In the scene around Santa Monica's traveling rings, the regulars have found an art form, an ad hoc family and, in some instances, salvation
For Bruno Angelico, the rings are "not about working out. It's also about being able to create." (Thad Russell / For the Times)
His return to earth is met with claps, compliments. "Great, man." "Nice swivel." Filchyboy pulls off his headphones, grins, and is absorbed into the cluster of swingers waiting their turns.
Most of them are regulars: about two dozen young men and a few women, many in their 20s and 30s, who come down every weekend to work out on the traveling rings on the beach just south of the Santa Monica Pier. More than just a pastime, the rings are a significant fixture in their lives. They've helped some pull themselves together after debilitating setbacks, both physical and emotional. They've provided a focus and a community. Many swingers liken the scene to an ad hoc family.
Yet at the same time there's a loose, unmoored quality to the group. Most don't know each other's last names—many, like Filchyboy (Chris Filkins), go by nicknames—and as for where anyone's from and what anyone does for a living, who cares? At the rings, what matters is what you can do 15 feet up in the air.
To be clear, the ring swingers don't swing. Rather, they fly, soar, kick, coil, twirl. Tourists and other beach-goers regularly gather around, agape at the complicated routines and tricks—moves that resemble maneuvers from X Games sports such as skateboarding and snowboarding, or a D.I.Y. version of Cirque du Soleil.
"It's not like traditional gymnastics. It's more street," says Robert Chapin, a professional stunt- and swordsman who trains at the rings. (Last summer, when the swingers recruited former U.S. Olympic gymnastics judge Frank Endo to judge their annual self-organized competition, some were disgruntled when he deducted points for toes that weren't gracefully pointed.)
Beyond the swingers' skill and daring, the sheer scale of the traveling rings, which until recently were the only set of their kind in the world, commands attention. The 75-foot-long, 15-foot-high steel frame supports 10 rings, each set about 8 feet apart and suspended 7 feet off the ground. The idea is to swing down and back as artfully, and inventively, as possible, ideally without hitting a pole or rogue ring. Or worse. Four years ago, Paul Scott, a rings elder at 52, fractured a vertebra while practicing a back flip.
There's no real glory in the rings. No money. No sponsorships. Impressed hoots from tourists are about it. But for the regulars, the rings serve intense, almost religious roles in their lives.
"Everyone gets sucked down here for different reasons," says Wil Bethel, a writer who waits tables and who bicycles to the beach from Koreatown twice a week.
For Filkins, a 39-year-old single father, the rings were a kind of salvation when his life was at a low point a few years ago. His wife had run away, taking their daughter with her. Filkins, who'd been a stay-at-home dad, was without a job and spent six weeks living on the beach, showering with the homeless, his world reeling. Eventually he picked up the pieces: got hired at a website, gained custody of his daughter, moved into an apartment in Santa Monica. He also bought a pair of roller blades, which led him to the rings, where he'd watch a dreadlocked swinger called "Action" fly through the sky.
"After about a year or so of that I finally started trying it myself," Filkins says, propped up on a low wall near the rings. The wall separates the beach from the Rest of the World—the clots of tourists tooling along the bike path and the chi-chi hotels.
"It gave me all of my self-esteem back. I feel like I'm a completely different person than I used to be a few years ago," he says. "I don't know whether it would have happened without [the rings], but this definitely gave me focus."
Now he and his 11-year-old daughter, Kassia, are both regulars.
It's a warmer-than-usual Sunday in May, and Jessica Cail and Brad Meyers are starting to heat things up. They're practicing double leg-overs, a trick that involves swinging a leg over a ring and, in the process, momentarily letting go of the ring to reach under and grab it again, then doing the same with the other leg. In execution, it looks something like airborne leapfrog.
Cail, with long red hair pulled back in a ponytail and a sturdy build, drops from the third ring. "I miss on the left, still," she says.
Meyers falls to his knees in the sand and sits back on his heels, prayer-like, to stretch his quads.
Gena Sorochkin, bearded and unseasonably dressed in winter biking gear, sits on the wall and watches. Scattered around him are bags of white hand chalk, tossed sweatshirts and water bottles.
While growing up in the Soviet Union, Sorochkin was a cyclist on the junior national team. "When I was 7, I wanted to do gymnastics, but I was told I was too old," he says. "You have to start when you're 4, 5. Now I'm 44 and doing the rings . I'm older and I take long breaks, but at the end of the day I still have my hands."
Sorochkin turns over his palms: They are only slightly roughed up with calluses.