Joe Connelly, 20, grinds along the edge of a bowl at a skate park in Florida. Joe, who lives in Gainesville and attends Santa Fe College, has been skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding for most of his life.
Photo by Mari Tamaccio
Despite their risks, extreme sports offer a rush that keeps enthusiasts coming back for more
Last spring, after breaking a rib and fracturing one of her vertebrae, wakeboarder Heather Bouchard considered, for the first time, a grim worst-case scenario: What if she could never return to the sport she had spent years falling in love with?
The mere thought crushed her.
Luckily, a few months later, Heather was able to get on a wakeboard again. Despite all the practice time she lost during recovering, and all the fear and worry about her future on the water, just five months later she managed to walk away from the 2016 USA Wakeboard Collegiate Nationals a winner.
The 21-year-old took home first place in the Women’s A division of the competition, which brings together the best athletes from the 16 best U.S. colleges, making her the top female collegiate wakeboarder in the country.
“Being with my team, riding, learning from them, trying new tricks—all of that—I know is when I’m at my happiest,” says Heather, who just finished her junior year at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “If that was just suddenly stripped away from me from an injury, which was definitely what crossed my mind, I don’t know what I would do.”
Such is the high-stakes risk a person must accept in a sport where the likelihood is high for bad injuries.
It is a risk Joe Connelly takes every day.
Joe, 20, has surfed, skateboarded and snowboarded for most of his life. In that time, he has fractured most of the bones in both wrists, suffered a concussion, nearly torn the muscles in his back, had fluid drained from his elbows after taking hard slams and almost drowned.
“It’s dangerous, and there’s that risk,” says Joe, who currently lives in Gainesville. “Team sports don’t have that aspect. Yeah, you can get hurt, but that’s not a huge factor of team sports.”
Joe cannot claim the same accolades in his sports as Heather. Nonetheless, he takes the risks.
In the extreme sports world, it is often less about status and more about the rush one gets.
From casual hobbyists to dedicated professionals, participants share a common belief: The risk is worth the adrenaline and excitement that come with testing physical boundaries.
Origins Rooted in Necessity
Activities that set the stage for today’s extreme sports world date back as far as 20,000 years, according to Ohio-based author Kelly Boyer Sagert.
In her book, “The Encyclopedia of Extreme Sports,” published in 2009, Kelly features a timeline of extreme sports precursors and milestones across the world that begins at 18,000 B.C., when people began crafting boomerangs.
Among more than 100 major events and markers in her timeline are the first known use of a parachute by one of ancient China’s legendary leaders, Emperor Shun, who died in 2185 B.C.; the acts of lava sledding in Hawaii and sandboarding in Egypt, both around 2000 B.C.; the popularization of dragon boat racing in China more than 2,000 years ago; and the first uses of kite-powered canoes by Indonesian and Polynesian fishermen in the 12th century.
Many of the early-origin practices that launched what the world recognizes today as extreme sports emerged to fulfill basic survival needs, Kelly says.
Boomerangs were most likely used for hunting, while kite-powered canoes—and ice skating and cross-country skiing—allowed people to travel faster from one place to another, Kelly explains.
Eventually, activities such as throwing boomerangs and paddling kite-powered canoes either lost their necessity or became obsolete with new technology and advancements.
Then, the old way of doing things became fun.
She cites mountain climbing as an example.
For all of humanity, people who lived in mountainous regions or who needed to pass through such places climbed because they had to.
Fast forward to 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary—a New Zealand mountaineer, explorer and philanthropist—became the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Around the same time, flying by plane had become rather commonplace.
“All of a sudden now, it’s not like something everybody did, and he didn’t have to do it,” Kelly says. “And it’s a little crazy to do it when you don’t have to. But that adds that kind of thrill.
“Most of us don’t want to do things we have to do. We want to do things we want to do.”
