Apr/May 2016 Humor/Satire

Game Changers

by Paul Handley

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

It was my privilege to recently meet with Alana, Ivy, Lara and Lyric, four women who've revolutionized the sport of Extreme Speed Spelunking (ESS). For the uninitiated, ESS is unexplored cave racing. Over the course of the past two years Alana, Ivy, Lara and Lyric have completely radicalized the sport.

First, they are trash talkers and if people aren't familiar with that style of communication it can be scary. It's a respected art where they come from. They all originate from different backgrounds, but are like sisters so they fight a lot and "slag each other off," added Ivy, who revels in collected international slang. "That's basically where the trash talking came from. It wasn't always directed at competing ESS teams, but at each other. Middle America doesn't want to see sisters tear each other's parents down."

They come from various upbringings, but they complement each others' strengths and weaknesses. They are four fingers coming together to form a striking fist with a thumb tucked under. Ivy embodies their harmony and their contradictions. Known for keeping the team's spirits up with elaborate shadow puppet shows, using a simple lantern and the flat side of a boulder for a theater, she can also be aggressive. Apparently, during one show, Ivy put the pick end of a rock hammer into an insubstantial puppet that was meant to depict Alana after they had a fight.

In their second season of ESS they were ranked in the top five by the spelunking annual, Urban Caver. The author of the article dubbed them the First Four and it stuck. Most people think First Four refers to placement in an event, but I found out through talking to their manager who prefers to remain anonymous until he sees the results of his project, that they were literally the first four attractive women through the door that answered his advert. The Malcolm McLaren of spelunking would only speak to me from behind a curtain using a voice scrambler. And like that Malcom McLaren of New York Dolls and Sex Pistols renown, fashion was a key ingredient of success.

The First Four caused a sensation when they showed up to base camp at the first event of this season with shaved heads, diamond earrings, and fresh ink all over their skin. There wasn't any advance warning. They hadn't spoke with anyone but each other about their new look. They are a very close knit group.

Shaved male heads are one thing, but traditionally when a woman is bald it is due to chemotherapy treatments. These women chose to take ownership over what had heretofore been a symptom of female vulnerability.

Their scalps shine because of the oil they apply with audible double handed slaps. The purpose of the oil is twofold, not only to keep the skin supple, but to negotiate tight corners. Shaved heads serve a similar purpose in at least one other sporting tradition. Swimmers often shave off their body hair in order to reduce drag. By going bald, the First Four combine style with purpose.

Arm hair, too, can act as a broom. There is definitely a demarcation point of arm skin clear of filth and a small bank of dirt swept along just forward of a grouping of hair follicles.

The First Four are Masters (Mistresses?) at turning disadvantages to advantages. If their skin color was crayon, it would be labeled blanched cadaver because they spend so much time underground, often with colds or some other illness from the damp cave habitat. Lyric nearly died three months ago of histoplasmosis, a fungal infection acquired from bat guano.

They realize their sallow complexions are a wonderful canvas for body art. Tattoos shimmer and ink practically bounces off their malnutritioned frames. As Ivy puts it, "We like to ink up, but we get bored with the same tattoo. Some of the other teams began to imitate our look and started using temporary tattoos that they could change for each race. Nothing against other people's decisions, but temporary tats stop being cool once you hit puberty. However, there is such an invention as tattoo removal and we take full advantage of it. It doesn't feel any worse than 150 yards of rough scraping through a really tight passage. It's not like we aren't used to it."

In 2012, after their first ESS championship, the First Four took body design to a whole other level—body modification. Their anonymous manager made them all sign a waiver that they would submit to surgical modifications that would "demonstrate their seriousness." Although they were harshly criticized for it, surgically-enhanced spelunking was just another frontier to explore. Only this time the barrier was bone and cartilage. The First Four, always innovators, were the first to publicly use surgery to carve hips.

"Seriously, part of it, is just fairness, isn't it?" asserts Lyric. "Women have wider hips. We're just creating an even playing field. Also, breast reduction, obviously. I can lose all the weight I want and nothing was going to diminish my 33Cs."

What it mostly diminished were her suitors," teases Lara.

"Except for those who like that prepubescent girl look," says Lyric.

"Eww! That's really gross," says Lara.

