Sit happens

WAITING FOR MY first-round heat at the 2012 Musical Chairs World Championship, I notice that most of my fellow combatants fall into one of two distinct pregame camps: Warm Up ... or Beer Up. It's unseasonably cold and just past 9 a.m. on what technically qualifies as a summer day in Amesbury, Mass. Some 1,200 people have shown up at the town's sports park to compete for the title of musical chairs champ.

Yet the shivering beer drinkers don't disturb me nearly as much as the other group of knuckleheads. Some of the Warm Uppers are wearing cleats and performing a series of calisthenics, led by a gawky go-getter in sport goggles, an acreage of spandex and a headband featuring the heartwarming handwritten message: g.t.f.o. of my chair. "It's all about the ass," the guy yells over and over to no one in particular.

Thankfully, covering this event means that I fall into a separate category, an exclusive group of celebrity VIP players. We are a prestigious bunch that includes a DJ from a wacky morning zoo, a local Subaru dealer and -- swear to God -- a massive, tatted-up, bald, platinum-goateed, one-legged former pro wrestler named Steve Chamberland. Known simply as the Freak to his friends, Chamberland lost his right leg in a 1999 motorcycle accident and is competing today for his charity, 50 Legs, which donates prosthetic limbs to children in need. But despite his good intentions and sheer size, Mr. Freak lasts all of two minutes before being eliminated. "I only know how to throw folding chairs, not sit in 'em," he tells me. "And when I tried the old handicapped gig -- you know, 'Please, lady, I only have one leg. Will you give me that seat?' -- I got nothing. Nothing. Tough crowd in there today. Real tough crowd."

After watching Chamberland and locking eyes with Captain G.T.F.O., I briefly consider forming an alliance with the beer-for-breakfast bunch or, better yet, faking a pulled hammy and heading back to the airport. But then, as I march past Chamberland's group into the MCWC arena preparing to do battle in my opening heat, someone yells in my direction: "Godspeed."

It's a scene pretty much straight out of Gladiator. There's no turning back now. With the stereo speakers blasting Drowning Pool's "Bodies," I approach the pristine row of shimmering empty white plastic folding chairs.

The sit is about to get real.

THE INSPIRATION FOR the 2012 Musical Chairs World Championship was about what you'd imagine: It came to a former prison guard in a dream.

Fred Smith looks like Andy Capp but is built more like Butterbean. A year ago, after leaving his job in corrections, the 32-year-old Smith worked for a family-run company that produces events like the world's largest scavenger hunt. One night in 2011, he was asleep on his couch when a friend called looking for fundraising ideas. Smith rubbed his eyes and thought for a second. Then he blurted out, "How about musical chairs?" There are world championships for horseshoes, beer pong, wife-carrying, rock-paper-scissors and even soccer. Why not musical chairs?

So Smith embarked on an extensive blue-ribbon fact-finding mission. But all his Google search revealed was a Guinness World Record for musical chairs that was set in 1989 by the Anglo-Chinese School in Singapore, where 15-year-old Xu Chong Wei outsquatted 8,237 other contestants. As a former high school baseball player and coach, Smith knew firsthand the intricate link between music and sports. Why not take that connection one step further and try music as sport? "What could be more universal?" he says. "You got an ass, you can be a world champion."

Smith formed the World Musical Chairs Federation and created a set of rules. Basic stuff, like no hovering and no biting. When the music starts, contestants must begin to move in a circle. When it stops, everyone has seven seconds to find a seat, ass-first, without using hands, elbows, teeth or any tactic that could fall under the broad umbrella of "overaggression." (The fact that Smith borrowed terms from his time as a prison guard says pretty much all you need to know about the sport of musical chairs. It also explains why I was required to provide an emergency medical contact to participate in a game normally played by third-graders.) And then there's the golden rule: 51 percent of the seat constitutes full ownership.

