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Actively seeking a social life

Times Staff Writer

It’s tough to meet people in this town, practically any single person will tell you. Meeting someone whose main focus in life isn’t spending quality time with “American Idol” and a quart of toffee chip ice cream is even harder.

Maybe that explains the number of local singles groups devoted to one or more athletic activities: Athletic Singles Assn., Active Singles Network, the Sierra Club’s Sierra Singles, L.A. Golf Singles, Single Ski Club of Los Angeles. It doesn’t take Dr. Phil to explain that couples who share interests tend to have stronger relationships, but the fitness-minded who seek the same share a deeper fundamental need: living a healthier life.

“I want to be able to share my lifestyle, my outlook on life ... and I want him around for 20 years,” says Mary Morales, Sierra Singles vice chairwoman, of her boyfriend. The two met four years ago through the Sierra Club, and the 57-year-old retiree from Lake Forest states emphatically that finding a partner who valued her love of staying fit and eating well was imperative: “Every step he takes in that direction makes him last one more year.”

Some opposites-attract relationships might be able to tolerate the great divide that separates the active person from the couch potato.

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Roger Nelson, founder and president of Active Singles Network, says, “In my prior marriage, my wife was pretty much a couch potato. That was a prior marriage. Enough said.”

His current wife, he adds, is a marathon runner, and the two often go biking, roller-blading, hiking, golfing and skiing together. “We have a lot of fun,” he says. “She’s very much of a health enthusiast. I’m not as much, but I enjoy sports and athletics. But the by-product is healthy living, and it’s kind of hard to do those things and eat junk food all the time.”

Marriage therapists understand this simple concept for looking for Mr. or Ms. Right: “If your focus is on a healthy lifestyle, separating mind and body isn’t something you could do,” says Christopher Lucey, assistant professor at Cal State Fresno’s department of counseling.

It goes deeper than active versus sedentary or broccoli versus French fries: “If somebody’s really heavily committed to a healthy lifestyle, that’s a belief system and a way of living,” says Cheryl Storm, director of the marriage and family therapy department at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. For a couple with different philosophies, “negotiating that area of their life may be as important as negotiating different religious affiliations.”

The desire for that commonality is one reason singles in Southern California have been plunking down sometimes hundreds of dollars a year to join organizations that typically combine athletic events with social activities, such as dinners.

“I think it’s an important compatibility,” says Ed Reder, founder and president of Athletic Singles Assn. He started the organization 18 years ago as part of an effort to find tennis partners, then decided to start a club for singles interested in many sports. The group has 1,500 members in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. The average member stays in for about two years.

“Maybe you’ve had a relationship that dissolved, and looking back on it you realized you were a lot more active than your partner,” he says. “That can be an issue. The people I choose need to keep up with me.”

The group’s calendar includes beach volleyball, biking, hiking, roller-blading and skiing, as well as wine tastings and museum outings.

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While the “athletic singles” part might conjure up images of “Are You Hot?” contenders frolicking in the California sun, the reality is that members also include the love-handled, the pot-bellied, the cellulite-thighed, the pasty-skinned -- that is, real people with imperfect bodies who share a desire to be fit.

At a recent ASA beach volleyball get-together, wisps of fog crawl across the sand as 16 members trickle onto the courts, doffing sandals and sneakers and unloading beach chairs, blankets and backpacks. Newer members give themselves away with folded-arm stiffness, but once the game starts the atmosphere relaxes. Novices are teamed with experienced players, and everyone gets ribbed when the ball sails out of bounds or lands with a thud in front of them. It feels more like an amiable pick-up game than a high-anxiety meat market. Social director Devorah Luna greets old and new members and makes sure everyone is introduced.

Chris Hickman, a 37-year-old structural engineer from Santa Monica (and a transplanted Londoner) says he joined in fall for volleyball. “I guess I joined to play, but it’s a dual function of playing and meeting people. It’s a fun group of people.”

The group has also become a way to rekindle a past love -- of sports.

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Monica Marshall, a 36-year-old longshoreman from Wilmington, would love to play tennis again: “I haven’t done that in a long time,” says the divorced mother of a 12-year-old. She’d also like to meet someone, but doesn’t see herself making a love connection at the local Bally: “I keep pretty much to myself when I’m there,” she says. “I just do my workout. I have a couple of friends who are much younger who are more into that. I think it’s their age -- it works for them.”

Reder agrees that health clubs, despite their reputation as prime spots for hookups, might not be the best venue for matchmaking: “It’s kind of hard. You’re on the StairMaster, and you’re supposed to look over at someone and say, ‘Are you free Saturday night?’ I wouldn’t know how to do to that, and I’m pretty outgoing.”

Team sports, on the other hand, can lend that valuable bit of insight if, say, someone goes ballistic after losing a match: “If someone is a poor sport on the volleyball court, you want to know that,” Reder says. “You say to yourself, ‘I might have been interested in going out with this person, but not anymore.’ ”

The ASA is a catalyst for about five marriages a year, says Reder, but he’ll be happy if people just find a sport to fall in love with: “Learning a new sport is a nice way to get back into the singles scene,” he says. “You become more active, maybe lose a few pounds -- you’ll feel good about yourself.”

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Times staff writer Jeannine Stein can be reached at jeannine.stein@latimes.com.


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