Phil Kenney ’05 races down East Rock on his longboard, weaving around cars, picking up speed as he whips down the steep hill. Most people would be terrified and fear for their lives. But not Phil.
“You can’t think like that or else you’ll probably never do it,” Kenney said. “And besides, it’s a lot less fun and you’re a lot more likely to mess up. If you have a positive mental attitude, everything will turn out fine.”
While some may call Kenney crazy for espousing these ideas, there are certainly many Yalies who completely agree with him. Quite a few students live for the rush of various extreme sports, from helicopter-skiing to surfing in hurricanes to skateboarding down ramps in parking garages. Some partake in such sports through Yale clubs, but many others seek the adventures on their own.
The “extreme” in extreme sports refers to the level of danger involved in the activities. Though there are Yale organizations that facilitate extreme sports, many were not begun with this intention. Yale Climbing, which practices on Silliman College’s climbing wall and occasionally takes in-state trips, tries to provide safe, but exhilarating experiences.
Yale Outdoors is another one of these clubs. Though the hiking gets rugged and the spelunking arduous, club members look to have fun while staying out of harm’s way.
“I’m sort of skeptical of the term ‘extreme sports’ because I would say, yes, it’s dangerous, yes, there are risks involved, but we’re not going out there for that reason,” Yale Outdoors trip coordinator Ben Edmunds ’04 said. “I would hope that no one on our trips is going out there for the risk of life and limb.”
Edmunds said Yale Outdoors is the only year-round general outing club at Yale and its goal is to get students away from the Yale campus for a day, a weekend, or a longer trip. The trips involve camping, hiking, snowshoeing, canoeing, cross-country skiing, spelunking and other outdoor activities. On-campus activities are mostly education-based, like first-aid training.
While some of the activities in which the Yale Outdoors partakes might be considered dangerous, Edmunds said danger is a natural companion to wilderness sports.
“Anything runs the risk of being a dangerous situation,” Edmunds said. “When you’re involved in leading outdoors activities you’re always looking for dangerous situations.”
Riding the danger
For those Yalies looking for something a little more intense, there is a small group of dedicated surfers who will go to the greatest lengths to catch the perfect wave. Just ask Mike Kai ’05, a native Californian who watches weather forecasts to determine when waves in the area will be best.
“What’s really special about surfing I think, especially on the East Coast, is that the waves occur so infrequently … that you really have to monitor the forecast,” Kai said. “Often the window of opportunity to go surfing may only last a few hours a day and that day may be the only day in two weeks with waves like that.”
Kai is part of a dedicated Yale surfing contingent that exchanges e-mails about opportune times to surf in Rhode Island. Earlier this year, during Hurricane Fabian, the group braved 10- to 12-foot waves in what was potentially an incredibly dangerous experience.
“We were loving it,” Molly Heinz ’06, another self-professed Californian surfing addict, said. “But I remember when I got out of the water and looked at the waves I was like, ‘No sane person would ever paddle out into the waves because you could get your neck broken.'”
But Heinz said this danger and the rush she gets “in the moment” are exactly what attract her to extreme sports.
“It’s not a controlled environment when you’re flying through the air or gliding across the water,” Heinz said. “Anything could happen. There’s no rules out there. Surfing is the biggest rush. It’s exciting because every wave is different, every day is different — the tides change all the time, you’ll wipe out sometimes, you’ll get the most amazing wave of your life — it’s very satisfying.”
In addition to being a participant, Heinz said she is also an avid spectator of the X Games. This set of competitions, broadcast on ESPN, include events like skiing, snowboarding, motocross and snowmobiling in the winter; and surfing, BMX, skateboarding, in-line skating, bike stunting and motocross in the summer. Though the X Games pit athletes against one another, for the common participant, this genre of sports highlights the accomplishments of the individual in a non-competitive environment.
Man vs. nature
“The pursuit is the individual pursuit of being able to ride the waves on the surfboard, but also the pursuit of knowing when and where they’re going to happen and knowing how the weather works,” Kai said. “It’s like there’s an element of escape — just to be able to go and enjoy an environment that you don’t typically inhabit. I think the whole rush is a byproduct of my experience.