For the first year, Smith decided to hold one open event to crown a champ. Anticipating his likely audience, he enlisted one referee for every 40 contestants plus two dozen "enforcers" to keep everything under control. Smith hauled in 750 white plastic folding chairs from a party rental joint. He hired some local bands, food vendors and a DJ. He also signed up a host of nearby businesses as sponsors, including a gym that provided musical chairs lessons, and the Two Guys Smoke Shop, which offered a "close but no cigar" raffle that gave all MCWC losers a shot at a $2,222 consolation prize.

When June 16, Championship Saturday, rolls around, 1,200 participants arrive hoping to win the $10,000 grand prize, which Smith pieced together from entry fees ($35 per person) and sponsor money. If you're wondering how long it took me, a former collegiate wrestler who is now a seemingly well-adjusted father of two daughters, to get sucked into the dark lure of putting "world champion" in front of my name, the answer is about 30 seconds. Don't judge me.

The opening round consists of four large heats, with 300 people in each one. Within every heat, when the music stops and a handful of contestants are left seatless, the losers are escorted out, the refs remove a few chairs, and the music starts up again. Eventually, each heat is whittled down to 15 semifinalists. On the turf floor, the chairs are lined up back-to-back, with Smith's signature twist: a 15-foot Lord of the Flies-inspired gap between blocks of chairs. It quickly becomes known as No Man's Land. If you're trapped there when the music stops, it's seven seconds of panic to find a seat.

My opening-round heat begins with Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" playing. I line up between two women, placing an elbow into each of their sides, hoping to, you know, send an early message. When they turn toward me and laugh, I hit them with some existential musical chairs trash-talk. "Do you guys ever wonder, like, is there even a place for me in this world?" That doesn't really work either.

I make it through the first few stoppages of my heat physically unscathed. Mentally, it's a completely different story. Make no mistake: When the music stops and a bunch of cold, angry and semi-inebriated people packed into a confined space have just seconds to claim a chair, it provides a clear and horrific portal into the human sports soul, a blinding glimpse into the same thing that causes us to watch NASCAR for the crashes or cheer when Matt Cassel gets knocked out of a game. Every time the music stops, the sprawling, steaming mass of humanity stretched out in the MCWC pit looks like the sequel to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this time set inside a Walmart that's giving out free Xboxes during the first seven seconds of Black Friday.

It is so awful that I never want it to end. Which explains my behavior at the end of my opening heat. First, geeked up on AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill," I come in knees hot on an open chair but overshoot my target and charley-horse the crap out of Lisa Moore, a kind redheaded lady in mom jeans from nearby Lowell. She is competing for a kids charity. Thankfully, Lisa is able to laugh off the pain; she would go on to finish eighth overall despite a serious limp and an elbow swollen to the size of a grapefruit.

Next, Outkast's "Hey Ya!" halts just as I enter No Man's Land. Without hesitating, I hip-check an 80-pound grandma in camo shorts and slip into the seat she was headed for. Sitting there, I put my hand on my chest and strike my very best Colonel Nicholson "What have I done?" face from the climactic scene of The Bridge on the River Kwai. I apologize profusely, but I doubt she hears me, on account of all the booing from the crowd. As they say in the biz, sit happens.

With my competitors in this round narrowed to 16, and the semis (top 15 from each heat) within my grasp, I start throwing my butt cheeks around with laser-focused intensity. In the final stoppage, though, I wind up on the end of the row as the chairs fill up in one thunderous avalanche of ass, like a wave hitting shore. I race to the last open seat and stake my claim, only to have some doofus sneak in and wiggle away enough real estate to warrant a judge's ruling. I sink my cheeks into the seat and keep my left leg locked like a crowbar as the judge steps in to examine the situation. After a second, he points to me and says, "51 percent, the chair is his."

I ball up two fists and thrust them into the gray sky overhead. I feel proud, accomplished and, yes, more than a bit ashamed of the physical and emotional wreckage left in my wake, kind of how I imagine Lance Armstrong must feel when he looks in the mirror. But screw it, I am officially one of 60 world semifinalists.

