PETER VAN DER SLUIJS/CC WIKIMEDIA

The world of sport is far more diverse than what you see offered at sports bars. This series will profile the lesser-known, the more interesting, and the downright peculiar sports that you haven’t heard of until now.

You probably haven’t heard much about canal vaulting, but it’s exactly what it sounds like: pole vaulting over a canal. The sport is practiced mostly in Holland and has origins that date back as far as the thirteenth century, when traversing the many waterways of the landscape was a necessity for farmers to grow their crops.

In the past 100 years, the task has evolved into a national sport now known as ‘Fierljeppen’ or canal vaulting.

Like a combination of pole vault and long jump, participants compete using carbon poles that can be up to 45 feet long. Athletes run full speed towards the pole and grab on; as the pole leans forward, they continue to climb several feet up the pole before relying on gravity to bring them to the other side.

In recent years, the sport has reached extreme heights, so to speak. The current record sits at 21.64 metres which is just over 70 feet.

In Fierljeppen, each participant gets three attempts at a jump and wears strips of bicycle inner-tube to maximize their grip on the pole. If they don’t master their strength, balance, and control, they might fall in the wrong direction, especially when wind and weather comes into play.

After the best jump is recorded, the top 3 participants move on to the final and the process repeats. While the sport is a competitive one, most of its athletes emphasize the sense of community they feel, which keeps them coming back to competitions.

The sport boasts over 500 registered athletes, and there are five different categories of canal vaulting: veterans, seniors, juniors, men, and ladies. The sport has grown enough to host an annual National Fierljeppen Manifestation, which attracts large crowds of locals and tourists alike, and dozens of additional competitions throughout the year.

The possibility of a splashdown is undoubtedly one of the greatest attractions for spectators. Remarkably, only about 30 per cent of participants end up in the water, which is a rather small percentage given the great distances they cover.

However, many things still can and do go wrong — it is impossible to reliably predict outcomes in this sport. Like a gymnast running full speed towards a vault, many minuscule calculations add up to make the difference between setting a new world record or falling face-first into the water.

Even experienced canal vaulters have been known to miscalculate their jumps and fall into the water; sometimes they even miss the pole entirely. As a result, canal jumping is extremely entertaining to watch and audiences have been growing every year.

So the next time you’re in Holland, be sure to stop by one of these competitions to cheer the athletes on or even sign up for some classes yourself. Several companies now cater to amateurs wanting to give it a go — just be sure to bring a change of clothes.

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