Leah ‘Gllty’ Hayes is showing the esports world how she’s a ‘magnificent b—-‘

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A fight is about to go down at the DoubleTree Hilton in Irvine, California, and everyone milling about the hotel conference center seems to know it.

Technically, fighting is what all these people have come here to do. This is West Coast Warzone 6, the first American Capcom Pro Tour Street Fighter V ranking event of 2017. When the tournament starts, these combatants will report to their assigned PlayStations, select a deadly avatar and start jerking joysticks and slapping buttons until one of them is beaten to a bloody pixelated pulp. Two losses warp a player straight home.

 

The internet never forgets. It was almost a year ago, leading up to the 2016 Irvine tournament, that a player named Ghodere took to web and posted: “going to west coast warzone this weekend, in a pool with gllty and ricki/please god don’t let me lose to the two of them i will never recover.” Gllty and Ricki are the handles of two women players, Leah Hayes and Ricki Ortiz, respectively. Obviously nastier things have been said on the internet. Still, the implication was clear: “Please don’t let me lose to a girl.”

Hayes smelled blood. The 28-year-old gamer had already built a reputation for bravado as loud and rowdy as any arcade. When she sat down beside Ghodere for their match at WarZone 5, with the gaming world anxiously looking on, she had no intention of just letting her play do all the talking. “I hear you’ve been running your mouth on the internet,” Hayes said to her foe. “You’re about to get f—ed.”

After beating him, Hayes privately reached out to her chagrined opponent and the two made up. Still, when this year’s Warzone brackets came out with a potential Gllty-Ghodere faceoff in the second round, self-promoter Hayes certainly didn’t downplay The Rematch.

That’s why this morning, the air carries a buzz that has little to do with caffeine, taurine or vaped nicotine. That’s why passersby catch bits of the rumors as they spread across the venue, as if on an after-school playground where a bully is about to get his comeuppance. That’s why at this moment, a couple dozen gamers have left their seats in front of the huge projection screens that feature games of high-ranked players for the scrum around a tiny console in the back of the room, where a diminutive woman clad in black sits beside a broad-shouldered man with a dark beard, both with control boxes, or fight sticks, in their laps.

Knocking an opponent out in two of three rounds wins a game, taking two of three games wins the match. Ghodere chooses avatar Zangief, a brutish, muscle-packed Russian bear-wrestler; Hayes plays Dhalsim, a mystic Indian yogi whose punches and kicks stretch across the entire screen. That flexibility does little to avail Hayes against the aggressive Ghodere, who quickly scores two knockouts to win the first game.

Hayes is uncharacteristically quiet. She grabs a drink of water, draws her blazing red bangs behind her ear. Dhalsim now keeps his distance, sniping from the corner with long punches and fireballs, picking away at the burly Cossack to tie the match at 1.

Still all of the jawing is coming from the swarming crowd, which seems to be buying into the rivalry more than the players themselves.

This matchup is sick! says one man.

This is some good s—, says another.

Game 3: Hayes goes on the assault, spitting a stream of fireballs that stun the Russian, setting him up for the quick KO. Ghodere gets one back in the second round, catching Hayes off guard with a windmill of punches. The final game is nip and tuck as both fighters pick away at each other. But just as time is running out and both avatars’ life bars are nearing the red, Dhalsim leaps into the air and Hayes scores a downward punch to Zangief’s chest, sending him crashing to the ground.

That’s it!

S— was real close.

The crowd disperses. Hayes and Ghodere say little to each other, no smack talk, no pop-off, just a quick handshake as the two unplug their control boxes and move on. “He was posting on a place talking about me where people go basically to vent,” Hayes will later say. “He opened himself up to have fun poked at him. But he didn’t deserve for me to not treat him like a person.”

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How a thrill-seeking stuntwoman became crashed ice’s biggest star

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Jacqueline Legere is in the starting chute, breath rising into the frigid air as she stares off the edge of the earth.

