By Ann McCallum Staats
Surfing? Snowboarding? Formula car racing? Cave diving inside an iceberg?
When I first thought about writing a book about women in extreme sports, I’d heard about some, but not all of these sports outside the lines. Who knew that a wingsuit flyer could zip into a human-sized ‘flying squirrel’ suit in order to jump from a cliff and soar horizontally? What about highlining, balancing along a flexible cord thousands of feet above the ground? In some cases without a tether. I learned of ultrarunning, the pursuit of running 50, 100, even 200 miles or more in a race against time or other athletes. Wasn’t running a 26-mile marathon superhuman enough? The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.
But aren’t adventure sports high risk? Despite meticulous planning and painstaking attention to safety, things could still go wrong. Why take any chances? Who are these women who practice extreme pursuits? Do they possess an unusual lack of fear, some supreme confidence perhaps, or maybe a willingness to risk all? What makes them tick?
The women I interviewed for Thrill Seekers: 15 Remarkable Women in Extreme Sports are all extreme athletes, passionate about their sports, sure, but also tapping into something more. I decided to find out what that ‘more’ was all about.
I’m average when it comes to athleticism. I’m not super coordinated, nor exceptionally strong. I grew up in Canada where skiing was our thing, but I was never much into organized sports. I did used to run—still do—but it’s at a snail’s pace and only a couple of miles. Running is simple and safe. You lace up a pair of sneakers, plug in earbuds, and go. In my case, I slow to a walk when I get to any sort of elevation. Like I said: safe. Yet …
Inspired by the contagious enthusiasm of the ladies I interviewed, I decided to do some firsthand research. I tried scuba diving first. It was pre-Covid, and I signed up for an all-in-one lesson package. I showed up, put on the gear, and initially sat on the bottom of the swimming pool. Though it was only a couple of feet to the surface and easily reachable by standing up, this was the scariest part for me. It felt wrong. It took setting aside logic to take breath after breath underwater without panicking. It was happening, though, and so when we took it a step further and walked into the ocean from the beach, I had reached an understanding that breathing underwater was okay.
Under the surface of the ocean, the water was clear, but it wasn’t like looking at the horizon on land. There was limited visible distance. It crossed my mind that a shark could easily come out of the murk at any time. No sharks appeared, thankfully, but we did see a stingray laying on the sandy bottom. I don’t know if the divemaster shooed it away, but it suddenly it rose up and winged its way off into deeper waters.
Okay, so scuba diving was checked off my list, albeit the beginner’s version. Next, intrigued by the idea of high-stakes racing, I signed up to do a ride-along in a Formula racecar, another of the chapters I’d covered in my book. I stepped onto the Richmond Raceway, surrounded by revving engines. I could smell the fuel and, I swear, the adrenaline. Once strapped into the seat of the racecar, the driver jockeyed from the pit to the track. He accelerated, and we were off at a breakneck speed. I do recall raising both hands from the wheel to do a rollercoaster-esque no-hands wave—but only for a second.
Perhaps the best experience I tried, once again inspired by interviewing some truly amazing people, was skydiving. It was tandem, of course. Apparently rules dictate that you must dive strapped securely to an expert for a minimum of 25 times before going at it alone. Fine by me!
Every part of this experience was a joy. From walking on the tarmac to the plane, from cramming inside that small bird to sitting on the edge of the gaping side door, each part was a novel and exciting moment. With the wind whipping past us, my instructor—his name was Cornelius—asked me if I was ready. Then, after a one, two, three, we dropped from the plane … and kept dropping. I had little awareness of the ground, only the sense of the wind rushing past. When Cornelius deployed the parachute, the sky-level view brought a profound beauty and peace. There was one moment of doubt—Cornelius loosened the straps on my legs and shoulders, though thankfully not too much.
Once earthbound, I replayed the experience over and over. Yes, there had been an element of real risk. There were definitely things that could have gone wrong … Ultimately, though, what I felt was a heightened sense of being alive. Ah-ha, I thought, this is the “more” those extreme sports women have tapped into. More joy. More life. More appreciation. It’s a precious feeling.
Thrill Seekers: 15 Remarkable Women in Extreme Sports (Chicago Review Press, March 2, 2021). The book covers a diverse and international collection of female extreme athletes, inspiring young people who moved past their fears to do the things they love the most. Each chapter shares a journey of challenge, grit, and ultimate determination.
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