"You'd be surprised," Lyric says. She adds laughing, "Lara did her nose for clearance, just to make sure. She had a bit of honker." Lara playfully tosses a backup battery for her headlamp at Lyric.

"The First Four," said Lara (referring to their team in the third person) "are the only ones that at least admit to using body modification. Giles from Team Spunk," said Lara pointing out a member of the "archrival" French Team Spelunka), "he had the cartilage around his ears removed. He says it was scraped off like a wrestler from years of tight shafts. Yeah, right." A later interview with Giles confirms her claim of the wrestling comparison.

Lyric said, "Giles' ears look so bad that if he didn't use plastic surgery he should, and if he did, he shouldn't have. Or at the very least get a personality implant." Lara and Lyric laugh together.

For this interview, I have to admit I was inspired by the First Four and had considered experimenting with an investigative technique. I ask them if they would like to interview each other to see if I could get them to reveal hidden insights, but I had to cut it short because as the reader can see above, the banter became sickeningly cute at warp speed.

In the manner of all innovators, especially successful ones, the First Four face backlash. "A ton," said Lara looking over my shoulder at what I'm writing. It's a men's sport or at least dominated by men. It even uses sexist language. I was told in a matter of fact way that the name for a passageway that is wide open at top, but narrow as it went down is called a "Barbie."

The First Four have faced a lot of discrimination which they attribute mostly to fogeyness. Angry traditionalists sent letters to the governing body called the International Federation of Speleology that includes approximately seven nations grousing about them.

Team Spelunka spokesman, Guy Bonnet says, "The French were the first real cavers. French teenagers discovered Paleolithic cave drawings in the 1920's, but of course the rules for the sport of ESS have only surfaced in the last five years or so. We haven't built up the sport for the last half a decade to be made into a mockery by gender bending. I'm not against it per se, but they should use another arena for their freakish agenda."

Giles adds, "The plastic surgery is unethical. Many, most," he corrected, "women are more flexible than men. Males and females each have their advantages. The head shaving," Giles shook his head and appears to purse his nose in disgust. "I never thought I'd have to see sexless women without hair, hips and breasts climbing in and out of holes in the ground. They look like giant insects. It's called male pattern baldness for a reason," he said running a palm over his naked pate. "Those aren't real women to me. The last bald woman I can recall was that Irish chick ripping up a picture of the pope on national TV. I grew up in the United States," Giles said before I could ask. How many women have had black lung disease? I'd wager none of them were a part of the beginnings of caving and now they reap the benefits."

"Yeah, we get a ton of hate mail," says Ivy who notices me observing her putting in her diamond stud earrings. "See these?" indicating the earrings. "We make concessions for style. Besides, they glisten and catch light, which can be important," she said with an impish smile. "But, in the mail, they call us dykes and everything else. You have to expect that when changing the tradition of a sport. On the other hand, if you haven't got the guts to put a return address on the envelope or that I recognize in an e-mail, I ain't opening it. It's that simple. I think I avoid lots of targeted advertising that way."

Ivy observed, "Part of the problem, is that establishing a tradition for ESS is difficult because the rules are so vague. It is hard to declare a winner in an event in any precise way. How do you know which player touched the bottom? In fact whenever we lose that's the basis of my protest. Since the cave is unexplored it's difficult to know if a team is cheating and went as far as they could. There is a lot of tension while waiting for umpires take out take out their calipers to determine what is impassable. The officials measure depth from the entrance of the cave no matter how high it is above sea level. Lara just submitted a petition to start running a tape measure from base camp since she's almost always on burro detail, schlepping provisions from base camp by donkey to the cave."

Another vagary of ESS is scoring based on part exploration and part speed. The idea was to incorporate the idea of style points like in gymnastics or figure skating for significant discoveries. The judges attempt to be aware of all possible discoveries and to maintain uniformity by having points assigned ahead of time, but pandemonium breaks out if a team finds a new passageway, especially if it leads to a phosphorescent lagoon or other beautiful spectacles, for what is known in the business as a "Hollywood oasis." Fights break out over how many points should be awarded.