The Red Bull Crashed Ice course in St. Paul starts atop three stories of scaffolding erected on the front steps of the Minnesota capital’s namesake hilltop cathedral. Twelve feet from the chute is a sheer 6-foot drop which leads abruptly into a steep, icy slope. From there, riders hit speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour on the frozen 340-meter downhill obstacle course that snakes over berms, through hairpins and into jumps that finally subside at the flat-surface finish line some 114 feet below.

From their perch, Legere and her three fellow riders can see almost none of that. They can only hear the cheers and groans of 100,000 people huddled against sub-freezing temperatures, feel the arena rock and hip-hop shake the metal, wood and ice beneath their blades, and look out onto city’s night skyline and the abyss that awaits mere inches in front of them.

Legere lives for the jump, the eyes-open leap into the arms of the unknown. Adventure is what drew the Ontario native to the extreme winter sport — basically a mashup of motocross, speed skating and roller derby — six years ago. Last year, she won the Red Bull Crashed Ice’s first-ever women’s world championship at age 24. This season started off perfectly with a win in France. But a fifth-place finish in Finland has her stuck in second place in the standings behind the U.S.’s Amanda Trunzo. With only four races in the championship, she probably needs at least a podium here to stay in striking distance for the final event in Ottawa on Saturday.

The official calls the competitors to attention over the microphone.

“Riders ready!”

Legere leans in, small muscular frame packed in hockey pads and a neon pink jersey, long blonde ponytail dripping from beneath the back of her helmet, hands on the starting blocks.

“Five-second warning!”

She is ice-sculpture still, ski goggles focused on that ledge.

The air horn sounds. Legere pushes off the blocks, digging her skates into the ice for three powerful pushes before hitting the ledge and throwing herself into to air beyond.

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Queen of cuts: Meet UFC’s only cutwoman

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After six years of approaching fighters in the locker room before their matches, Swayze Valentine can tell within a matter of seconds whether or not she’s welcome.

If she doesn’t know the combatant — which, with an ever-shifting Ultimate Fighting Championship roster of more than 400 competitors, is often the case — they are almost always initially taken aback. “I’m a woman,” says Valentine. “I get that a lot.”

Undeterred, she quickly launches into her pitch. She’s wearing the black cargo vest of a UFC cutman, so she doesn’t need to introduce herself. She just looks at the fighter and tells them that she is going to wrap their hands.

Sometimes they flat-out refuse. Other times, they’ll hem and haw and question her until their coach or cornerman steps in and politely asks if someone else, a man, is available. Valentine knows the issue isn’t always her gender. She’s a relative stranger. Her brown hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail, she looks much younger than her 30 years. And, she knows, these mixed martial artists’ hands are their livelihoods — they’re all just a bad wrap and a broken finger away from losing their jobs.

“In our sport, not only do you eat with your hands. You grab. You strike,” says Joe Stevenson, a veteran mixed martial artist and trainer, who has come to trust Valentine with his and his fighters’ most precious weapons. “And outside the Octagon, you need to pick up your kids, pick up a pencil, drive a car. Hurting them in the fight to get a win is cool and all, except you then have to live with that.”

Says veteran cutman Rudy Hernandez, who’s been working for UFC since 2005 and has mentored Valentine: “When you’re the new person, nobody wants you to wrap their hands or work their cuts. You have to earn your spot and do such a good job that next time, they’ll ask for you. And she’s earned that. It wasn’t easy. But it isn’t easy for anybody. We all went through it — it’s not just because she’s female.”

