French sport draws fans with its combination of skill, relaxation and fun

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Johnny Prince displays the form and concentration that have made him such a good player of petanque. But his main goal in Lake Oswego is just to have a good time.

If you're not careful, petanque can become a way of life. This game of French origin may seem strange and sedentary to the uninitiated. The objective is to stand straight and toss your steel ball in a way so it hits steel balls on the ground.

But once you start tossing a petanque ball you find yourself having fun, getting in shape, losing weight, making friends, and sitting at outdoor tables drinking nice cold beverages.

In other words, the perfect pastime. And it is catching on in Lake Oswego thanks to the remarkable Johnny Prince.

Prince is a swashbuckler - a survivor of one of London's toughest areas, fencing champion of England and a hippie from the days of Swinging London in the 1960s.

Upon meeting him it is immediately evident that he is not a native Oregonian. But Prince is a great petanque player and his enthusiasm for the sport is spreading in his new home of Lake Oswego.

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Johnny Prince was born in France, grew up in France and now he is the father of petanque in Lake Oswego.

"There's nobody like Johnny," said one member of the Lake Oswego Petanque Club as she admiringly observed Prince clinking one ball after another and sending them flying at the petanque court at Millennium Plaza Park.

"We just have fun with 30 or 40 members," Prince said. "We're quite busy. French restaurant owners and workers like to come here and bring their food, (drinks), wives and kids. Petanque is fun. I want more people to play it. It makes people more jovial and want to meet other people."

Nice people, indeed. Like LeannRuth Jensen.

"I heard about petanque at LaProvence (a popular French restaurant in Lake Oswego)," Jensen said, "and I invited my husband to play. We went to Foothills Park and met Johnny and started playing last year."

Jensen doesn't expect to set the petanque world on fire, but she is having a terrific time.

"It's a wonderful exercise. You use all of your big muscle groups," Jensen said. "Except for French movies I didn't know anything about petanque. It's sort of like golf. You know you'll never be perfect at it but you can always get a little better. It's sort of habit forming.

"I'm a brand-new player and I'm embarrassed by how bad I am. But I've lost 8 pounds and my upper body is stronger. It's more fun than walking."

Barbie Crowder of West Linn picked up petanque on a trip to France in 2007. She found an old French gent who showed her how to play, and now she is a true enthusiast.

"I'm pretty good for a newbee," Crowder said. "I've got lots of good mentors who are showing me good shots."

Jan Kirtland of Beaverton became so jazzed about petanque that she has started a petanque club for kids in Lake Oswego.

"I've been playing for two years," Kirtland said. "I've played in a lot of tournaments, but I haven't won any yet. I like petanque because of the work it takes to get good, the strategy and the teamwork. I also like meeting new people."

She likes the traveling, too. Kirtland has competed in tournaments in Eugene, Seattle and Amelia Island, Fla., which held an international tournament.

Petanque originated in 1907 in southern France. The game got its name from a phrase that means "feet together." It was invented by one Jules Lenoir, who suffered from rheumatism and did not want to play a game in which he had to chase after the ball. His concept caught on so well in France that today it is played by 17 million people. Except for Spain, petanque did not spread so quickly in other countries, but it is making gains. Around 30,000 people now play petanque in the United States, and Prince joined their ranks six years ago.

"I'm a sportsman," Prince said. "I was national fencing champion in England. But I'm not 16 anymore and I wanted to play another kind of sport."

Prince's love of petanque began while shopping in a French furniture store on Nob Hill in Southwest Portland, where he received an invitation to attend the Bastille Day celebration in Sellwood, an unlikely hotbed of things French.

"I thought, ‘Why not?' It's a giggle, you know," said Prince, who was born in France. "I had only seen it played as a kid in France by old guys who smoked and drank."

Life had slowed down a bit for Prince since he moved to Oregon 11 years ago. As a kid he used his tremendous quickness to avoid bullies in his south London neighborhood ("I knew Keith Richards before he was famous.") and then took up the hugely demanding sport of fencing, practicing and training for 13 hours a day. Petanque was tamer, but it required the same riveting concentration as fencing.

Prince picked up a petanque ball for the first time in Sellwood. He was hooked. He went on to join several clubs in Portland and became a championship level player, competing in regional and national tournaments. His dream is to go on a three-month holiday in France to play in petanque tournaments.

Of course, now Prince is the father of petanque in Lake Oswego. It is very convenient that this city has two petanque courts, one at Foothills Park ("It has Italian crushed marble, exactly like the courts in France.") and the other at Millennium Plaza Park, where practice is held every Friday afternoon.

People stop, watch and end up playing.

"You'd be surprised at how many people start that way," Prince said. "I have no problem talking to people."

July 14, Bastille Day, will be a very big petanque occasion in Lake Oswego. Ever the petanque promoter, Prince and his club members will be hosting a tournament competition at Foothills Park that will be open to everyone, starting at 9 a.m. and going on until 7 p.m. in the evening.

Prince hopes the popularity of petanque keeps growing and growing, and he would especially like to see more young people take up the sport.

"I want this game to be for everyone," Prince said. "Not just old ***** like me."

For more about the Lake Oswego Petanque Club, go to its site on Facebook or else call the city of Lake Oswego Parks & Recreation Department at 503-675-2549.

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