The First Four fully aware of these issues decided change was needed. Lyric proposed designing the descents like an ant farm to make the event more telegenic. She said, "The game is played in an invisible arena so I came up with the idea of the ant farm model. They could excavate one side to expose the exploration and cover it with Plexiglas. We could compete only at night and consume liquid that makes the players skin glow. You know, like a CT scan in a hospital. The passages of the cave are like so many arteries and it would make the climb look and feel more organic. That way we could also cement the idea of mother earth being the body and we the children are slowly killing her. We don't want to use a sledgehammer to get the message across. This is very subtle, like subliminal advertising.

The Federation turned that down. They said something about damaging the integrity of the site and that's not what I want at all, in fact, the complete opposite. Since the federation didn't like players consuming glowing body liquid, we suggested different color head lamps that the spectators could follow. Each team would have a different color lamp, maybe different shades for players on the same team. They denied everything because our thinking is ahead of the sport's bureaucracy that is stuck in the last half a decade when ESS was formed. All we can do is chip away and create a slippery slope."

Throughout the First Four's radical approach to the sport, they exhibited much in common with the other athletes. They had responded to an ad on a website specifically for people who love enclosed spaces and revel in discomfort for extended periods. In one way or another they all expressed pleasure when they engaged in sports where they ended up at the bottom of the pile. As Alana said, "It always seemed to be me with dirt or somebody's leg in my mouth, but I wasn't afraid." I wanted to ask the obvious question, if they preferred sex on bottom, but I instinctively felt that was crossing a line that could wait until the wrap-up.

Alana related that when she was young she fell off the top bunk bed that had frightened her in the first place. When on the floor she rolled under the bottom bunk and instantly felt a sense of peace. Later she begged her parents to let her eat under the table and they relented as they witnessed her anxiety change to euphoria, slurping angel hair pasta between the table legs to constrict her movements.

The members of the First Four all had similar experiences of converting trauma to discovering their tight niche. Ivy's Dad was a survivalist, a big ham operator freak that would talk with people all over the world that share his similar outlook, so they could give him a heads-up on incoming whatever. He genuinely believes that we are headed for a post-apocalyptic future that he meant to share in and reap the rewards, if possible. He told Ivy, "there will be less competition and we have our hands on valuable commodities."

"We had a bomb shelter in the back yard that we spent a lot of time in, I could see my parents felt safe in there and so I felt safe too. I associated discomfort with safety and safety with being underground. Dad loved Charlton Heston in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. I saw that movie at least fifty times growing up. He was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic."

Lara with the help of her siblings buried herself in the sand at the beach almost to her shoulders. They then built a sand castle over her, designating the monster in the dungeon and soon forgot about her. She almost ended up in the moat. When the tide rolled in, she had water to her chin before her family in the parking lot realized they were short a passenger.

Lyric used to terrify her parents when they backed out their Ford Aerostar out of the garage and see her lying on the oil stained floor. The most exciting moments for her were when the engine was running directly overhead.

"The secret of almost all cavers and not just the First Four is that they all have been damaged in one form or another," a licensed psychiatrist told me. Think about being underground for days or even weeks. Spelunkers have to deal with constant runny noses like a drug addict. Vegetation literally grows on them since they are always wet. Have you ever tried going to the bathroom in a mine shaft? Try it. It's nearly impossible to complete within any sanitary parameters. It's where cavers feel most comfortable. It's a return to the womb. A person that spends a lot of time underground doesn't have to deal with a lot of peer pressure or enforced norms," he said, using air quotes around "norms."

In other ways the First Four try to instill normalcy into their sport. They are all foodies when it comes to camping food or chow that travels well, be it a vacation drive across the country or to outer space. Lara related, "We eat well. Good dehydrated food is an art. Lyric makes a fantastic dehydrated mango flan. We spend extra hours preparing meals so that we eat well. We suffer enough discomfort during a race that it gives us a time of day we can look forward to."

It's an open secret that competitors have tried to emulate. I shared a failed chilled gazpacho and some vile freeze dried pepper steak with the Spelunka team on the inaugural evening of a race. The chill I felt inside from the small animals that scurried across my body as I ascended to the top seemed mild in comparison to the lingering memory of that meal."

