Longer training hours, stricter diets and more rigorous regimens are a few examples of standard ways in which sportsmen attempt to gain an edge over their competitors. But sometimes, relying on conventional methods such as these isn’t enough. With such intense competition in most sports, it’s no wonder that performance enhancing drugs have become such an issue in recent years.
After all, the most serious athletes, especially at the topmost level of sport, will stop at nothing to be even a little better than the other guy. And who can blame them, really? The tiniest advantage could spell the difference between victory and defeat. More importantly, it could mean the difference between earning a huge paycheck and a consolation prize (which is like loose change in comparison).
We see it all the time in movies. Rocky Balboa punching meat, drinking raw eggs from a glass, even secluding himself in a frozen Russian wasteland to train his body to the peak of physical perfection. This is all fine and dandy on the silver screen, but what do real athletes do to get a leg up on the competition? Here are five unusual ways top athletes have tried to gain an edge over their competitors:
5. Marion Bartoli – Tennis / Career Earnings: $11 Million
40 days after the astonishing feat of winning her first grand slam tournament (Wimbledon at that), Marion Bartoli abruptly announced her retirement from tennis following an early loss at the Cincinnati Open. While her complaints that her body was giving way after all the injuries she had endured throughout her career were understandable, the sports community found it strange that she chose to retire at just 28 years of age, young in the world of tennis, and during year she had made $2.8 million in prize money.
But absurdity was really no stranger to the French woman once-ranked seventh in the world. Her unorthodox style of playing double-handed on both sides, wiggling and jumping in between strokes, was a standard talking point for tennis commentators. In fact, many sports analysts would agree that those mannerisms were part of what made Bartolic fun to watch and endearing to her fans.
Bartoli would have probably gained even more admirers if more people knew just how gruelling (not to mention amusingly weird) her training regiment was. Even considering that Bartoli was a world-class athlete, anyone would have been awed to learn that her fitness routine included attaching resistance bands to her ankles, waist, and wrists, then hitting imaginary tennis balls repeatedly with her forehand and backhand. That was followed immediately by repeating the same exercise but with actual tennis balls. Then, still with the resistance bands strapped on, her coach would throw a special kind of ball, one that bounced in an unpredictable way, to various areas of the court. Bartoli retrieved the ball by sprinting at full speed with her hands close to each other, mimicking the movement of running with a tennis racket. No wonder she felt that her body was all beat up at only 28!
In the end, having earned a $1.2 million paycheck from winning Wimbledon, maybe the aches and pains were well worth it.
4. Portugal’s 2010 World Cup Football Team / Career Earnings: $11.4 Million Per Player (Averaged)
In the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Portugal was unfortunate enough to be drawn in the same group as five-time champions Brazil as well as unknown but dangerous North Korea. Portugal’s task of qualifying for the knockout round quickly became quite a daunting one. Despite having football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo – the most expensive football player of all time – in his team’s fold, head coach Carlos Queiroz felt that the team needed to find some way of getting the edge over their competition.
His approach? With just one week to go before Portugal’s opening match against Côte d’Ivoire, the team underwent an army training session complete with camouflage gear, army facemasks, and paint-loaded firearms – but of course, all players remained clad with their usual neon-highlighted football shoes instead of regulation army boots.
And if the appearance of the players was unusual, the drills they did were even weirder. These included marching forward like a platoon on the prowl, piling on top of each other to achieve the greatest possible height and even engaging in an intense game of paintball.
Coach Carlos believed that the exercise session (based on the training of the Portuguese Air Force), would not only help acclimatize the players to the country’s conditions, but also encourage cohesion, camaraderie, discipline, spirit and loyalty – traits that the team needed to display if it hoped to get beyond the group stages of the most important football tournament in the world. Perhaps the Portuguese coach also knew that he had to pull out all the stops if the team wanted to claim the $30 million check that went with winning the World Cup.
While the press lapped up the unusual routines – plastering Ronaldo’s face-painted mug all over the papers – the army training seemed to have been only moderately successful, pushing Portugal into the elimination stages, but not being enough to keep the team from losing 0-1 in the first round to eventual 2010 World Cup champions, Spain.
