Can You Top This

In this era of Reality TV, let’s give credit to those New Jerseyans committed to the quaint pursuit of getting into the Guinness Book of World Records.

Kenneth Lee is all thumbs. Not the klutzy, drop-everything variety—he’s agile, focused, in command of every muscle.

To say that Lee’s all thumbs means simply that both opposable digits are connected to his hands. Considering what he’s known for, that’s a good thing.

Lee is recognized around West Orange as a fifth-degree black belt and proprietor of a martial arts dojo, Way of the Tiger. Around the world, though, he’s revered for a specialized skill: grasping an apple with his right hand and tossing it upward, crossing his right hand to his left side and drawing a razor-sharp sword from the sheath at his hip, swinging the sword to slice through the apple in mid-air, and returning the sword to its sheath. More than twenty times in a minute.

“The challenge isn’t cutting the apple in the air,” Lee says with a teacher’s matter-of-factness. “You can use a vertical cut, a horizontal cut, an uprising cut. The challenge is getting the sword safely into the sheath,” he says. “You could stab yourself in the ribs, cut off your thumb—there is a lot of danger.”

And what would compel someone to take such risks to perfect what is hardly a marketable skill? To earn the framed certificate now in his possession, the one from The Guinness Book of World Records attesting to his prowess in all things apple cutting.

The Guinness book is a cornucopia of human achievement to the -est degree: fastest, largest, oldest, highest, longest. It also relies heavily on one -ost word that Lee now claims as his own: most, as in Most Apples Cut in the Air by Sword in One Minute (21). Crazy? Perhaps to you. But not to someone who cuts only twenty apples in a minute.

The yearning to attain an -est or -ost is why the Olympic Games exist, Mt. Everest has been scaled, and humans have walked on the moon. The desire to distinguish oneself from 6 billion other humans also fuels eating contests, fundraisers created around record attempts, and a cottage industry of publicity stunts. “These are people who, because of guts and their goals, make their dreams come true,” says Stuart Claxton, one of eight Guinness book researchers (and the only one based in the United States) who verify records. “It’s like Jason Rennie, who in October 2000 set the record for longest ramp-to-ramp jump on a motorcycle with a jump in the U.K. To finance the feat he re-mortgaged his home and built the ramps in his backyard.”

The book, which bills itself as “the best-selling copyright book of all time,” was born of a disagreement among Irish friends over the fastest game bird. Its first edition, published more than a half-century ago, covered 198 pages. The 2006 edition has 288 pages, features more than 4,000 records, appears in twenty languages—and is woefully incomplete.

Guinness has a storehouse of 40,000-plus records, everything from universally recognized feats such as Fastest 100-Meter Dash to some dreamed up by the book’s staff and not yet attained (Shortest Time to Visit All African Countries on Foot, anyone?). Even the book’s far more comprehensive Web site contains only a fraction of the marks, posted on a revolving basis. At the moment Lee doesn’t appear in either, despite setting his record in May 2004. That’s okay by him: He knows what he’s accomplished.

“Anyone can set a world record if they practice long enough,” Lee says. His daily workouts polish aspects of his technique: throwing, sheathing, breathing, relaxation. “For some people [the incentive] is personal satisfaction or accomplishment,” he says. “It takes a lot of motivation and repetition.”

So setting a Guinness record isn’t child’s play—although Grace Barclay, Hannah Cohan, and Corinna Bourke would beg to differ. In a whisper, of course.

The girls were fifth-graders at Somerville Elementary School last spring when they spearheaded one of New Jersey’s most recent record attempts, Largest Game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). Grace and Hannah were friends who wound up in Mr. Lupia’s class. One day they began to explore the school library’s copy of Guinness, envisioning setting a record with classmates.

“We found a lot of records that would be impossible for us to break,” Grace recalls. Such as? “Most Men From Different Cultures in a Sauna.” Or, as Hannah notes, “Most Motorcycles Going at the Same Time.”

And then they heard the Telephone ringing. They’d played the game at parties: Everyone gathers in a circle, someone whispers a phrase to the next person, and the message goes ’round and winds up with its originator—sometimes in a scrambled version.

The record, set in 2003, was 250 people, a number within reach for a school of more than 450 pupils. The girls sought out Mr. Lupia, who turned the project into a lesson on writing a business letter seeking Principal Monica Browne’s approval.

