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In 2012, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner stepped from a tiny platform into empty air, 24 miles above the ground, an audience of 10 million people watching live via social media. Video of his ensuing jump, during which he became the first human to break the sound barrier before parachuting safely to earth, has been viewed hundreds of millions of times. It’s little wonder: The record-setting feat epitomizes the allure of that ever-growing category known as extreme sports. Athletic talent is one thing; exercising it at the very fringes of human capacity is quite another.
Every kid who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s remembers Evel Knievel in his star-spangled jumpsuit, thrilling us all with death-defying (and bone-crushing) stunts — but hundreds of years before Knievel revved up his motorbike, Hawaiian divers were leaping feet-first from massive crags in lele kawa, or cliff diving. Further back still, the medieval sport of jousting frequently resulted in injury or death despite its many safety-minded rules; in ancient Greece, athletes fought in the deadly mixed-martial-arts of pankration, a combat in which biting and gouging were the only two methods you couldn’t use to disable your opponent. From Minoan bull-leaping to the Algonquin ball game of pasuckuakohowog, in which hundreds of competitors risked life and limb on the same field, humans have long engaged in (and watched) the riskiest contests imaginable.
In modern times, the appeal of extreme sports can be attributed to twin factors: social media allowing for easy transmission of eye-catching escapades to a global audience, and new technology making even the most challenging of pursuits considerably safer. Bungee jumping, for example, has its origins in the 1980s, when New Zealander Henry van Asch and a fellow Kiwi friend came up with the novel idea of hurling yourself off a bridge attached to an elastic rope. Back then, such an endeavor appealed to a small group of adrenaline-chasers willing to risk their lives for the thrill. Nowadays, bungee jumping is statistically as safe as skydiving and is widely viewed as a relatively low-risk activity for any pleasure seeker.
Not everything is purely a matter of proper safety measures. Ultra-endurance races, combat sports, and other activities earn their “extreme” moniker through the sheer danger that can befall an untrained attempt. Yet, the popularity of extreme sports continues to rise. Whether that’s a reaction to COVID-induced inactivity, a rebellion against the mundanity of desk jobs, or something else entirely can’t be answered, but these articles go some way toward exploring what leads us as a species to seek out our own physical and mental limits.
More Like a Suicide Than a Sport (Ed Caesar, The New York Times Magazine, July 2013)
Hurling yourself from tall places is a high-risk, high-reward pursuit — physically, if not financially. BASE jumping differs from parachuting in that it involves launching not from an airplane, but from a static object. (BASE stands for the four officially sanctioned objects: Buildings, Antennae, Spans, and Earth itself.) Unlike the other activities on this list, it’s a sport with a decidedly illicit frisson. While there are official competitions held around the world and numerous places you can go to learn from the experts, BASE jumping still often hinges on illegal entry into skyscrapers or building sites. In 2009, Hervé le Gallou, the subject of this piece, employed subterfuge to enter the Burj Khalifa, then under construction, and threw himself from the 155th floor.
Dreams of flying date back to Greek mythology’s story of Icarus, and surely much further. Many BASE jumpers, particularly those who employ wingsuits designed to enable the wearer to glide for long distances, seem blind to that particular cautionary tale, with one in every 500 flights ending in death. We’ll never know exactly what went wrong with le Gallou’s flight that made him a numerator in that grim statistic. It’s a poignant tale, particularly when taking account of le Gallou’s former girlfriend’s desperate search for answers. Once more, we find ourselves cycling back to the question of why reasonable people do this.
Raoul jumped first, and then Woerth. Having completed their flights, they waited in the valley for the others. Le Gallou jumped third. His flight started well, according to Brennan and Frat. He banked high over the rocky outcrop and then dropped out of sight. The two Americans jumped fourth and fifth. When they landed in the valley, after flights of more than a minute, they asked about Le Gallou. Neither Raoul nor Woerth had seen him.
In Deep: The Dark and Dangerous World of Extreme Cavers (Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker, April 2014)
Of all the extreme sports, it’s caving, or spelunking (derived from the Greek word “spelaion,” or “cave”), that I find hardest to understand. To turn your back on the sun and worm your way into ever colder and darker places seems like a deliberate act of self-destruction. Squeezing through narrow rock fissures, wriggling on their bellies like a snake along passages less than a foot high: With every inch, cave divers propel themselves farther from safety. Part of the thrill surely comes from the danger. Many a caver has died from flash floods, or worse, wedged into an unseen drop or kink, their bodies never to be recovered. In such cases, the cave in question is transformed into a somber memorial — at least until the boards erected to prevent more tragedy are torn down by the next wave of fearless explorers.
This piece offers a gripping account of Polish caver Marcin Gala’s epic journey into the previously unmapped Chevé cave system, in which the author asserts that such places represent the last unknown earthbound areas left to humankind. Clearly, however, something else is at play. For tens of thousands of years, humans have been drawn to the depths. They came in search of refuge from predators and the elements, but clearly recognized these as sacred places, leaving behind markings of fierce beauty. Reading this article stirs something primal in the soul.
The truth is they had nowhere better to go. All the pleasant places had already been found. The sunlit glades and secluded coves, phosphorescent lagoons and susurrating groves had been mapped and surveyed, extolled in guidebooks and posted with Latin names. To find something truly new on the planet, something no human had ever seen, you had to go deep underground or underwater. They were doing both.
