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Why I go extreme: for world class adventure athlete Will Gadd, real life begins up in the clouds.

The man lecturing me, as he eyed my flying equipment, was in his mid-40s, with a monster-truck-tire gut and wearing corporate baseball cap. "People like you ought to be locked up before you kill yourselves," he said. "You're a 911 call waiting to happen."

I was preparing to launch my nylon paraglider (basically, a parachute that glides like a hang glider) from the side of the road over a 10,000-foot-high alpine pass in Colorado. I was really looking forward to stepping off the ground catching a thermal updraft like a hawk, and heading for the clouds. No motor, just the whisper of the a and the silence of the sky. I'd hiked up to the pass in the morning with some friends, while Mr. 911 had driven and parked his motor home when tie saw our brightly colored gliders on the hillside.


I felt like making a smart-allecky remark about his physical condition and chances for a heart attack. Instead I smiled, and told him that I'd soon be flying up around the clouds, high over the Rocky Mountains, feeling alive as I never do when working behind my desk. I told him that if he wanted to try paragliding I could take him for a tandem ride later in the day off Aspen Mountain. He looked at me like I'd suddenly grown another head, but his wife looked interested. I gave them a paragliding brochure, then pulled my wing up like a giant kite and let it pull me smoothly into flight. My friends followed, and we could hear the man mid his wife yelling excitedly up into the air until their voices faded away, thousands of feet below.

I hung from dozens of high-tech strings no thicker than the lines we all used to fly our kites as kids. I used to fantasize about my kite lifting me into the sky and all the adventures I could have up there; now it was reality. I tightened my circle to stay in the best part of the warm updraft, then a red-tail hawk joined me for a few turns, wing tip to wing tip, before it beaded off on its own personal mission.

Nothing makes me feel more alive, excited, and fundamentally happy exploring gravity on its own terms. Many of the sports I do are considered "EXTREME, DUDE!" But that's just marketing hype cashing in on something very personal and ultimately very rewarding.

Of course, "extreme sports" are dangerous, I have had friends die climbing, kayaking, mad paragliding. But I've also had friends die in car accidents, from heart attacks, and simply from the burden of living in the high stress 21st century.

I try to do my sports as carefully as I can, and stay in shape mentally and physically to do my best, whether in competition or just heading ant into the mountains, l don't like training on Stairmasters, but walking up a peak seems fun. We have to train to truly succeed. Some of that training isn't all that entertaining, but we do it to survive on our own terms.


I ran into Mr. 911 again--later the same day, in fact. Alter watching us, he'd had a change of attitude. I took him and later his wife for tandem rides. Our worlds met and expanded as my new friends whooped and hollered up high. Perhaps they'll go back for more paragliding lessons, or perhaps this will be their only brush with what I look at as reality.

For me, my sports are a direct tap into what I call the "life force." I don't want to die, and I especially don't want to die a slow death of desperation, without adventure. We'll all be a 911 call sooner or later, but I'd prefer mine to happen in the midst of an open-eyed life experience.

RELATED ARTICLE: Extreme success nowadays, it's hip to defy gravity.

By Barry Rubinstein

Not long ago, extreme-sports athletes like Will Gadd were considered part of an off-the-wall fringe culture. But their grab-life-by-the-horns attitude has clearly infiltrated the American psyche, as television shows like Fear Factor and movies like XXX and Biker Boyz attest.

"You see [extreme sports] in shows, in commercials, in cartoons. It's just becoming embedded in all these things," says Eric Sentianin, managing editor of Transworld Skateboarding magazine.

Just what is extreme, exactly? It usually involves some kind of extraordinary effort to challenge the taws of gravity, as most of us know them. Extreme sports include skateboarding, inline skating, motocross (closed track motorcycle racing and stunts), BMX (bicycle motocross), snowboarding, freestyle skiing (mogul, skiing and aerial tricks), and ice and rock climbing.

With roots in the California skateboarding subculture of the 1970s. extreme sports have slowly been gaining Legitimacy since 1992, when the International Olympic Committee recognized freestyle skiing. But it was the 1995 creation of the X Games, a kind of Olympics for the action sports set, that realty got things rolling.

Dave Mirra, a BMX stunt rider and a longtime X Games fixture, says the exposure resulted in big endorsements for action athletes starting around 1997. No one has benefited more than, skateboard daredevil Tony Hawk, who now earns more than $10 million annually--mostly from endorsements and merchandise. That has led to groans of "sell out" from some of the scab-kneed teens at whom the marketing is aimed.

Hawk says that doesn't bother him. "I don't really understand the problem with actually finally making money from something you've toyed to do your whole life," he says.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Author:Gadd, Will
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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