Browne agreed—"It was persuasive and very well-written," she says—suggesting that an April 15 attempt could culminate the school’s weeklong focus on juvenile diabetes. The girls initiated one of more than 50,000 annual requests to Guinness for record consideration. That’s when they discovered the first reality of record breaking: stringent certification.

The book’s researchers, to borrow their British word, “invigilate” attempts. Since they can’t witness every try, Guinness requires submission of video, audio, and/or photographic documentation, media reports, signatures of participants and organizers, and affidavits from witnesses.

It then provides instructions specific to each of the 40,000-plus records. Guinness’s stipulations for Telephone boiled down to the secret phrase’s making it around the circle intact and the participants’ stone silence. Okay, the girls decided, that’s doable if third- through fifth-graders make the attempt.

For weeks the girls spent lunch hours practicing with different grades, and they added classmate Corinna Bourke to the team. They conducted an outdoor test run of nearly 200 people, almost as many as those who set the 2003 record. Enthusiasm in the school soared as the big day approached.

Then the girls discovered that in Las Vegas, in January 2004, 614 people had surpassed the 2003 record, meaning that younger students, teachers and library aides needed to lend an ear.

“That was a big jump,” Hannah says. “I didn’t think we’d have that many people. Dr. Browne thought to ask students in other schools [in the Ridgewood district] to take part, and she sent out a letter inviting anyone else to help us set the record.”

By the night before the attempt, the girls were so amped that they barely slept. The next day 814 people stood on the athletic track behind the school: kids, teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even neighbors and babysitters. It took nearly 40 minutes to pass the two-word phrase: Stop diabetes. When Hannah, last in the circle, announced the phrase over a loudspeaker, everyone cheered not only the record but the fundraising total: $15,000.

“It was such a relief,” Grace says.

David Meenan dreamed of setting a record from the time he was a kid. “The Guinness book sat right next to me when I went to bed,” he says. In 1996, when the professional dancer and instructor, then living in Red Bank, heard that his fellow performer Rue Lancero had been diagnosed with leukemia, he knew he had to help.

“We were trying to raise money because Rue had no insurance and no money for treatments,” the 44-year-old Meenan says. He decided Longest Distance Tap Danced (Male) record would provide an ideal fund-raising centerpiece. It also seemed within reach: 12.9 miles; he trained eight hours a day and recruited an army of volunteers to join him at Count Basie Track in Red Bank.

Three days before his attempt, Meenan recalls, he received a dispiriting update: The record was now 17.9 miles and a heavy rain wrecked the cinder track’s two inner lanes. Meenan wore a pair of old-fashioned leather-soled shoes identical to those he performed in during an overseas tour of 42nd Street. Hardly ideal footwear, but he hoofed it for 23.6 miles. “People made me stop because I looked like one of those bad marathon videos,” he says. “I was a mess.”

Meenan has twice broken his record, once on a cordoned-off block in Red Bank and then back at Count Basie, which by then sported a softer synthetic surface. A fourth try? Forget it. Meenan still has days when his legs hurt from the abuse of training and record-setting. “If there was a record where I could go out there and not train, then I would do it,” he says.

Even those whose records have been broken bask in their achievement. It’s been nearly five years since the staff of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton set the mark for Most Candles on a Cake, burning 4,000 on a sixteen-foot sheet cake to mark the fifth anniversary of the hospital’s obstetrical unit.

The 4,000 candles represented the number of births in the unit. In retrospect, birthing a child may seem easier than producing this record, which capped a celebration involving thousands of people on the hospital’s grounds. Hospital staff had worked out logistics in practice sessions: how long it would take to light the candles and the best method for blowing out the flames (with oxygen canisters).
More than 1,500 people were under the 80-foot-long tent when the lighting began. The candles’ heat was so intense that some people walked away with singed arm hair.

Once bitten by the Guinness bug, competitors can find it hard to stop. Lee will defend his apple-cutting record this year as part of a worldwide challenge among dojos in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

“You’d be surprised; people do recognize you for doing something different,” he says.

And how do they signify that appreciation? With a thumbs-up, of course.

Brett Avery is a contributing writer to New Jersey Monthly.

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