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How Becky Lynch Became ‘The Man’ (Molly Langmuir, Elle, April 2021)
To some, it’s a bizarre carnival show, a theater of the absurd, the appeal of which is hard to fathom. For millions of fans worldwide, though, WWE is the epitome of popular entertainment — a never-ending, real-life soap opera full of bombastic bravado and comic-book violence. WWE is fast, loud, brutal, and fake. The outcomes of fights are predetermined, but the fights themselves are semi-improvised, and require a level of strength, technical ability, and agility that you can’t help but appreciate. Accidents and injuries are far from uncommon, and the fitness and resilience needed are high. If the male side of pantomime wrestling is contentious, the world of women’s WWE is even more so. It’s an arena in which Irish superstar Becky Lynch, known by her moniker, “The Man,” has battled her way to the top.
Women’s WWE has a less-than-glorious past, with female fighters often relegated to a titillating sideshow, pressured to wear skimpy outfits and even perform simulated sex acts in pursuit of a pink butterfly belt. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising when you consider that the sport has historically been overseen by men, for men, with the majority of fans falling into the working-class, white male, category. Fighters like Lynch have fought hard to overcome this, and the landscape is changing, even if male viewers still make up two-thirds of the audience. These days, the WWE takes women’s wrestling much more seriously and appreciates its growing female fan base. This exciting peek into the world of female WWE makes for an illuminating read.
It was 3:30 a.m. by the time she made it back to the Brooklyn Marriott. Rollins had a bottle of her favorite tequila, Don Julio 1942, at the ready, and she had a drink. Some people thought the match’s ending hadn’t been sufficiently cathartic, but Lynch had done what she came to do. Twenty-one minutes into a fight that left Flair crumpled on the ground and Rousey’s legs covered in bruises, Lynch brought Rousey into a quick roll-up and the bell rang. A moment later, she hoisted the belts she’d won overhead, teary-eyed.
Secrets of the World’s Greatest Freediver (Daniel Riley, GQ, September 2021)
My first exposure to the world of freediving came, as I suspect is true for many others, through The Big Blue, French director Luc Besson’s 1988 film. It’s a beautiful, if eccentric, tale of fierce rivals whose chosen sport is deceptively simple: to see who can dive the deepest on a single breath, then return to the surface without, as the author of this piece memorably puts it, “passing out or dying.” Besson’s movie took inspiration from two legendary figures of the sport, Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, both of whom retired from competition in good health. In fact, surprisingly, modern freediving is far less dangerous than cycling or running. Diving unaided down to depths of over 100 meters, however, is anything but safe and easy.
The thrilling piece presented here centers on 34-year-old Russian freediver Alexey Molchanov, a superman of the sport, whose holistic approach to diving makes for fascinating reading. Present here, too, is a tragedy more heartbreaking and incredible than any found in the movies. In 2015, Alexey’s mother, Natalia, herself a freediving pioneer and record holder, disappeared on her final dive — a demonstration to students — off the coast of Ibiza. Her body has never been recovered. Alexey, who was trained by his mother, continues to freedive competitively. For him, as was the case with Natalia, the act is far more than a simple sport; it is an exercise in meditation and a powerful tool for self-examination.
Once Alexey emerges, he has 15 seconds to meet the surface protocol. He must show the judges that he is okay (by flashing an okay sign). He must keep his airways above the water. He must flash the tag he grabbed at depth. And he must not pass out. He can cough up blood from a torn lung. He can produce pink foam or his lips can turn blue. But if he meets protocol, the dive is good.
Inside the Pain Cave (Mirin Fader, The Ringer, August 2022)
For most of us, and even for elite athletes, running a marathon seems like a daunting prospect. Not for Courtney Dauwalter. Wearing baggy basketball shorts, Dauwalter regularly tackles ultramarathons — courses four or even eight times the standard 26.2-mile distance. She seems happy and bubbly, but inaction makes her antsy, even if just for a day or two. Maybe this hints at the obsessive side of extreme sports, an adrenaline addiction that demands feeding. Inarguably, for Dauwalter, extreme running is an activity inseparable from her sense of self.
Her achievements are incredible. At 37, she’s won nearly everything there is to win, setting records in the process, and has competed all over the world. Most impressive, though, is the mental strength Dauwalter displays. This is a woman who doesn’t just crave challenges — she requires them. Reading this article provides a tantalizing glimpse into her psyche, and it’s not hard to understand the satisfaction, even tranquillity, that arises for her during and after a race. For Dauwalter, the “pain cave” is a hypnotic, familiar, and even reassuring world. It may be a place few of us would desire to visit, but it bears out the new spin on an old adage: There’s value in taking yourself out of your comfort zone.
Sometimes, to ensure that her brain is still working, she recites mantras or tells herself jokes or thinks of song lyrics, or dreams of the brownie toppings she’ll have on her ice cream — after she finishes her nachos — once the race is over. If she has been racing for more than a day, she occasionally forces herself to take a one-minute power nap off to the side of a trail. Sometimes, though, she is so amped she can’t power down, so she powers forward, even if that means, as unfathomable as it seems, nodding off while jogging.
Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, U.K. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.