I tried three new Olympic sports. Here’s what I learned.

By Emily Sohn

I was standing atop one of the steepest skateboard ramps at the 3rd Lair, a graffiti-walled skate park near my home in Minneapolis. Flanked by my two sons, I peered over the edge and tried to wrap my mind around what I was supposed to do: jump onto my padded knees and slide down the near-vertical slope.

I was just 10 minutes into our first skateboarding lesson and my heart was thumping. I’ve been a lifelong athlete, but I’m also in my 40s and was wary of breaking a bone, or worse. Without hesitation, my 13-year-old took the plunge, and my 8-year-old followed soon after.

“Go on the exhale,” said our instructor, James Kaul, who goes by the nickname Trog and issues a never-ending stream of skateboarding advice that doubles as life philosophy. Things like, “You have to learn to fall before you can learn to skateboard.”

So I took a breath, fell onto my knees and slid. Then I did it twice more before we worked on getting on and off the board, turning, and rolling down (and up) small ramps.

Skateboarding is just one of several new sports making their Olympic debut in the Summer Games in Tokyo this month, in addition to karate, sport climbing (indoor rock climbing) and surfing.

While I have tended to pursue fairly mainstream workouts for most of my life, like swimming, running and mountain biking, I was curious about what it would take to be the best in sports I had never attempted. I was also intrigued by the potential physical and mental benefits I could reap from trying them. Participating in new sports can help strengthen long-neglected muscles, said Jack Raglin, an exercise and sports scientist at Indiana University Bloomington. And some evidence suggests that engaging in new activities and diversifying workouts can increase motivation to exercise, strengthen the brain and even boost feelings of passion in romantic relationships.

So I strapped on a skateboarding helmet, slipped into a climbing harness and tied on a karate belt to see if I had what it takes to master some of these new Olympic sports.

Three days after my skateboarding lesson, I picked up a friend and headed to Vertical Endeavors, a rock-climbing gym in a suburb south of Minneapolis. The gym has a dedicated wall for speed climbing, which, along with lead climbing (climbing with a rope) and bouldering (climbing with no rope), is one of three styles of rock climbing that will comprise the sport climbing event in Tokyo. A regulation speed climbing wall is 49 feet high with an overhang of 5 degrees. The goal: Scramble to the top, Spiderman-style, as quickly as possible and while racing an opponent.

My friend and I had experience rock climbing, but speed climbing was a first for us, so we asked Tony Mansourian, a coach for the gym’s youth climbing team, for tips. He said that while more conventional types of sport and outdoor climbing focus on deliberate hand movements and foot placements, succeeding on the speed wall requires more dynamic jumping and minimal thinking.

Speed climbing is its own discipline,” Mansourian said. “Climbing it like you would climb a traditional climb almost makes it harder.”

After clipping into an auto-belay device, I tried to turn off my brain and levitate from hold to hold (as I’ve seen professionals do). But each move required more bursts of muscle power and leaps of faith than I could sustain. Several times, I barely caught the edge of the next hold and had to grunt my way through it. My forehead grew sweaty. My heart rate soared. Every few moves, I had to stop to catch my breath. It took me about 2 minutes to get near the top, a far cry from the women’s world record of about 7 seconds. But I was exhilarated by the challenge and determined to get better.

A big benefit of weaving new activities into your exercise repertoire, said Martin Hagger, a health psychologist at the University of California, Merced, is that it can increase your motivation to workout. Novel experiences can spark the release of dopamine in the brain, he said, which in turn can lead to feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and the urge to do them again.

Bonding with a community of people that you exercise with, like those at the climbing gym, can also make you more committed to a particular workout, Raglin said. A sense of belonging can increase your self-esteem and cement your identity within that group of people, which in turn can help you develop and maintain a healthy habit. “Your reason for exercise broadens,” he continued, “from just sort of fitness or skill-based things to, ‘These are my friends and I want to share this with my friends.’”

With my forearms and triceps still aching the day after my speed-climbing attempt, I stood barefoot on a wooden floor, staring my husband in the eye before kicking at his stomach, then blocking his return punch and punching back. We were practicing kumite, one of two karate disciplines appearing for the first time in the Olympic program. In kumite, two people spar with punches and kicks, and earn points when they land a strike on specific places of their opponent’s body. The other discipline, kata, is a choreographed set of moves performed solo.

On a Tuesday morning, we learned the basics of both disciplines from the owners of a local studio called Kitsune Karate. Amy Sperling, who has won multiple national and international karate competitions, and her husband, Scott Parkin, moved with fluidity and grace as they demonstrated what to do. The moves looked doable, but I struggled to coordinate my arms and legs in the right order when it was our turn. We laughed at our mistakes as much as we kicked and punched. But there was also hidden value to the lesson.

Exercising with a spouse or partner may make people more likely to stick with a given workout — and the relationship, according to research from Raglin’s team and others. In one of Raglin’s early studies from 1995, married couples who exercised together were far more likely to continue an exercise program than married people who participated alone — a finding that has been replicated in other, mostly small studies since. Doing new and exciting things together, like skiing, dancing or going to a concert, can also lead to greater relationship satisfaction and make the activity more enjoyable, some research suggests.

After my week of Olympic adventure, I came away feeling sore, of course, but also emboldened to keep testing the bounds of my exercise comfort zone. I also felt closer to my kids, husband and friends. I wondered what else I could learn to do in my middle age.

Gaining the confidence to take risks is a fringe benefit of trying new activities, Raglin said. “If you get into that sort of groove, it’s like, ‘Well, what next?’” he said.

I have some courage yet to muster: Freestyle BMX is also a new cycling event this year, and break dancing is set to debut at the Olympics in 2024. But for now, I’m going to soak in a hot bath and revel in my Olympic accomplishments.