace the Capitol halls, Congress has many serious sports enthusiasts who participate in activities as grueling as long- distance biking, as adrenaline-pumping as kayaking and as traditional as golf and tennis.
“One of the things that we’re doing is to try to get every Member to do something physical,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who helped found the Congressional Fitness Caucus this past February. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve been doing — what you need to do is to take on more physical activity.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has long taken that message to heart.
“In my district there’s a good deal of the year that you’re in clothes that are really revealing, so you want to be in pretty good shape,” Rohrabacher said.
He bikes and pumps iron in the gym on a regular basis. But above all, he likes to surf.
Although the 56-year-old Rohrabacher learned to surf in high school, he quickly ditched his first $20 board, which he bought from a police officer, and shifted to the boardless sport of body surfing because the “really big and really heavy” boards at the time made conventional surfing less appealing, he said.
But shortly after the Golden State Representative was elected in 1988, fate reunited Rohrabacher with his district’s unofficial pastime.
“After I got elected to Congress, this girl came up to me,” he said. “She was 18 and she said, ‘I know you were a surfer and I entered you in a surf contest in Huntington Beach.’”
Sensing Rohrabacher’s reluctance, the woman explained that the contest was raising money for a surf museum. She further encouraged him by saying that today’s boards are a lot more fun because they are light and have a leash.
“The next morning I went out surfing with her, and I’ve been surfing every free moment since then,” Rohrabacher said. “And I married her five years ago.”
His future wife, Rhonda Carmony, won the contest. The Congressman ended up participating in the contest, saying he even “caught a few waves.”
“My main goal was not to look like a fool and not to have to be saved by the lifeguards,” he said.
Since then, Rohrabacher has gained notoriety in and out of the water. He described, in a flawless surfer drawl, how constituents will occasionally “see me in the water and paddle up to me and say, ‘Hey bro, I heard you’re the Congressman.’”
He acknowledges that he’s not a “great surfer” — “In my Congressional district, I would be a moderate surfer at best,” he says — but he can claim one superlative: “I’m the best surfer in Congress.”
On a recent trip to the United Kingdom with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Rohrabacher got to show off his skills. He and his wife found a surfing beach in Wales.
“We begged some boards and surfed,” he said of the last-minute adventure. “The surfing was great. It was just terrific.”
Another longtime surfer is Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The 79-year-old Stevens, who has his surfboard mounted on his Hart Building office wall, picked up surfing while growing up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The President Pro Tem fondly recalls taking surfing trips up and down the California coast as a teenager while living out of a 1931 Pontiac with a home-built roof rack.
Stevens said the most famous beach he ever surfed was Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, where he stopped on his way home from serving in China during World War II.
These days, the senior Senator from Alaska admits he doesn’t get too many opportunities to practice his surfing, but he said he likes to stay in shape in other ways. He tries to set up a tennis match once or twice a week with fellow GOP Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Kit Bond (Mo.) and John Warner (Va.). He said he used to take a chin-up bar with him when he traveled, but he stopped the practice after ruining a few hotel door frames. Now he works out at home on his rowing machine, NordicTrack, elliptical crosstrainer and ab machine. He also is proud to say that he has taken classes from the Joon Rhee karate school.
“One of the things we’re missing on the Hill is the time to work out as much as we should,” Stevens said, adding that he is glad to hear “that heart attacks are very rare among surfers.”
Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), co-chairman of the fitness caucus, spends his free time mountain climbing, a pastime that has taken him around the world and up all but two of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
“If you live in Colorado, you climb mountains,” Udall said. “My fitness regimen in Washington is pointed toward being able to climb a mountain at a moment’s notice if I get the chance.
“I love mountain climbing. It clears my mind and orders the world out for me,” he said.
In 1994, the courageous Congressman attempted to climb Mount Everest. He battled 120-mile-per-hour winds and fought his way to 26,000 feet on the White Limbo route before being forced to turn around. The climb was halted just 3,000 feet short of the summit when a late-season monsoon made the snow and avalanche danger too great to continue.
“There was a risk of being blown off the mountain,” he recalled.
Udall has also solo climbed the world’s third-highest mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga, which peaks at 28,208 feet on the Indian border with Nepal. The trek in 1993 took the Centennial State Congressman more than seven hours.
Udall Chief of Staff Alan Salazar said Udall is a lifelong athlete. He was an “avid golfer when he was a young man” and “almost went pro when he was in high school,” Salazar said. When Udall decided that golf did not offer enough adventure, he started his 20-year mountain-climbing career with the Colorado Outward Bound School instead.
“The Outward Bound lifestyle really struck a cord with me,” Udall said, adding that the rigors and rewards of mountain climbing have given him many great metaphors for life.
There are also several masters of the martial arts among the ranks of Congressional athletes.
Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) both have black belts in tae kwon do, the Korean martial art similar to karate.
“He’s been taking tae kwon do for years,” Taylor spokesman Wayne Weidie said of his boss.
Wamp added that Taylor is “a pretty tough character.”
Another robust athlete, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), an avid runner, walker and body builder, was recently featured in Muscle & Fitness Hers magazine, along with a racy photo exposing her bulging biceps and sculpted physique.
“At 5:45 we’re out no matter if it’s snowing or raining,” she told the magazine of her Washington fitness routine. “We do a fast walk from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and back.”
Another endurance fanatic, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), is a long-distance biker who raced 100 miles last year, according to Wamp.
Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) prefers a kayak for his mode of transportation. At home, the Congressman lives just four miles from the Little Miami River, but in Washington he’s had to get creative.
Portman got permission to kayak in the pool at the House gym, where he occupies a lane every two weeks to keep in shape.
Udall and his cousin, Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) are also avid kayakers, although Baird is the only one who has borrowed Portman’s kayak in the House pool.
No matter what sport, Wamp said he hopes America follows the example of the fitness caucus and gets more active.
With about 100 members, Wamp said the group was formed “to set an example.”
“If the average American would consume 100 fewer calories a day and burn 100 more,” he said, “the obesity hole would not get any deeper.”
John McArdle contributed to this report.