There is a major difference between an athlete and an extreme athlete.
Athletes simply push their minds and bodies to great lengths for sport, for fun, or perhaps to maintain their health. Extreme athletes push their minds and bodies to the farthest possible limit of human ability while simultaneously risking their lives. Extreme athletes are who we look to when trying to understand and measure what is humanly possible. They serve as self-appointed test subjects, leaving most of the average population watching (and studying) in awe from afar.
Extreme athletes continue to take on death-defying feats again and again, chasing the adrenaline rush like drug addicts. They are truly a different breed. To honor the most extreme of extreme athletes, we put together a list of 30, which spans across six major categories: sky, snow, race, water, climb, and wheels.
In the aftermath of WWII, groups of Army Airborne Soldiers began jumping out of planes for fun using military surplus gear. Since those days, skydiving as a sport has grown into full-fledged sport and evolved to incorporate many modifications such as base jumping and jet pack flying. Sky sports are only increasing in popularity with skydiving schools popping up all around the world. Some of the most famous pioneers of gut-wrenching sky sports are listed below.
Skydiver / BASE Jumper
Jeb Corliss is a professional skydiver and base jumper who has leaped into the public arena (quite literally) after BASE jumping from such sights as the Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, and the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia. He was born March 25, 1976 near Sante Fe, New Mexico and has survived several extreme and record breaking jumps. He is the first person to fly through a waterfall wearing a wingsuit and in 2013 he completed a jump called “flying dagger” in which he jumped out of a helicpoter wearing a wingsuit and flew through a narrow crack in Mount Jianglang in China. The passageway was a mere 15 feet wide, making the jump very risky. Corliss was quoted saying this jump was “…the single gnarliest thing I’ve ever done…” and “I have never experienced anything so hardcore. Period. I have not been that scared in my life. It was so powerful and overwhelming. I started crying.”
Alexander Polli is an Italian/Norwegian BASE jumper born June 26, 1985. He is considered one of the most extreme BASE jumpers on the scene today due to his daring jumps which had previously been considered too technical or dangerous by other fliers. Alex travels the world in search of the best jumping locations. Polli is also a wingsuit jumper and has contributed to the WiBASE jumping. In November 2012, he became the first WiSBASE jumper to successfully strike a wingsuit target which was made of foam and around ten feet tall.
Skydiver / BASE Jumper
Felix Baumgartner is an Austrian skydiver and all around daredevil born April 20, 1969. He is famous for setting the world record for skydiving an estimated 39 kilometers reaching a speed of 843.6 MPH. In 2012 he became the first person to break the sound barrier without vehicular power on his descent. His most recent project was called Red Bull Stratos, in which he jumped to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere. The jump took place on October 14, 2012 and set the altitude record for a manned balloon flight, parachute jump from the highest altitude, and greatest free fall velocity.
Pilot/Jet Pack Inventor
Yves Rossy is a Swiss pilot and general avation enthusiast who is best know as the inventor of the individual jet pack. Rossy was born in 1959 in Neuchatel and served as a fighter pilot in the Swiss Air Force. He also flew Boeing 747s for Swissair and Swiss International Air Lines. He developed the wing-suit system comprised of a backpack equipped with a semi rigid aeroplane-type carbon-fiber wings that had a span of 7.9 feet. In 2008, Rossy used his jet pack to fly over the Alps and reached speeds of up to 189 MPH. He is the first known perso to fly a jet engine powered wing.
Luke Aikins is an American professionall skydiver with two decades of experience and more than 16,000 under his belt. Luke comes from a family of skydiving legends and has contributed to the family legacy by setting three world records. After completing his first jump in 1989, he just could not get enough. Today he is a member of the Red Bull Air Force and travels the world with the team, performing exhibition jumps, VIP tandems and more. He is also the owner of Para Tactics, which provides advanced skydiving training to elite military forces such as the U.S. Navy Seals.
While skiing has a long and well established history, extreme skiing and snowboarding are more recent developments in the world of extreme sports. Both skiing and snowboarding incorporate many subsets of riding styles such as alpine, freestyle, half-pipe, jibbing, and racing. The most extreme snow athletes generally are well versed in all of these styles but may favor one or two in particular when it comes time to compete. Snowboarding, more specifically, has exploded in popularity in the past 20 years with more and more amateurs attempting to follow in the extreme footsteps of these snow sport legends:
Shaun White is a professional snowboarder and skateboarder and perhaps the most recognizable name in extreme sports. He has won two olympic gold medals and holds the X-Games records for gold medals and highest overall medal count. White was born in San Diego on September 3, 1986 and began skateboarding at a young age. He turned pro by age 17 with the help of Tony Hawk and went on to win many skateboarding titles including the Action Sports Tour Championship. He began snowboarding at age six and got his first sponsorship at age seven. Shaun primarily competes in half-pipe events and in 2012 he became the first person to score a perfect 100 in the men’s snowboard superpipe event at the winter X games.
