Arts preview: Shane Adams and the Knights of Valour

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From the August 29, 2013 edition
  • Photo credit: Ohio Renaissance Festival, Inc.

Professional jouster Shane Adams is a burly, bearded bear of a man, but when he strapped on his armor for a bout earlier this July he felt something he hadn’t felt in more than two decades of competition: fear.

Adams, who appears alongside his jousting crew the Knights of Valour for three-times daily exhibitions during the Ohio Renaissance Festival, which kicks off this weekend and runs through Sunday, Oct. 20, tore his Achilles tendon in March during an intensive training session. Although a litany of bumps and bruises have done little to slow the native Canadian in the past — he’s broken countless bones, cracked multiple ribs and done such damage to his hip joints that each time he hoists himself atop his 2,000-pound horse it feels like they’ve become dislocated — this injury was somehow different.

Adams said his concern was fueled in large part by the lengthy recovery time. According to his doctors, it takes roughly eight months to a year to regain full strength and flexibility in the tendon following surgery. Considering the injury had already cost him a bulk of the spring season, he worried a fall could set his rehab back months — if not longer — at a point when the clock is already ticking on the 43-year-old’s competitive career.

Still, when a fellow Knight of Valour called Adams to the floor in front of a packed house during a summer performance (“And what of you, old man?”) he couldn’t back down.

After taking his place roughly 180 feet across the jousting field from his challenger, Adams, clad in more than 80 pounds of armor and holding an 11-foot-long, wood-tipped lance in his right arm, charged. The first pass resulted in a draw. On the second, however, Adams connected with his target, knocking his opponent from his horse and sending him sprawling to the ground in a heap of limbs and metal and dirt.

In a sense, the jouster had been preparing for the moment since he was a child growing up surrounded by Arabian horses on a farm in the wilds of Acton, Ontario.

“I never wanted to be John Wayne,” Adams said. “I used to ride through the woods around the farm pretending I was Ivanhoe or one of the Knights of the Roundtable. And as a Canadian I was always good with a piece of lumber in my hand, be it a hockey stick or a lance.”

As a child he cobbled together his first amateur jousts, battling neighborhood kids riding BMX bicycles from atop his trusted steed — at least until his horse bucked during one bout, sending him airborne with homemade shield and lance in hand. Even so, Adams said he was hooked, and when the chain dinner theater Medieval Times opened a Toronto location in 1993 he jumped at a chance to audition for a part in the show. After working as a squire for two months, he graduated to his dream role: knight and jouster.

Of course, Adams has always been drawn more to the physicality of the sport than its spectacle or pageantry. When discussing jousting he speaks of the connection between man and beast and the visceral thrill of mano-a-mano competition. At Medieval Times he remained, in his words, “Not a knight in shining armor, but a knight in shining polyester and tinsel.”

In the years since, he’s worked to distance himself from these more theatrical roots, marketing jousting as an emerging extreme sport with a series of national and international tournaments and a reality television competition, “Full Metal Jousting,” which he created and that aired its first season on the History Channel in 2012 (the status of season two, according to Adams, is currently up in the air). Still, the heavy physical and mental toll hasn’t exactly resulted in a financial windfall, and the role of professional jouster remains predominantly a labor of love.

“Sure, things like riding ability and tolerance for pain are important,” Adams said. “But so is heart, because … if you don’t really love [jousting] you’re never going to stick with it.”