Another tie that binds the First Four was geeking out on fantasy. They are unabashed dorks with unanimous love of fantasy entertainment. In fact, they attribute much of their success to geekdom. Lyric asked me to repeat the question I asked regarding the importance of fantasy. "Sorry, I'm having a little trouble hearing. I'm OK. I just think my eardrum ruptured from an infection I caught from surveying a cave the other day. Ivy and Lara were serious D & D gamers growing up, but Ivy was really the premier Dungeon Master or DM. She has led a number of fantastical journeys so we trust Ivy's decision making when we come to a confusing juncture on our journey for glory."

They have all professed at one time or another desire to live like hobbits. The First Four also present a unified front in agreeing that their favorite scenes in the film version of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy are in the ancient dwarf kingdom of Moria.

"I was truly jealous when Gandalf descended into the pits of Moria. I knew he would come out a new and improved wizard. And he did. How could you not?" said Ivy. "All those experience points."

"We call Lyric, Gollum. Do you know Gollum?"

"I do," I assured her.

"Cavers eyes tend to bulge because they spend so much time searching for light, just like Gollum. Lyric's peepers just happen to balloon more than most. Gollum could be viewed negatively, but remember who guided Frodo and Sam to Mordor? Gollum," said Ivy answering her own question. "Gollum is a transformative character. Remember he had hobbit roots, but adapted physically and mentally to its self imposed exile. That's the goal of the First Four."

The First Four have another side to them that many may not suspect. They attribute much of their success to a particular philosophical approach. Alana explains, "We take a much deeper approach to caving."

"Then...?" I ask.

"Who are we talking about? She went on without waiting for me to respond. "Other ESS athletes, recreational cavers doing it on a lark, spectators. Everybody. We wander with the spirits that wander caves. It's spiritual. Deprivation adds to spirituality. It's a traditional practice to invite otherworldly powers through removing basic necessities for the body to function properly. If you remove water,"

"Or sun," chimed in Lara.

"Or sun, sleep, people become closer to their inner source. That's why a lot of rituals like sweat huts, vision quests, and asphyxiation during sex are making a comeback. It's funny because if somebody else was doing it to you, they'd be arrested. It's torture, right? That's why we laugh when people accuse us of removing tradition from the sport. What they mean by tradition is a couple of centuries old at most, we reach way back."

"I get how the body is physically deprived during a descent, but isn't that the same for all teams? I mean, does the First Four apply a unique approach?"

"You just said it. Descent. People believe heaven is up and hell is black hole down into a molten core of flames. We believe in the bowels of heaven and have oriented downwards. It's been a complete re-envisioning. The First Four reaches for the opposite of summit. We don't have Sherpas to guide us to our Dismount Olympus. "Did you know that Sherpas summit on their days off for a workout?" asked Alana.

"I didn't know that. How is the First Four sponsorship holding up?" I knew this was a delicate issue. Sponsors are always a difficult proposition in the sport of ESS. In the nascent days of the First Four, Vince Leeburn injected a badly needed stream of cash into the team. Leeburn had a reputation for hanging around various women's athletic teams, in particular softball and field hockey. He often volunteered to travel with them for tournaments and put the team up at a hotel.

Unfortunately, Leeburn had a side venture that accounted for all his disposable income involving the transport of diamonds smuggled out of African mines by slaves. He was a philanthropist at heart, but due to his ill gotten gains it was hard to declare the money as an official gift. Therefore, support was funneled to the players by undeclared direct cash payments. The ethics violations were uncovered by the Federation, forcing the First Four to take down the Tapestry they hung at base camp for most top ten finishes that season. It had also been used to separate quarters for privacy purposes.

Alana responds to my question with one word, "Fine." Some wounds take longer to heal.

In the end the First Four has attained new heights or as they would say, depths. They have become fashion icons and idolized by women everywhere for their courageous stance. They are the Sisterhood of the Deep.

As Lyric states, "We love each other like sisters. We have to. Looking at Ivy's ass for 3 days on a descent gets a little old, but I bet I know it better than her significant other. So sometimes I have to ask for a change in the descent order, switch up the sequence because I need another ass to look at or I will go absolutely bonkers. Nothing sexual about it. I could be looking at a Picasso and after three days I want to look at another masterpiece."

Lyric gazes thoughtfully at the ground in front of her, "It's the love of the sport that keeps us here. I could have been an elevator operator or smuggle drugs in a submarine for cartels, jobs that are much more lucrative and probably less dangerous."


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