For the last two years, Jim Grupe has tried to stir up local interest in his favorite extreme sport. It’s not something you’ll come across while watching skateboarders or cyclists fall from the sky during the ongoing X Games.
Grupe’s game of choice, actually, is among the last you’d think would be suited to the sort of extremism that’s taking over so many established pastimes.
“I was looking for something new,” he says, “and this is what I found.”
Grupe, 60, is the founder and force behind the DC/MD/VA Extreme Croquet Club. Once a month, he invites folks to his home in Brookeville, Md., to take a whack at the new version of the old lawn game. His 17-acre spread has all the fixin’s that separate an extreme croquet course from that of its genteel predecessor, including a pond, a stream, lots of trees, lots of mud, and various livestock.
“Jim used to have a llama that would walk in your way,” says Wade Dayberry, a 55-year-old original member of Grupe’s extreme crew—one known for rarely showing up to play dressed in more than a loincloth. “And I know a goat got hit with a ball once.” (According to witnesses, the goat was unfazed by the beaning.)
Ed Toth of Jessup, another regular, says he had belonged to regular croquet societies for several years before signing on with Grupe’s association. He’s not going back to the old game.
“I don’t know if the experience in regular croquet has helped me at all,” he says. “I had a good swing, but that won’t do anything for you when your ball’s buried in mud. This is much more just for fun, and the people are less competitive than it was with the other croquet groups.”
The origins of standard croquet—nine wickets on a flat lawn, with everybody dressed in white—go back at least as far as 14th century France. Sports historians trace the spread of the game’s popularity to the founding of the Wimbledon All England Croquet Club in London in the late 1860s. (A decade later, the club’s name was changed to the Wimbledon All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, when the racket game that the place is now better known for was introduced.) The Washington Post archives have several references in 1870s editions of the paper to competitive croquet in the United States.
The roots of extreme croquet, like that of all newfangled extreme sports, aren’t easy to pin down. There is no national sanctioning body, probably because those drawn to this game would never accept such an authority.
There are, however, several established regional extreme croquet societies. The Connecticut eXtreme Croquet Society, of West Hartford, is perhaps the oldest, claiming a start date of 1983. The Seattle-based Lakewood Croquet Club claims to have been swinging mallets in unlikely and dangerous spots since 1993, and the San Francisco Extreme Croquet Club has been around since 1997.
Grupe’s group, founded in 2005, is apparently the only regularly convening extreme croquet confederation in the D.C. area.
But the game has other supporters in the region. Donna Andrews, a mystery writer in Reston, set her last novel, No Nest for the Wicket, around a game of extreme croquet in the fictional Virginia town of Caerphilly. (The book was originally published in hardcover in August 2006, but a paperback version came out this summer.)
While looking for a ball whacked into a briar patch, Andrews’ recurring protagonist, Meg Langslow, finds a dead man whose deadness appears to be related to a whack with a croquet mallet. After the body is carted off and Langslow’s ball, which was resting near the corpse, is taken to the crime lab in Richmond, the players resume their contest.
Andrews, who isn’t familiar with Grupe’s confederation, says that before completing that scene, she wrote to the Connecticut extreme croquet group to ask how real players would deal with Langslow’s ball on the restart. Some of the expert extremers, who had taught her proper parlance to use in the book, said she could just introduce a new ball to the same spot and play on.
The purists, however, were appalled by that outcome.
“A vocal minority said she’d have to put the ball back in play from the crime lab,” says Andrews.
Several of Andrews’ friends took to extreme croquet as a result of her book, and last Labor Day one invited her to a party at which a real game was played. She says she was playing fine until her ball went into a hornet’s nest on the third wicket.
“I ran inside his house with seven or eight hornet stings and quit playing,” she says. “They considered me a wuss. I guess hornets are part of the game.”
Grupe was introduced to the game by accident. While combing through Craigslist ads for social gatherings, he read an open invitation to extreme croquet players for a game in Lady Bird Johnson Park in Arlington.
“I guess I had more fun than anybody else,” he says, “because the people [who] organized that game I don’t think ever played again. So I said, ‘Phooey! I’ll start my own group!’”
He went looking for proper accouterments and found Oakley Woods, a Brighton, Ontario–based vendor of croquet equipment. In its promotional materials the company says it was responding to a breaking “international phenomenon” when it recently became the first retail outfit to introduce a line specifically designed for croquet extremists.
The trappings aren’t cheap: $329 for Oakley Woods’ six-player set, which includes special rubber balls and mallets with metal shafts and “indestructible polyethylene heads.”
But they’re necessary.
“We couldn’t use the old wood balls,” says Grupe. “We need something for water and mud and snow and ice. [Standard balls] would split, hard as we have to hit ’em. We even split one of the [Oakley Woods] balls.”
The DC/MD/VA Extreme Croquet Club, which Grupe says has “about 12” regular members, is currently an all-gay, all-male clique.
Grupe says he didn’t intend for things to be that way when he started, but, after a while, said what the heck and began promoting his monthly meetings on gay Web sites. (The fact that the group’s e-mail has a suffix of “gay-males.org” might also contribute to its makeup.)
“One woman did get in touch with me about playing with us,” Grupe says, “but I told her the way we were and suggested it might be better if she found some other group. I’ve since heard about other extreme croquet groups around the country that ended up all-gay, but I don’t know why that is. Maybe because most of us probably aren’t football players?”
This weekend, the DC/MD/VA Extreme Croquet Club is putting on a game in Rehoboth Beach. That’s the first event held away from Grupe’s Montgomery County spread.
Grupe is excited about the playing possibilities the new locale will present.
“I hope we can find unprotected dunes,” he says, “and I’m going to look for rocky ledges. They’d make a great place to set up wickets.”
Dayberry’s concerns about the venue shift, meanwhile, aren’t with the course layout.
“I’m not so sure Rehoboth will tolerate a guy going around in an American-flag loincloth,” he says.