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Fear Factor: Success and Risk in Extreme Sports

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 9, 2004
 
Yesterday four men were gored during the running of bulls in
Pamplona, Spain.

But if you think the risk of serious injury failed to keep hundreds more from running with the 1,300-pound (600-kilogram) behemoths again today during the city's famous multi-day festival, think again.

What it is that drives some to embrace extreme risks, while the rest of us scurrying for the safety of the sidelines?

Lester Keller, a longtime coach and sports-psychology coordinator for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, says that not everyone has the mental makeup to excel in dangerous pursuits.

"It takes a certain kind of person," Keller said. He notes that most of us hit a natural ceiling that limits our appetite for extreme risk and, as a result, our ability to perform well in dangerous conditions.


But others have a much higher tolerance, if not craving, for risk. For example, Keller points to Daron Rahlves, a top U.S. downhill ski racer who spends the summer off-season racing in motocross competitions. "He enjoys the challenge and the risk," Keller said.

"The high element of risk makes you feel alive, tests what you are made of and how far you can take yourself," Rahlves said in a previous interview with U.S. Ski Team staff.

"I'm not looking for danger. I'm in it for the challenge, my heart thumping as I finish, the feeling of being alive," he said. "I definitely get scared on some of the courses. It just makes me fight more. … The hairier the course the better. That's when I do best."

The fear that drives many people away from the risks of extreme sports may be the same ingredient that keeps others coming back for more.

Mountaineer Al Read has logged many notable first ascents over the course of his climbing career. Read now serves as president of the Exum Mountain guides, a preeminent guide service based in Wyoming. The company that leads paying clients to the summits of some of the world's toughest—and most dangerous—mountains each year.

Having climbed for over 40 years, Read says he no longer pushes to the extremes as he once did—but the feeling is still vivid.

"I can remember when I was getting into situations where I thought that at any moment I could be killed," he told National Geographic News. "I'm not particularly religious, but I would say, Oh God, don't let me be killed here. I'll never do this again."

"But we'd get back down, and when we were safe we'd say, Man was that great!" he recalled. "You forget how scary it was, and you go back again."

Psychologists note that some people seem to have a strong craving for adrenaline rushes as a thrill-seeking behavior or personality trait.

Like many extreme athletes, Emily Cook's appetite for risk appeared at a young age.

"I was both a skier and a gymnast," said the former U.S. aerials ski champion. "I was one of those kids who enjoyed and excelled at anything acrobatic, anything where you were upside down. It was just kind of a part of Emily."

When Risk Becomes Real

Cook noted that as her expertise grew, so did the stakes. In a sport where skiers perform acrobatic tricks from the height of a five-story building, the consequences of a mistake can be serious.

"As I started doing harder tricks, I was drawn to the fear factor," she said. "There are definitely moments when you're up there doing a new trick and it seems like the stupidest thing in the world. But overcoming that [fear] is just the coolest feeling in the world. Doing something that you know most people wouldn't do is part of it."

Cook was forced to give up her spot on the 2002 U.S. Olympic ski team when risk became reality—she broke both feet during a training jump shortly before the games.

After two and a half years of surgeries and recovery, Cook recently made her first practice jumps into the splash pool at the training facility in Utah Olympic Park. She has set her sights on competing the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

How did the injury Cook experienced change her outlook on risk?

"As an inured athlete coming back, generally … my reaction is to stop and reduce the risk a bit," she said. "I've had to change my mentality a little bit now."

"I'm moving up to a jump that was natural before the injury, but now there is a fear of pain, injury, and even the fear of not being able to do it like I could before," she said. "Your body does remember how to do these things. But your mind sometimes gets in the way a bit."

Redefining Risk

Shane Murphy, a sports psychologist and professor at Western Connecticut State University, has worked with Olympians and other athletes. He says he is struck by the way they redefine risk according to their skills, experience, and environment.

"I've worked with groups climbing Everest, including one group without oxygen. To me that just seems like the height of risk. But [the climbers] took every precaution they could think of," he said. "To them it was the next step in an activity that they've done for years. They weren't going out there to get hurt."

Murphy said the perspective of extreme athletes is very different from our own. "We look at a risky situation and know that if we were in [that situation] we would be out of control," he said. "But from the [athletes'] perspective, they have a lot of control, and there are a lot of things that they do to minimize risk."

As Read, of Exum Mountain Guides, is quick to note, climbing and other "dangerous" activities are statistically not as risky as outsiders would assume.

The Zone

Another key aspect of risk perception may be something referred to as "the flow" or "the zone." It is a state in which many athletes describe becoming absorbed in pursuits that focus the mind completely on the present.

"Something that makes you begin climbing, perhaps, is that your adrenaline flows and you become very concentrated on what you're doing," Read said. "After it's over there's exhilaration. You wouldn't have that same feeling if the risk hadn't been there."

People of different skill levels experience "flow" at different times. As a result, some may always be driven to adventures that others consider extreme.

"I can enjoy hitting the tennis ball around, because that's my skill level," Murphy said. "But others might need the challenge of Olympic competition."
 

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