Chasing the Thrill
June 25th, 2017 by Christopher Gaylord

Biff Hutchison, 23, a professional extreme pogo stick rider from Burley, Idaho, performs for students at a school in San Diego. A few years ago, Biff—who currently ranks among the best in the world—joined other pogo riders in performing at middle and elementary schools as a way to reach youth. Photo by Ivan Arsenyev

Despite their risks, extreme sports offer a rush that keeps enthusiasts coming back for more

In the 12 years since Biff Hutchison began pushing the limits on a pogo stick, he has broken enough bones to average two every year. He has to pause for a moment just to count them up.

After an inventory that includes fingers, toes, ankles and wrists—and a few bones broken more than once—the total comes to about 26.

It is enough to make anyone wonder why he continues to pogo at all. But Biff says no injury, no matter how severe, has ever made him think twice about his true passion.

“It’s always been, ‘How fast can I get back to doing what I love?’” says Biff, who today is at the top of his game in the extreme pogo arena.

With multiple world records—including highest front flip on a pogo stick, at almost 10 feet, and highest overall jump—the 23-year-old from Burley, Idaho, ranks among the best in the world.

Roger Meader, general manager/CEO of Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative in Oregon, is well acquainted with the risk of intense sports. It is a danger he faces every time his feet leave the ground for a flight underneath the massive, bowed wings of his paraglider.

For the past 16 years, Roger has braved harsh winds at heights reaching 13,600 feet.
Roger and everyone he knows who paraglides has been hurt at least once. Years ago, the 62-year-old even lost a close friend to the sport.

“There’s a level of risk, no doubt about it,” says Roger who, unlike Biff, is not well known in his chosen sport.

For him, paragliding is a weekend hobby.

But status does not always matter in the pursuit of extreme sports. In this world where danger stays close, fears are overcome and pain is pushed aside, it is all about the rush.

From casual hobbyists to dedicated professionals, participants share a common belief: The risk is worth the adrenaline and excitement that comes 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 2,000 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 Biff, Roger and Derek. Biff did BMX and rock climbing before picking up pogo, Roger raced motorcycles as a kid and quickly gravitated toward fast cars, and Derek started riding bulls in early childhood, along with dirt bikes and snowmobiles.

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 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
For Tyler Aklestad, February 27, 2016, was 12 years in the making. Around noon that day, he and his teammate, Tyson Johnson, finished first in the Iron Dog—the world’s longest and most grueling snowmobile race.

Each year, the event puts dozens of two-man teams up against a fierce challenge: 2,031 miles across the unforgiving terrain of Alaska in temperatures well below freezing.

The pair finished in 35 hours, 35 minutes—the fastest time in the race’s 34-year history.

Tyler, who lives in Palmer, Alaska, grew up on a snowmobile. Tearing through the backcountry, snowmobiling was not only fun and exhilarating, but a way of life and a means to get around in places standard vehicles could not go.

The 31-year-old has raced since he was 16, and has competed in the Iron Dog every year since he was 18.

“Just finishing the race in its own was always a huge achievement,” says Tyler.

He took a terrifying fall through the ice with his snowmobile while crossing a frozen bay during an Iron Dog race a few years ago. If anything, the mishap only pushed him to work harder.

“Some people may see that as a failure to fall in the water and then be done with it,” Tyler says, who describes his Iron Dog win as the pinnacle of his professional achievement. “I always have chocked it up to what I can do better next time. It’s always striving to do it again—do it better.”

Doing it better. Winning. Landing a new trick. Reaching a new height.

The power of achievement resonates in the world of extreme and adventure sports.

It is what Biff says drives him to get back on his pogo stick each day, in spite of any pain or failures.

“At the end of the day, it’s seeing how far you can push yourself—what you can kind of block out fear-wise, what you can commit to doing,” he says.

“I think what keeps pushing people—at least for me—is seeing how far I can take it and what I can do, and what we can create with a pogo stick. That’s kind of what keeps drawing me back.”

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