Of course, being a woman hasn’t exactly helped. But as Valentine continues to make a name for herself as the UFC’s first cutwoman, she’ll at least get the silent passive acceptance of an athlete in their zone, if not a nod or maybe even a smile, like the one she gets from lightweight Jeremy Kennedy before a recent UFC Fight Night deep below the Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

It’s Kennedy’s first fight in front of his home British Columbian crowd, and the 23-year-old is giddy and anxious. At 6 feet tall, he towers over the diminutive Valentine. But as the two sit down in folding metal chairs, they face each other on a level plane. She starts with the right hand, massaging from the wrist down each finger, loosening up the muscles and cartilage. Then she begins the wrap, again working her way up from the wrist, first with gauze, then a layer of athletic tape. All the while she’s asking his preference, if he has any injuries or areas of concern, and how this or that feels. “They’re my client,” she later says. “I talk with them the whole time.”

“Do you want the thumb wrapped?” she now says, essentially asking whether he’s a grappler who’ll need his thumb loose for grip or a puncher who’ll want more support for the opposable digit.

“Can you cut the thumb out?” Kennedy says. Valentine knows that’s not a sturdy construction. Instead, she wraps it separately in a layer of tape.

This is the part of the job Valentine dreams about, that she practices repeatedly for hours on her own hands, on those of her two young sons, and on the rough knuckles of any fighter who’ll sit across from her. To Valentine, hand-wrapping is an art. Five minutes and two rolls of 2-inch tape later, she snips the end of the tape with her scissors and lets Kennedy flex and examine her latest work.

“Wow!” he says. “That feels awesome.”

Valentine hopes the validation is sincere, that she has not only earned a repeat customer in Kennedy, but in some of the other fighters looking on too — that Kennedy’s grin will take some of the pressure off the spiel she has to deliver twice more before she’s summoned to the arena floor. There, from her cage-side seat, Valentine will get to witness the durability of some of her wraps and, if necessary, clean up and repair some of the bloody damage that those carefully packaged fists will inflict.

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Unique boxing program brings empowerment to Parkinson’s patients

DSC_1602Nobody uses the wheelchair accessible parking spot in front of Rock Steady Boxing. It’s Thursday morning, and the rest of the parking lot is full at the industrial park just northwest of Indianapolis.

Inside the gym, a gaggle of about 30 people clad in workout clothes lines up along the apron of a boxing ring. Forty-year-old men are elbow to elbow on the ropes with women in their 80s. Black, white, truckers, retired military, housewives and musicians. Some of their hands are taped, ready for the starting bell. Many of them wear a different shade of the same Rock Steady T-shirt, back emblazoned with the slogan “Fight back.”

All of these fighters have a common, insidious foe: Parkinson’s disease. If any of these patients were trying to straighten a stooped posture or still a trembling limb for the sake of their classmates, Kristy Rose Follmar quickly diffuses any pretense. A drill sergeant with short red hair, broad shoulders and a sleeveless navy T-shirt that reads “COACH,” Follmar addresses her pupils as “Parkies,” shorthand for people with Parkinson’s disease. Her voice echoes in the metal rafters high above as she orders the class to spread out across the concrete floor and stretch.

“Shake everything out!” she says. Then a smile: “On purpose!”

“You’ve got to laugh about things,” Follmar later says. “It gets pretty heavy at times.”

Heavy, as in a man falling and the entire class cheering him on as he crawls back to his feet. As in a husband coming to class with his stricken wife to be her “corner man,” working out alongside her and helping her face this relentless and progressive attack on her nervous system. As in regulars suddenly not showing out of shame or frustration or depression, or because the disease has temporarily — or finally — prevailed, as it inevitably does.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be confronted. In this gym, Follmar and her team teach people how to fight — literally. Ten years ago, Follmar helped start the first Rock Steady, a non-profit gym that preaches the use of repetitive, non-contact boxing training to improve Parkinson’s patients’ strength and coordination to help them stave off this unrelenting disease.

The idea has been contagious. What started with six members in a cramped Indianapolis shop has spread to 36 states and Italy, Australia and Canada.

When the stretching is done, Follmar walks over to the stereo and pushes play on an ’80s and ’90s R&B mix. As Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” comes on, she sets the digital timer for four-minute rounds. She slips on a pair of red punching mitts and slaps them together.