Xavier De Le Rue
Big Mountain Snowboarder
Xavier is a French big mountain snowboarder born July 1, 1979. He began his pro career competing on the boardercross pro tour and later competed for France at the 2006 Winter Olympics. He is a two time gold medalist at the FIS Snowboarding World Championships, also taking home silver in 2009. De Le Rue has been named “big mountain rider of the year” by Snowboarder Magazine.
Big Mountain Snowboarder
Jeremy Jones is an American snowboarder born January 14, 1975 in Cape Cod, MA. He is best known for big mountain freeriding. Jeremy began skiing at the age of three and later switched to snowboarding at age nine. Jones went pro by age 18 and is considered a legend by his fans. Also known as one of the godfathers of freeriding, he has been riding at the highest level for three decades. In 2012 he was selected by National Geographic Magazine as a nominee for Adventurer of The Year. Jones is also a big environmental protection advocate and has opted to forego the use of helicopters and lifts in favor of hiking as his primary means of transportation up the slopes.
Jean-Philippee Auclair was a Canadian freestyle skier born August 22, 1977. JP was a prize winning skier and filmmaker who found a way to combine his two passions. In 1998 he won 1st place at both the King of the Hill Half Pipe competition and the US Open. In 2002 he was nominated for skier of the year at the ESPN Action Sports and music Awards. He also obtained Level One certification in avalanche operations through the Canadian Avalanche Association in 2009. Auclair tragically passed away in an avalanche on september 29, 2014 while filming for his web series in Aysen, Chile.
Shaun Palmer is a professional snowboarder, skiier, mountain biker, and motocross rider born on November 14, 2014 in California. He is known as one of the forefathers of extreme sports. He began skiing at a young age and became fascinated with snowboarding. Since snowboarding was not yet popular at the time, Palmer built his own snowboard when he was just 12 years old and taught himself how to ride. He has been given many titles such as USA Today’s Worlds Greatest Athlete, Details Magazine’s Athlete of the year in 1998, and the NEA Extreme Athlete of the year in 2000. He has won several gold medals in many competitions including: the Winter X Games, Swatch World Halfpipe Championship, US National Championship, and the Gravity Games. He also managed to play in a 1990s punk rock band called Fungus!
Endurance athletes are extreme at the most primitive human level. Essentially, they make full use of the human body and stretch it to its furthest possible limit. These extreme athletes set out on expeditions into the physical and mental frontier of the self physically and mentally – typically doing so in the raw habitat they find themselves in. This category incorporates skyrunners, marathon runners, triathletes, and mountaineers. Such extreme athletes have completed feats that exhibit the amazing potential of human physical ability.
David Goggins is a Navy SEAL who has served in Afghanistan. After losing several friends on battlefields overseas, he began long-distance running to raise money for armed forces charities. In 2005 he entered the San Diego One Day event which is a 24-hour ultramarathon. He ended up running 100 miles in under 19 hours despite never having run a marathon before. This event helped grant him entry into the Badwater-135 ultramarathon invitational in 2006 in which he finished 5th overall, an unheard of result from a ultramarathon novice at a world class event. Since then, he has competed in several notable events such as the Kona Ironman World Championship, Ultraman World Championship, and 24 Hour Pull-Up World Record of 4,025 pull-ups!
Kilian Jornet Burgada
Kilian Jornet Burgada is a spanish ski mountaineer, distance runner, mountain biker, and skyrunner. He is the three time champion of the Skyrunner World Series (2007-2009). He was born in Catalonia, Spain and began ski mountaineering in 1999. He began skyrunning competitively in 2005 and has placed first in several competitions. In 2014, Kilian broke the fastest known time for ascending and descending Alaska’s Mount McKinley in 11 hours and 40 minutes, breaking the previous record by 5 hours and 6 minutes. He also ran up and down the matterhorn in a record time of 2 hours and 52 minutes. His other notable achievements include the 2008 Champion of the Year at the Skyrunner World Series.
Lizzy Hawker is a British ultra-distance endurance runner who has broken several world records. She has two gold medals from the 100k World Championships and holds the world record for running from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu. She is the first woman to compete in many endurance races including: The North Face Ultratrail Tour Du Mont Blanc, Annapurna 100, Hong Kong 100, and Swiss Alpine Davos. In 2013, National Geographic named her Adventurer of the Year. She says she was inspired to become a long distance runner when she fell in love with the Matterhorn at age six, saying, “it was the birth of a passion and I knew that the mountains and nature were ‘home’.