NOW, I HATE to sound like every other elite world-class athlete when things go wrong, but in the semifinal I got robbed. Okay, during the break, I may have spent too much time at the Italian sausage stand. And maybe that green SEMIs bracelet, the one I was waving like an engagement ring, made me a little cocky and lazy.

Whatever the reason, during my first song back in the pit, I clear No Man's Land and am approaching the end of the row when the music stops. That creates a classic bottleneck, with three of us standing flat-footed at the turn as butt cheeks domino into the closest seats around us. Cast into a vacuum of time, space and sound, the clock ticking, I hear what sounds like the voice of Jenny from Forrest Gump, only with a thick, gravelly Bawston accent. It is Fred Smith. What had he said to me yesterday? "If the music stops and there's no seat, don't fight, don't cry. RUN!"

Snapped back to reality, I spin, pivot and swim against the current until I reach the row of chairs behind me. Nothing is open. With precious seconds left, I take off in the other direction. Just as I achieve full speed, it appears, like a vision: the glorious, shiny white-plastic square of the final open seat. Yes! At that exact instant, however, I look up and see my old nemesis, one of the headband-wearing Warm Uppers, freight-training in from the other direction. We lock eyes and, undeterred, hurtle toward each other like two atom particles in an accelerator.

Now, there are certain moments in every man's life when fate, opportunity, the musical stylings of Kesha and three Italian sausages mix in a way that reveals exactly who we are at our very core. And so as our speed increases and the gap between us and the chair closes, I have a choice to make: Concede and hit the beer tent ... or dive.

And for one brief moment after takeoff, I swear to you, with God and the Freak as my witness, I know exactly what John Elway felt like when he flew through the air in Super Bowl XXXII. But the moment is fleeting. Half a second later, I clip the guy's shin in midair, helicoptering us both down to the turf in a defeated Wile E. Coyote heap just as the buzzer sounds, eliminating us both.

The dream is dead. I would not be one of the 20 advancing finalists. I would not pocket the $10,000. I would not be a world champ. Two enforcers help me up and escort me to the exit, where I wave to the crowd as a woman with giant scissors unceremoniously slices off my MCWC bracelet as if I were some disgraced soldier getting his captain's bars torn off.

"LET'S FIND OUT who has the best ass in the world!" Smith yells. It's a few minutes past 6 p.m. when, after nearly seven hours of competition, 1,000 song snippets and dozens of "SIT-SIT-SIT!" chants from the crowd, the original 1,200 entrants have been whittled down to two.

The top 10 had been a glorious testament to Smith's original dream: a competitive, hilarious and entertaining mix of everyday folks that included a guy in his 60s, a dude wearing flip-flops, mom-jeans Lisa and Nashua's Mike Sugalski, a 230-pound former semipro fullback with a cleft chin deep enough to double as a bike rack. In the final, the 31-year-old Sugalski, sporting a faded Red Sox cap and RayBan aviators, will face Elizabeth Curran, 23, of Franklin for the first World Musical Chairs title.

As the final song, "Baby Got Back," blasts, Sugalski and Curran stalk each other in tight circles inside a single-chair ring. Using an exotic squat-'n-shuffle strategy that helps him "sit down before everyone else," Sugalski wins easily to claim the $10,000 and a cushy, custom "World Champion" chair. "I've been sitting pretty much my whole life," he deadpans, "so I guess I'm pretty good at it."

Rather than a trip to Disney, Sugalski, who works for Fidelity Investments, plans to take some friends and his oversize check to the nearest pub. He's also thinking of buying a motorcycle, one with a really soft seat. Will he be back on Nov. 23, 2013, in Tyngsborough, Mass., to defend his title against Curran, the Freak and whomever The Magazine sends to replace me?

"I might just go out like John Elway," he says. "You know, win a championship, retire on top."

Or in this case, on the bottom.

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