The finish was still good enough to earn the team $9 million, though.
3. John Henderson – American Football / Career Earnings: $12.5 Million
Hardly anyone would deny that rough play and American football go hand in hand, but NFL defensive tackle John Henderson certainly takes thuggish behaviour to a whole other level.
It was when “Big John” was still playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars that the 6’7″, 335 lb. gargantuan created the most bizarre pre-game warm-up routine. He would order assistant team trainer Joe Sheehan to slap him on the face as forcefully as possible to psych the monster up for his on-field battle.
The strange practice seemed to have paid off to some degree, as in 2006 Henderson signed a $34 million 6-year contract extension with Jacksonville with $13.4 million being guaranteed. In 2010, however, Henderson was released by the Jaguars because of suspicions he was faking an injury. The Oakland Raiders then picked him up for a one-year stint, which the following year was extended by another two-years for $8 million. After the 2011 season, though, Henderson was released by the Raiders, the last team he played for in his professional career.
Despite his forced retirement, Henderson should forever be remembered for a line he uttered after one of his slapping sessions, a quote that ought to forever be etched in the history of strange athlete practices. Big John, in reference to how slapping should be done, growled, “Ya gotta make blood come through the mouth!”
2. Juan Manuel Marquez – Boxing / Career Earnings: $16 Million
Juan Manuel Marquez is one of the best Mexican boxers of all time, perhaps among the best boxers to have ever graced the sport. A world champion in four separate weight divisions and with a long list of stunning victories including a 2012 knockout win over the legendary Manny Pacquiao, Marquez has little else left to prove. In fact, “Dinamita” has $16 million in prize money to show for his accomplishments.
Without a doubt, hard work and perseverance have played major roles in Marquez’s astounding success, but an episode aired by HBO as part of the preview for the 2009 Mayweather vs. Marquez battle revealed that the revered fighter has some pretty strange secret practices that may give him a considerable edge over his opponents.
Some of these unorthodox fitness and training techniques include lifting rocks in the mountains, using a hyperbaric chamber and eating 25 raw quail eggs a day. But while those practices may seem a bit extreme, they’re negligible when compared to what Marquez uses as his special energy drink: his own urine.
According to a videoed interview with the boxer, he had taken his own urine before his recent five or six bouts, and because he achieved good results in those fights, he believed the practice actually gave him an edge. Explaining further, Marquez reasoned out that he drank his urine because that was “where a lot of proteins and vitamins” he took ended up.
“Why not drink them again instead of wasting them?” the world champion rhetorically asked.
For $6 million a fight, yes, why not?
1. Novak Djokovic – Tennis / Career Earnings: $58 Million
With 6 grand slam singles titles and $58 million in career prize money, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic isn’t anywhere near done with his tennis career. At only 26, he’s considered among the best to have ever held a racket. But while his rise to the top of the game is well documented, one of his stranger fitness routines is not widely known.
Yes, the tennis world has often talked about Nole’s odd rituals, including how he bounces the tennis ball an excessive number of times before serving and the fact that his gluten-free diet seems to have helped his endurance on the court. But climbing into an egg-shaped pressure chamber?
The device is called a CVAC Pod, designed and built by a California-based company and of which there are only about 20 units in the world. Many athletes have used hyperbaric chambers, which saturate the blood with oxygen and speed up the healing of injuries. The CVAC does much more, featuring a computer-controlled vacuum pump and valve to mimic how high altitudes rhythmically compress the body’s muscles, thus theoretically improving fitness levels.
Djokovic prefers to keep quiet about his use of the pod, but he has actually spoken about it in an interview where he compared the device to a spaceship that “helps . . . with recovery after an exhausting set.”
Can the use of the pod be considered cheating? The World Anti-Doping Agency in 2006 ruled that such devices did enhance performance and could actually be considered to violate the spirit of sport; however, the body has yet to add the CVAC Pod to the list of banned methods pending further studies.
So for now, the pods remain legal – their availability for use, however, limited by their prohibitive cost of $75,000 per unit. But with each grand slam singles trophy earning its winner a minimum of $2.4 million, it’s safe to assume Djokovic didn’t mind shelling out some dough for the contraption.
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