Kenney — a skier, surfer and longboard skateboarder — has certainly experienced the dangers of the sports. In addition to breaking his collar bone, fingers and getting a concussion from skiing, the fin of his surfboard sliced his leg open. But to Kenney, the possibility of danger is simply part of the sport.
“Sometimes [injuries are caused] just out of being reckless, sometimes it’s just like freak stuff, like you fall off your board when you’re riding or a wave crashes on you and your board happens to hit you,” he said. “But it’s so much fun with surfers. There’s a certain aura about surfing. People say that surfing isn’t a sport, it’s a lifestyle.”
Kenney, like Heinz, is drawn to the rush that comes from succeeding in a possibly hazardous situation. Running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain — an experience Kenney had a few years ago — epitomized the rush on which he thrives.
“If you ride a big wave it’s the biggest rush in the world,” Kenney said. “When you’re skiing and you start going out of control the feeling is indescribable. That’s definitely why I’m doing it.”
The big chill
Skiing and snowboarding are two other tremendously popular extreme sports. The Yale Alpine Ski Team sponsors a training trip to Canada at the end of every winter break, when skiers and snowboarders have the chance to veer away from conventional skiing and try a few tricks. But even the trip does not provide enough opportunity for extreme skiers and snowboarders, and many choose to take trips on their own to practice.
For many, skiing and snowboarding provide the same rush and exhilaration as surfing. Danger is a very real possibility in both of the sports, however, and many Yalies have had accidents. Jeff Warren ’06, a freestyle skier who is trying to organize a free-skiing team, broke his leg during the training trip last year and has not skied since. But he plans to go on the trip this year.
“At that moment that you leave a jump it’s a great feeling,” Warren said. “I don’t hear anything and it lasts for much longer than you think it would. I don’t remember being in the jump when it happens. It’s a great feeling. It’s like you’re suspended in the air and it’s so peaceful.”
Snowboarding, while not as popular as skiing, certainly has a following at Yale. Alston Lambert ’05 also travels with the ski team for the training trip, but Lambert shed his ski bunny identity for that of a snowboarding bum in high school. Lambert has been trying to gauge the popularity of snowboarding at Yale by sending out messages to the ski team e-mail list, but thinks the majority of students who partake in snow sports stick to skiing.
Lambert has recently begun attempting tricks on his snowboard, and challenges himself on a quarter pipe.
“It shows how agile you are on the board,” Lambert said. “It’s a challenge that interests me and intrigues me that I’ve been pursuing.”
Lambert’s sentiments about snowboarding mirror those of other extreme sport participants.
“It’s definitely a personal thing but there’s also the rush,” Lambert said. “I guess the rush comes from that idea of personal achievement — the idea that ‘This is really difficult and it’s very dangerous but I’m doing it.’ There’s definitely a sense of personal accomplishment and that’s definitely what keeps you going even when you fall and you feel bruised.”
The consensus among these extreme athletes is that the rush and satisfaction derived from these sports outweigh the danger. Even athletes who have taken a nasty spill or two, go back for more.
Jesse Wolfson ’07 had a skiing accident in which the tip of his ski got caught in the snow while he was attempting a trick. He fell onto his face, shattering his goggles and bruising his face.
“I didn’t look like myself for a long time,” Wolfson said.
But he will still be out with the ski team this winter, skiing and jumping.
Scott Peachman ’06, a connoisseur of extreme sports, bikes to East Rock when he is at Yale, but has biked much harder terrain, like the Moab Desert, on his own.
“You’re in the middle of the desert with rock formations all around you,” Peachman said. “It’s easy to hurt yourself, I’d say — there are no guard rails. It’s like when you go skiing and you look over a cliff. It’s a pretty intense experience.”
Peachman has also rafted on the Yappa River, a notoriously difficult route. Accidents on the river have ranged from minor injuries to people dying after falling out of their kayak.
“It’s freaky to know the chance of death is a very real possibility,” Peachman said.
Like others, Peachman said he would like it if an extreme sports club was started at Yale and thinks there is enough interest to make one work.
For now, Peachman and company have to satisfy themselves with the Yale Alpine Ski Team, Yale Climbing and Yale Outdoors.
Or, like Kenney, they have to find ways to partake in extreme sports on their own.
So next time you see a longboarder racing down Science Hill, step aside and let him enjoy the rush.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”18793″ ]