Christine Wellington is a British professional triathlete and four-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion. She was born February 18, 1977 in Suffolk, England and attended the University of Birmingham. Upon graduating with her degree in geography in 1998, Wellington traveled the world and became aware of the “many problems that exist in the world, but also the opportunity for positive change.” In 2004 she entered her first triathlon race where she finished in third place. In 2006 she entered the Coast to Coast endurance race which involved a 243 km of cycling, running, and kayaking across the southern Alps of New Zealand. She finished second despite having no previous kayaking training. Later that year she also won the Shropshire Olympic Triathlon and in 2007 she officially decided to become a professional triathlete.
Dean Karnazes is an American ultra marathon runner born August 23, 1962 in California. Karnazes first became interested in running when he was in kindergarten and by third grade he was organizing running events with other children. By age eleven he had hiked across the entire Grand Canyon and also climbed Mt. Whitney. From his professional ultramarathon career he is most known for completing several super-human runs. He ran fifty marathons in fifty states on fifty consecutive days, he ran 350 miles in three days without stopping or sleeping, and he has run the infamous badwater ultramarathon seven times which is a treturous 135 mile trek from Death Valley to mid-way up Mount McKinley. He runs 100 to 170 miles a week.
He couldn’t find time to run 4–6 hours a day, so he began sleeping less. He currently only sleeps four hours a night. His resting heart rate is 39 beats per minute!
We all know that humans are mammals and do not thrive in water. The following extreme watersports athletes turn this basic fact on its head. From big wave surfing to long-distance swimming, these athletes push the limits of what a human can achieve while submerged in water.
Laird Hamilton is an American big-wave surfer born March 2, 1964 in California. He had become quite a talented surfer by age 17 but had no plans to enter in surfing competitions because he saw surfing as more of an artform than a competitive sport. He became well known for riding waves few other surfers dared. For example, he surfed huge waves during Hurricane Marie. Hamilton is regarded by surfing historians as the “all time best of the best” at big wave surfing, regularly surfing swells of 35 feet tall, and moving at speeds in excess of 30 miles an hour and successfully riding other waves of up to 70 feet high, at up to 50 mph.
Diana Nyad is an American long distance swimmer born August 22, 1949. She began generating national attention when she swam around the island of Manhattan in 1975 and then again in 1979 when she swam from the Bahamas to Florida (102 miles). In 2013 she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida (110 miles) without the protection of a shark cage.
Herbert Nitsch is an Austrian freediver born April 20, 1970. Herbert currently holds the world record for freediving. He is recognized as the “deepest man on earth” after freediving a depth of 702 feet in 2007 and then broke his own record in 2012 by freediving 831 feet. He has achieved over 30 world records related to diving.
William (Bill) Stone
Bill Stone is an American caver and explorer born December 7, 1952. He is well known for his exploration of deep caves and has participated in over forty international expeditions. In 1976, Stone took part in an expedition to the Sistema Huautla in Oaxaca, Mexico, where his group set a new penetration depth record of 2,624 feet. He is president of Stone Aerospace and has been funded by NASA to explore the world’s deepest sinkholes.
Keala Kennelly is an American professional surfer from Kauai, Hawaii born August 13, 1978. Kennelly went pro at age 17 and not long after went on to compete in the World Qualifying Series. 2003 was a breakout year for Kennelly as she peaked at number 1 in the WCT rankings before ending the year ranked as the 2nd best female surfer in the world. She finished in 2nd place at the Billabong Pro Maui and won the gold medal at the 2007 Summer X Games. Keala was named Female Surfer of the Year by ESPN in 2002 and she has been ranked in the top 10 on the ASP World Championship Tour for 10 consecutive years.
Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber’s strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Extreme rock climbers are proven adrenaline junkies who regularly put their lives on the line in order to catch some of the most incredible thrills imaginable. Additionally, these guys often go down in history as the few who make it to the top of the world’s most famous mountaintops.
Ueli Steck is a Swiss rock climber made famous for his speed records on the North Face Trilogy in the Alps. He was born October 4, 1976 and achieved the 9th difficulty rating in climbing by age 17. After his solo-climb of the north wall of Cholatse and the eastern wall of Taboche, Climb Magazine named him one of the three best alpinists in Europe. Some of his greatest climbing achievements include a solo ascent of Annapurna, Solo ascent of the Matterhorn, the 2008 Eiger Award for his alpinistic performances, and the 2010 Karl Unterkircher Award for his climbing versatility.