“All right, Parkies,” she says. “Let’s go!”

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Female Drivers Changed The Fortunes of One Racing Company

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Pippa Mann grew up trying to fit into a world that wasn’t made with her in mind. The racing karts she first revved up at age 12 were considered boys’ toys, and the garages, pits and tracks she frequented as a teen in Britain and Italy had been informal fraternities for generations. In 2009, the 26-year-old Mann crossed over to the U.S. to race Indy Lights, a feeder series to IndyCar, whose most coveted prize — the Borg-Warner Trophy, given to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 — is topped by a sterling silver sculpture of a naked man.

And through it all, as Mann strapped on her helmet and climbed behind the wheel, she, like almost all female drivers, was wearing an off-the-rack racing suit that was designed for a man. “I’m a slightly different body shape than most of the other drivers,” she quips. “As a female driver, I have struggled to find suits that fit me throughout my career. Most of the time, I just wore bigger suits.”

Even in the cramped cockpit of an open-wheel race car, Mann learned to steer and shift in the extra padding, and throughout her amateur days and early professional career, a slightly baggy look was a small sacrifice for the safety of a flame-retardant uniform. But in Indy, a league in which companies invest tens of thousands of dollars to put their names on cars and suits, appearances were at a premium. So before her first year in Indy Lights, her team sent her measurements to a company for a custom-made firesuit, which didn’t fit at all. “It was tight in all the wrong places,” she says. “I wasn’t comfortable driving in it.”

They tried again with the same company, this time sending Mann in for a personal fitting — a man wielding the tape measure — and the result was even worse. “It was back to off-the-rack,” she says.

Two years later, having graduated to IndyCar, Mann and her team, Conquest Racing, were scurrying for sponsorships to back the driver’s first ride in the Indy 500. Even though everything was being thrown together in the weeks leading up to the Memorial Day weekend event — as is typical for smaller teams — Conquest didn’t want Mann’s first step onto the sport’s grandest stage to appear haphazard, for both her sake and that of the sponsors. Rather than patching the logos slapdash onto her uniform, Conquest sent the suit to Hinchman Racing Uniforms, a small local shop that had been doing Conquest’s embroidering. When Mann came in to try on the suit, Hinchman’s owner, Nancy Sullivan Chumbley, noticed that the garment hung awkwardly from Mann’s broad shoulders down her athletic 5-foot-5 frame, and offered to tailor it for her.

Hinchman is an old name in Indianapolis racing wear, dating back to the 1920s — so old that, by 2011, it had been practically forgotten. Mann had certainly never heard of the company. It was days away from the biggest race of her life, and given her previous experience with tailor-made suits, she was plenty skeptical. But, as a woman, Chumbley seemed to understand the issues that Mann was bemoaning. Chumbley was willing to work with her, talked things out rather than just relied on the rigid inches of a tape measure, and seemed motivated to find something that fit and looked good, something they both could be proud of. Mann agreed to let Hinchman make the suit.

Days later, despite starting second-to-last in the 33-car field and having mechanical problems with her onboard hydration system during the race, Mann crossed the Brickyard finish line in 20th place, third among Indy rookies. Back in the pits, she climbed out of the cockpit wearing a form-fitting, lightweight, black-and-white firesuit with her name stitched into the belt and the double-checkered-flag logo of Hinchman on the collar. “It was the best suit I’d ever had,” Mann says.

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These Sisters Are The Real-Life Action Heroes

IMG_0681Aby Martin is used to being the guinea pig. As the youngest of the three Martin sisters, she is always the first in line to be punched, shot at, thrown from a roof, or dropped from the ceiling. Her father, Anderson Martin, jokingly refers to her as “dead weight” because she is so often the crash-test dummy (sometimes literally in the driver’s seat of a soon-to-be-crumpled car) when he’s trying to teach his girls about the family trade — movie stunt performance. Yet even the adventuresome 24-year-old is timid about today’s lesson: How To Get Kicked In The Crotch.

