Santas vie for title in Switzerland
SAMNAUN, Switzerland -- When competing at the Santa Claus World Championships, not only do you have to be a dasher, but you also have to be a dancer, a chimney climber, a spirited singer and the speediest of sleigh racers.
Hosted in the Eastern Alps of Samnaun, Switzerland, the ClauWau championships feature 23 teams of four people testing their subzero fortitude and unrelenting Christmas spirit in a range of festive events and shenanigans.
Leave it to Switzerland to balance a sporting championship with a worldwide Christmas party.
There's something about seeing Santa look-alikes dancing around onstage, singing "Jailhouse Rock" with a German accent that could make even Scrooge want to shake a leg.
The American squad, St. Nick's Hicks, stormed into the championships in candy cane-striped overalls and led by Capt. Jack Nicholson of the U.S. Navy.
At the opening ceremonies, he confided, "We're torn between honoring the Christmas spirit and the natural American desire to dominate."
His ClauWau comrades all have worked in the Navy as well, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Clarke, 37, ran the Boston Marathon three times. Equally fearless and tenacious, Bob Groat, 70, and Cathy Groat, 56, shared their rigorous pre-competition preparations.
"We ate a lot of milk and cookies," said Cathy, gesturing as though the cookies weigh as much as 50-pound dumbbells.
For the first event, Santas ride "zipfy bob" sleds down the mountain with teams timed by the point each member crosses the finish line.
Not able to maintain balance, one of the Japanese men in ITTEQ, the traveling variety show team, started running down the mountain, sled in hand.
Other struggles ensued.
"I had to steer with one hand, while the other was trying to save my costume from getting under the bob [sled]," said Mark Zoutenbier of Team S.I.L.A.L.N.H.A.K. from Holland. "I crashed on every snowflake on the track."
The team name stands for "Santas in Liver and Lungs Not Heart and Kidneys" -- a play on the team's penchant for partying -- but its pronunciation is also meant to foil the announcer, Zoutenbier quipped.
Others favored labels with global appeal.
Such as the Super Santas. They flew in from England, sporting Superman-style emblems on their chests, a red cape and tighty-whities over their red tights.
Next, Santas paraded around the beautiful village of Samnaun and performed a two-minute presentation to showcase their spirit to the panel of three judges who score the creative events.
Some Santas read stories, performed short skits, and danced the Macarena. Team USA explained the meaning of "hick."
For the sleigh races, two Santas steered a horse-drawn sleigh in a long loop while the other two kept pace, gathering gifts along the way and banking them into the back of the sleigh.
They've got big stockings to fill. The real Santa can't leave behind a little boy's fishing pole or a girl's pink iPod Nano -- the elves would be furious.
Patrick Kurmann grabbed the reins for Team Auwer Chlause from Switzerland and said, "The reason why we were so fast: The owner of the horse told me if I loosen the reins, the horse gets faster."
Faux Santas must be able to steer horses and snag stray gifts, but they also must be keen on geography -- to identify and locate 14 famous landmarks from pictures featuring the Taj Mahal in India, Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Rushmore in the United States, among others.
Santas, weary from running and straining their brains, are then challenged with a creative task: Two people will decorate gingerbread, and two will sculpt a design in the side of a snowbank.
The reigning champs, Teleschmutzli's, sculpted out, designed and painted a Santa on a motorcycle. Scoring high as well, the Hicks' Capt. Nicholson and Bob Groat carved out a turtle they dubbed a Maryland Terrapin.
"Previously untapped gifts," Nicholson joked of his sculpting. "We just Googled 'easy ice sculpture,' and the turtle was the top one."
Finally, to round out the qualifiers, Santas shinny up a chimney while carrying a sack of gifts. Climbing is strenuous, but you'll never see Santa on a treadmill, burning off the billions of cookie calories.
ITTEQ posted a solid performance considering "there are no chimneys in Japan," said the show's coordinator, Ryoko Nakajima. "So Santa enters through the window. And Japanese kids don't leave milk and cookies."
The 20-something competitors look like squirrels zipping up a tree, but for the older crowd, the rock wall tower can be more daunting. However, the oldest competitor, Groat, burst up the makeshift chimney with a smile on his face and a fire under his tail.
He scored the biggest cheers from the crowd when he powered to the top, rang the bell and tossed down the gift sack, advancing the Americans to the finals.
And the ClauWau finals concluded with a three-event run-off, starting with the hat race.
Twelve teams test their "togetherness" by the team standing under a tall and wide red Santa cap and scurrying around the sleigh-race loop, scooping all of the gifts under the hat. There's a small screen window in the front of the hat so the leader can steer the crew. Not sure when Santa ever needed to run around under a big hat collecting gifts, but the event looked funny.
Better yet, what about an eggnog-chugging contest? A blindfolded, obstacle course run through Legos left out from the night before? Feeding reindeer without losing a hand?
For the next event, the Steinbock Sprint, teams hustle these hearty steinboks (like rocking horses) in a relay race, with some competitors even bucked off the back.
The grand finale, with the nearly $6,000 ClauWau championship prize money on the line, all amounted to who could stage the most compelling karaoke show.
Going from Steinbock Sprint to Santa Karaoke is like asking the San Diego Padres to run off the field in the middle of the ninth inning to do the chicken dance on the dugout.
But Santas know no bounds. The Spitfire Bombej Santas donned black suits, skinny black ties and turbans to sing the Blues Brothers' "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love."
The Americans belted John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy, while the Japanese crooned Wham's "Last Christmas."
But it was Team Auwer Chlause that delivered the goods and captured the championships with Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock."
Kurmann, a 25-year-old computer science student wearing painted, white eyebrows, expressed the team's philosophy.
"You have to set priorities; you have to have an interesting life," he said. "You need to focus on family, culture and especially free time."
He plans to divvy the money among the team members and the one "coach," who "cheered us on, watched our wallets and brought us hot drinks."
All of which is quintessential Christmas.