PHOTO: SOAR Adventure Tower owner Kevin Vanderkolk swings on the monkey bars at his Franklin ropes course on Wednesday, August 8, 2018. / Photo by Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
Just south of the Murfreesboro Road exit on I-65, drivers may notice people clambering up ropes and swinging across bars atop SOAR Adventure Tower, which opened in 2015.
The tower is owned by former gymnast and longtime Milwaukee Bucks mascot Kevin Vanderkolk, who wanted to run an athletic, family-friendly business upon his retirement from the athletic world.
Three years later, the business has done well, staying open throughout most of the year, except January.
During the summer, children come for a summer camp, and corporate clients utilize the tower for team building. Recently, Vanderkolk added on a miniature golf course.
With top of the line safety equipment, adventurers stay strapped to the tower as they dangle in the air, jumping, climbing, and swinging from obstacle to obstacle.
Out at SOAR Adventure Tower in Franklin today, where owner Kevin Vanderkolk showed me the ropes. Kevin is a former gymnast, and was the @Bucks mascot, Bango, for 13 seasons before he moved here. pic.twitter.com/rjG6pjmTXs
— Brooke Wanser (@Bwanser_writes) August 8, 2018
Originally from Indiana, Vanderkolk began gymnastics relatively late, around age 10.
After rising through the youth ranks, he quit competing at age 16 to work.
He ended up managing a store which distributed pneumatic tools. At age 20, he said he had to decide whether he wanted to continue down the career path with that company.
“I looked at my future, and I said, this is not me,” he said. “I’m not going to do sales for pneumatic tools for the rest of my life.”
Vanderkolk knew he wanted to leave Indiana, so he quit his job and moved to Phoenix, where he ended up coaching gymnastics.
When a fellow coach told Vanderkolk he had tried out as a part-time Arizona Cardinals mascot, Vanderkolk auditioned, too. Both got the job.
The man who hired Vanderkolk formerly worked with the Phoenix Suns, and told him, “You should think about this as a career.”
After a season with the Cardinals, Vanderkolk went to Milwaukee to audition for a retiring mascot’s position.
Though originally told to come back in a few months, he impressed the management at a game soon after when the current mascot hurt his back and Vanderkolk was able to fill in.
In 2001, he began his 13-year run as the Bucks mascot, Bango.
Mascots in the NFL and NBA markets, and their jobs, are two different beasts.
“In the NBA, you can get center court and have all eyes on you. It’s just more intimate,” he said. “In the NFL, you’re kind of in the stands and in the crowd and interacting with people.”
Though Vanderkolk’s famed stunt was performing a backflip off a 20-foot ladder and dunking a basketball, his favorite memory was seeing his children join him on the floor to perform as miniature characters like “Bango Jr.”
But 41 home games and 300 to 400 appearances each year, in addition to training the acrobatic dunk team, took a toll. Vanderkolk suffered two ACL tears and two knee reconstructions. And as each year passed, he felt increasing levels of pressure to perform bigger and crazier stunts than the previous ones.
“The lifestyle was getting pretty hectic, I had five kids,” he said. “I finally looked at it and said, I’m going to break my neck.”
Tired of the cold in Milwaukee and ready to reinvent himself, Vanderkolk decided to open a family-friendly business.
After looking at trampoline parks, he went to a trade show where he saw a booth with a model of the tower.
“There was nothing in the U.S. like it,” he said. He ordered the tower, and customized several of the routes, adding music note detailing to denote the Music City connection.
The Vanderkolks chose to settle in Brentwood because of the schools, the music scene, and the familial culture.
“Everything just lined up, and Nashville felt like the right fit,” he said.