The Mind of a Risk Taker
What is different about those who seek thrill and enjoyment in doing what many consider terrifying and life-threatening? It is a question best answered by the field of psychology.
A moment trapped alone with a powerful and angry monster of an animal does not match anyone’s idea of a good time—unless you are Derek Kolbaba.
Derek’s description of riding a bull sounds like the stuff of most people’s worst nightmares.
But it is what he lives for.
“You’re kind of dancing with an 1,800-pound animal,” says the 21-year-old professional bull rider from Walla Walla, Washington. “There are no timeouts, and there is no stopping the bull.”
In professional bull riding, injury is not a matter of if, but when. Derek has broken his jaw—which has a couple of plates and screws in it—and his leg, which was put back together with four or five surgeries. He also has suffered multiple pulled groins.
Derek is still quick to call himself lucky.
But not once has he let an injury—or the fear of one—faze him.
He says it is “part of loving what you do.”
The intense rush of each ride atop a bull’s back is a large part of that.
“Your adrenaline’s going through the roof, your heart’s pumping,” Derek says. “There’s no other feeling like it in the world.”
Anita Cservenka, assistant professor with the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University, has a bit of experience with the type of feeling Derek describes.
She has researched risk-taking and reward-seeking behaviors—particularly in adolescents—and says there are not only stark differences between extreme sports enthusiasts and other people, but differences clearly evident from a young age.
Anita proposes that people drawn to extreme sports likely have a different underlying neural structure, function or neurochemical transmission related to their motivation for rewarding feelings, resulting in a greater attraction to new or thrilling experiences.
These types of people also may have underactive neural responses to fearful situations, perhaps resulting from the part of the brain responsible for processing fear: the amygdala.
“Differences in the development of this brain region over the course of childhood or adolescence could be related to reduced fear response in individuals who become interested in extreme sports,” Anita says.
This means adults who take part in an extreme sport likely have a history with risky behavior.
The claim holds true for Heather, Joe and Derek. Heather’s parents had to tie a rope to her during family skiing trips when she was young because she wanted nothing more than to barrel straight down the mountain at full speed. Joe grew up on board sports. And Derek has been riding bulls, dirt bikes and snowmobiles since he was a kid.
The three are what some would call adrenaline junkies.
While these theories offer insight, they alone do not paint a complete picture. Anita says thrill-seeking ultimately takes shape in much the same way as other behavioral characteristics, starting with a genetic basis and changing along with hormones, environment, peer pressure and any number of other social factors.
It is the result of a combination of many influences from all aspects of a person’s life.
But strip away the intricate principles of psychology and a simple, shared truth emerges among the many extreme sports communities that is common in most people everywhere: It feels good to reach new achievements—to accomplish new feats that are hard-earned.
The Excitement of Progression
Ask Joe to describe the proudest achievement in his years as a surfer, and he talks about one 20-second ride like it was yesterday.
He was at a popular, well-known Hawaii hotspot when his first wave of the day turned into something spectacular. The wave closed fully around Joe as he rode it, encasing him in a tube of sea—an ultimate zenith experience surfers call “getting barreled.”
Some even talk about the thrill in a spiritual sense.
“At that moment, there was nothing else,” he recalls. “It’s kind of cheesy and kooky to say, but it was easily one of the best moments of my life.”
For Joe, each wave is a different expression of himself that no one else can replicate—his own personal, unique experience.
He says it is the same with tricks on a skateboard. There are always new tricks to attempt, and with each one, he has an opportunity to do something better and different.
In the end, it is about personal accomplishment.
“It’s that feeling you get when you do something that either you didn’t think was super obtainable or that others told you you couldn’t do,” he explains.
The power of achievement resonates in the world of extreme and adventure sports. It is what Joe says has kept him coming back, in spite of pain or failures.
“For me, at least, it’s not how much better I am than other people,” says Joe. “It’s how much better I am than I was yesterday, or the day before that.
“It’s the idea of progression. There’s never a set limit you can reach.”