Shane Adams can remember how he felt staring down his first opponent at a jousting tournament in 1997 — scared senseless.
He used more colorful language than that, but the point is he was afraid.
It wasn’t the first time he’d ever sat astride a horse. Adams, now 47, grew up on an equestrian ranch his family owned in Acton, a small town in the Canadian province of Ontario.
Nor was it the first time he’d jousted. Adams had for years performed as part of a dinner theater company putting on shows of scripted chivalry for Canadian audiences.
But as he sat in the saddle that day 20 years ago, he was aware that what he was about to do had no predetermined outcome. There were no set winners or losers.
It was Adams’ introduction to the world of full-contact jousting.
“Here I am with somebody charging at me at 25, 30 mph with an 11-foot solid wooden lance aimed straight at my head,” he recalled. “It doesn’t sound like the smartest thing. … Kids, stay in school.”
During that tournament at the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival in Estes Park, Colo., Adams broke his hand and four ribs. But he won.
It was a storybook finish for the man who at age 4 had wrapped himself in tinfoil, fashioned a helmet and cardboard shield and jumped on the back of an Arabian stallion to fight fierce battles against make-believe foes.
The tournament was the realization of his dream to be “a knight in shining armor instead of a knight in shining polyester and tinsel.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” he said with a chuckle. “Sometimes dreams do come true.”
That passion for jousting has never dimmed, and it inspired Adams to create the Knights of Valour, a traveling troupe of jousters that zigzags the continent competing before cheering spectators.
Now, five members of the troupe — there are about 30 total, according to Adams — will battle in the Action Sports Arena during the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa. The shows Wednesday through July 23 will mark jousting’s first appearance at the fair.
“There will be lots of hard hits and a lot of exciting action and a lot of jaws hitting the ground,” said Adams, who also hosted and produced the competitive show “Full Metal Jousting” on the History Channel. “I can tell you till I’m blue in the face that this is real, but no one is going to believe it until they see it.”
Knights at the fair
At the O.C. Fair, the Knights of Valour will compete in heavy-armor jousting. As its name implies, competitors don hefty suits of armor — typically made of mild or stainless steel — that can weigh upward of 100 pounds.
The goal is to strike an opponent’s gridded grand guard, a metallic plate attached around the shoulder area, with an 11-foot-long solid wooden lance.
One point is awarded for hitting the guard. Breaking a lance is worth five points, while unhorsing a foe earns 10.
Opponents go head-to-head several times. The person with the highest score at the end of the round claims victory.
It’s an arduous experience. Along with the strain of the weight from the armor and lance, the steel helmets jousters wear heavily restrict their vision.
“You’re going to be claustrophobic,” said Patrick Lambke, a Colorado resident who used to live in Huntington Beach. “You only see a quarter-inch of light coming through your eye slit. You can’t even see your horse.”
In jousting circles, Lambke, 53, is known as the Black Knight — a nickname stemming from when he got a suit of armor years ago and didn’t like how it looked, so he spray-painted it black.
Like Adams, Lambke cut his teeth in the dinner theater arena before graduating to full-contact jousting.
That’s not the case, though, with Kyran Fairchild.
The Tucson, Ariz., native moved across the country last year to train with the Knights of Valour at a base camp near Wilmington, Ohio. Now, the 19-year-old proudly says he’s “probably the youngest full-contact jouster in the country.”
“I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie,” he said, pointing to his experience playing football, riding dirt bikes and going four-wheeling. “I’ve always loved to do things that involve me possibly getting hurt.”
Fairchild grew up around horses, so learning to ride wasn’t an issue. Doing so while wearing armor and holding a lance, however, was a horse of a different color.
“If you don’t know how to hold the lance right, you can’t joust at all,” he said.
Though additional safety measures have been put in place since Adams and Lambke got their starts — such as extra padding, mouthpieces, cushioned helmets and new armor and lance designs that help reduce the risk of hand injuries — there’s no getting around the inherent risks that come with full-contact jousting.
Adams said a typical hit generates force greater than that of an NFL player delivering a bone-crushing tackle at full speed.
“It’s a very, very dangerous sport; I’m not going to hide that,” he said. “But as with any dangerous sport, when you become skilled and you learn your profession well, the sport becomes that much safer.”
Still, injuries can and do happen. Lambke said concussions are among the most common afflictions from jousting. He has suffered broken ribs, even a bruised heart.
Nothing, though, has been serious enough to make him swear off the sport.
“My most serious injuries that I’ve ever had, most of them come from outside of jousting,” he said with a laugh. “The safest place I feel is on a horse getting hit. I’d rather have that than driving in L.A. during rush hour.”
Fairchild, too, hasn’t escaped unscathed in his young career — he was sidelined temporarily last year with a wrist injury.
“When you’re jousting, all your force is in the tip of the lance; it’s focused on that one place,” he said. “It does so much damage it’s hard to believe.”
From Adams’ perspective, the goal is always to hone jousting techniques and equipment designs that will continue to make the sport safer.
“I’m not proud of my injuries by any means,” he said. “But I use them as a learning experience so I don’t repeat them.”
Passion for the sport
Given the chance of injury, what keeps these modern-day knights coming back for more? In a word: passion.
“It’s like a thorn in my vein,” said Lambke, who started jousting in 1989. “I leave, but I keep coming back because I love it.”
Lambke said one of his biggest dreams is to see jousting become an Olympic sport. If other equestrian events like dressage can make the cut, he said, why not the sport of knights?
“Seeing the growth of the youth coming in and all the new people, that makes me feel good,” Lambke said. “It’s coming together so I can retire and just be a coach. That’s not happening right away, though, so I still have to go out there and kick some ass.”
Fairchild called being a member of the Knights of Valour a “once-in-a-lifetime job” and said it’s his goal to become the best jouster around.
“A lot of my friends are jealous because they have a job and then they see pictures of me all over the country, always going somewhere new and having a good time while I’m also working,” he said.
For Adams, his goal now is much the same as when he started the Knights of Valour 20 years ago: to expose as many people to the sport as possible.
“I’m not the only person in the world that has this dream, that has this passion,” he said. “Other people from around the world do as well and they have learned the story of the Knights of Valour. The good thing about the Internet and this day and age is I don’t need a set of ravens to go out and tell people who I am.”
As someone who grew up around horses, Adams said he also values the bond a jouster must build with his or her mount. A horse has to trust its partner enough to run headlong into the face of danger.
Though the horses aren’t armored, Adams said they’re not in peril. Given the length of the lances, he said, “the horse is already free and clear past the point of impact when the lances actually strike.”
Troupe members also must undergo stringent training on how to control and aim their lances before they’re permitted to compete, he added.
IF YOU GO
What: Knights of Valour full-contact jousting
When: 5 and 8 p.m. Wednesday through July 22; 4 and 7 p.m. July 23
Where: Action Sports Arena, OC Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
Price: Tickets start at $15; parking is $10