Free Solo Rock Climber
Alex Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big walls. He started climbing at age 11 and later dropped out of the UC Berkeley to devote all his time to climbing. He has broken a number of speed records. Some of his most notable achievement include the only known solo climb of the Yosemite Triple crown, an 18 hour 50 minute link up of Mount Watkins, The nose, and the Regular Northwest Face of half Dome. Alex has mentioned that he enjoys completing tall, long routes as quickly as he can.
Chris Sharma is an American rock climber who has been described as the best rock climber in the world. He began climbing at age 12 and by age 14 he was already winning national bouldering competitions. When he was 15 years old he completed the first ascent of Necessary Evil in the Virgin River Gorge – the highest rated climb in North America at the time. Chris is famous for completing nearly 20 daring “first ascents” of dangerous peaks all around the world including Jumbo Love, Papichulo, French Gangster, and Catxasa in Spain.
Reinhold Messner is a legendary Italian mountain climber who has been called the greatest climber in history. He is renowned for making the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and for being the first climber to ascend all fourteen peaks in the world that are over 8,000 meters high. He has a vast list of ascents on resume many of with are first and solo ascents. Between 1950 and 1964 he led over 500 ascents, primarily in the dolomites. Messner has also written over 65 books.
Dean Potter is an American Freeclimber and Alpinist born January 18, 1972. He is well known for his difficult first ascents, free solo ascents and speed ascents primarily in Yosemite and Patagonia. Potter rowed crew and taught himself to climb when he was in high school. His fascination with climbing only grew as he dropped out of the University of New Hampshire to pursue climbing full time. He went on to famously climb many first and solo ascents including Supercanaleta in Patagonia, Heaven in Yosemite, and Deep Blue Sea in the Swiss Apls.
Wheel sports are one of the categories of extreme sport that has truly blown up over the past 30 years. Skateboarding, BMX, and motocross have become the face of “extreme sports” with the development of the X games and Tony Hawk video games. The mainstream popularity of wheel sports has inspired an entire generation of amature skatboarders and BMXers leaving their worried parents biting their nails on the sidelines of their local skatepark. Here are some of the most influential pioneers of extreme wheel sports.
Motorsports Competitor and Stunt Performer
Travis Pastrana is an American motorsports champion who has won several gold medals at the X games across multiple events including supercross, motocross, freestyle motocross, and racing. In 2004, Travis crashed while trying to perform a 360 on a 50 foot jump and sustained a concussion. Nevertheless, he was able to compete the next day and win the silver medal. At the age of 14 he also sustained very serious injuries following a motorcycle crash at an FMC Competition with required six blood transfusions. Doctors reported that only three people in the U.S. have ever lived following such injuries. After his recovery, Travis vowed to continue motorcycle jumping and. He has since won three motocross championships and due to his affinity toward his fans and passion toward the sport he is regarded as one of the most popular riders of all time.
Danny MacAskill is a Scottish cyclist who works professionally as a street trials pro rider for Inspired Bicycles Ltd. Danny was born December 23, 1985 and has been practicing street cycling for the past 12 years. He first started generating lots of buzz when his video showcasing his street cycling tricks went viral on the YouTube. The video is now at over 35 million views and highlights some of Danny’s sickest street moves including a backflip off a tree in a park. It is truly extreme.
Mat Hoffman is an American BMX rider born January 9, 1972. He is nicknamed “The Condor” and has been considered one of the best vert riders in the history of the sport. At age of 15 he became the youngest rider to join the freestyle BMX circuit. Four years later he attained the pro division and launched his bike company Hoffman Bikes. Hoffman was the first person to ride an over-sized (“Big”) ramp in 1993 with his first High Air attempt off of a 24-foot quarter pipe; on one of his runs, he tore his spleen and almost died. In 2005 Mat was elected president of the International BMX Freestyle Federation
Dave Mirra is an American BMX athlete born April 4, 1974. Mirra turned pro at age 17 and began competing around the same time. He held the record for most X-Games medals up until 2013. He has placed in every X-Games that has taken place since the games began in 1995 up until 2008. He is primarily known as a vert and park ramp rider and has won such titles as “Freestyler of the Year” by BMX Magazine and Rider of the Year by the ESPN Action Sports and Music Awards in 2000.
Daniel Way is an American professional skateboarder born April 15, 1974. He began skateboarding competitively at age 11 and won his first competition in 1985. By 1991 he was named Thrasher Magazine’s “Skater of the Year.” He has won multiple gold medals at the X-Games in the “Big Air” category and holds the world record for land-speed on a skateboard. Danny is best known for extreme stunts such as jumping into a skateboard ramp from a helicopter and pioneering mega-ramps. He used one mega-ramp to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard (which he did with a broken foot!)