“I don’t want to do it,” she says, pouting in a long blond ponytail, yoga pants and tank top.

“You’re doing it,” says her father, on his knees before her, sweat rolling off his nose as he jury-rigs ankle cuffs to a pelvic harness he’s just strapped to his baby. “A stunt person is called in to be ready for anything.”

Late-morning sun pours in through the open bay door of Anderson’s dusty, 4,500-square-foot warehouse along the main drag of Carrollton, Georgia, a bedroom community about an hour outside of Atlanta. Ropes and harnesses are strung from the rafters. Air mats, pads and sheets of cardboard are spread across the concrete floor. Aby’s older sisters, Ashley Rae Trisler and Alex Duke, look on from the sidelines, giggling as their father rises — fairly confident that the makeshift device he’s concocted is in place.

He’s run a black strap from one ankle cuff up the inside of Aby’s leg, through a loop in the pelvic harness and down to the opposite ankle cuff, forming an inverted “V” between her legs. The entire apparatus is snug enough to slip seamlessly beneath a pair of pants or a long skirt. The idea is that when an actor or fellow stunt artist steps up to punt Aby’s privates, the point of the “V” will catch the leg inches short of her body and distribute the impact down to her legs and ankles. And in this instance, the kicker will be played by her father.

“Ready?” he says. ”

No,” says Aby. “I don’t like this.”

Heedless, Anderson lurches forward and starts to lift his leg in a deliberate slo-mo. Aby cringes and he stops.

Of course, the whole point of this exercise is that once the behind-the-scenes precautions are taken, it’s time for the stunt artist to become an actor.

“You’re scared,” he says. “It’s not like you have balls.”

“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt,” she says.

“Well,” he says, “that’s why we use this device.”

—–

Perhaps Aby is skittish because her neck is still sore from having been body-slammed for multiple takes last week on a super-secretive drama series. (Her father scolded her for making the rookie mistake of letting her head flop — “But that’s what the director wanted!”). Or maybe it’s her broken and dislocated nose from a softball mishap last month (“I never get that seriously hurt while I work”). Or, it could be the fact that last fall, she had to be punched in the crotch by actor Skyler Gisondo in a Wally World melee for the blockbuster Vacation reboot (for a punch there is no fail-safe apparatus, just a little padding and a lot of praying).

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Sir Foster’s Rise to Organist Fame

Screen shot 2015-02-16 at 6.12.11 PMSIR FOSTER DIDN’T upstage the players at last year’s NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, but he did create quite the stir. As Carmelo and KD dribbled and drove to keyboard renditions of OutKast and Kanye, the nation took notice. Suddenly, the organ was cool and the organist an unlikely star.

This was, of course, not news back in Atlanta, where classically trained Foster Carson was plucked from obscurity after answering the Hawks’ Craigslist ad in 2009. He began in the rafters but soon moved courtside, where he, as much as the scoreboard, now dictates the mood at games — improvising everything from Big K.R.I.T. to the White Stripes. “It’s a Broadway play,” Carson says, “and I’m the orchestra.” Says Hawks superfan Ludacris: “He’s providing the musical landscape.”

Some might say he’s also providing cover. Offseason scandals rocked the Hawks after a leaked email in which owner Bruce Levenson blamed poor attendance on black fans having “scared away the whites,” and after GM Danny Ferry said Heat forward Luol Deng has “some African in him.” Since then, the franchise has hired the NBA’s first “chief diversity and inclusion officer” and announced efforts to enhance the fan experience.

Who better for that than 27-year-old Carson? During a recent Hawks win, the Georgia native donned a Dominique Wilkins jersey and mimicked Nique with a windmill slam of the keys, pivoting from “DE-FENSE” to Van Halen’s “Jump” in the second it takes to whistle a jump ball. “I always wanted to play in the NBA,” Carson says. “I guess you could say I do.”

This article appeared in ESPN‘s Feb. 2 issue.