Go anywhere," said Steve Cushman, gesturing expansively as he jogged around a palm-fringed lagoon. "Go up to Mount Soledad, down to the Embarcadero or out to Crystal Pier. Go anywhere in San Diego, anywhere, stop for a moment, make one complete 360-degree turn, and if you don't see at least two dozen people engaged in a minimum of three different sports, well, it's either four o'clock in the morning or you've taken the wrong turnoff and ended up in Tijuana."
Cushman, a former minor league pitcher, recreation leader, racquetball promoter, exercise physiologist, soccer coach, tennis ace, weight lifter, bowling hustler, marathoner and guide to the city's sporting life, does not jest. He doesn't slow down, either. Taking him at his word, a winded visitor accompanying him on a running tour of Mission Bay Park, a 4,600-acre playground that is just a brisk jog from downtown San Diego, gladly stopped, turned full circle and duly noted not a few dozen but several thousand people at play.
Along with countless swimmers, sail surfers, water skiers and jet skiers, the waters were brimming with an armada of pleasure craft: kayaks, sloops, sculls, cabin cruisers, pontoon barges, paddle boats, catboats, catamarans, hydroplanes, hydrofoils—you name it, it was afloat and moving. Ashore, scattered across 27 miles of bayfront that meanders around a maze of coves, peninsulas and islands, park-goers were bicycling, skateboarding, fishing, practicing karate, sailing Frisbees, batting whiffleballs and playing badminton, volleyball, kickball and touch football. And everywhere there were joggers, including one fast-stepping woman towing a tot on roller skates.
"Slow day," said Cushman, pausing between deep knee bends to explain that on peak days the park attracts 80,000 persons, nearly two million a year. "But you get the idea. San Diego is a year-round sports festival."
Like many San Diegans, Cushman is a transplant from the North, one of the thousands of Americans who each year migrate to the subtropical coastal city that has become a mecca for anyone interested in participant sports, physical fitness and the great outdoors. Oh, the collective pulse rate of the jog-happy residents of Eugene, Ore. or Gainesville, Fla. may be a tad lower. Per capita there may be more backpackers in Denver, more canoeists in Minneapolis. But for sheer numbers of participants, diversity of pursuits and intensity of involvement, San Diego must rank as the sports and fitness capital of the U.S.
If there be any doubters, let them follow the streams of people who pour out of City Hall and downtown offices at noontime and hoof it to nearby Balboa Park for group jogging sessions; judges and lawyers over there, secretaries to the left, dentists to the right.
Balboa Park is a hilly green oasis of 1,158 acres that not only encompasses one of the nation's finest zoos but also the facilities to host a participant sports Olympics. Each week some 8,000 tennis players make use of the park's 25 courts, while a like number crowds its field house and two gymnasiums for table tennis (8,000 players a year), badminton (2,000 players a week) and volleyball (55 teams).
Along with two municipal golf courses, there is a wooded 18-hole layout for the latest rage, disk golf, which is played with a Frisbee. In addition, the park has archery ranges, lawn-bowling greens, shuffleboard courts, horseshoe pits, a casting pond, a football stadium and 10 athletic fields for everything from flag football (600 teams) to youth and adult soccer (350 teams). That plus a new velodrome that will host trials for the 1980 Pan-Am Games.
The fruits of all this energy are enshrined in the park's cultural complex, a cluster of neo-Moorish and Spanish rococo buildings that were erected for two world expositions. There, amid the art and science museums, is the Hall of Champions, "a living monument to the American way of life...created to honor our sons and daughters who have brought fame and glory to San Diego County."
One may view the memorabilia of baseball greats Ted Williams and Don Larsen, pro football's Lance Alworth and Ron Mix, boxer Archie Moore, Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick, Wimbledon queens Maureen Connolly and Karen Hantze, and golfers Billy Casper, Mickey Wright and Gene Littler. Not to mention former world-record holder Bud Held (javelin) and Olympic gold medalists Billy Mills (10,000 meters) and Lowell North (sailing).