Mariann Saether 
This daughter of the Jotunheimen Mountains has a thing for waterfalls. In August, after warming up in 2000 and 2001 with a handful of 45-foot drops in Ecuador and Argentina, she became the first woman kayaker to run northern Norway's Smaadoela Fallsa 54-foot plunge into a potentially lethal whirlpool. With just four years of paddling under her belt, the Dagger-sponsored Saether has already notched first descents in four countries, including a five-day source-to-sea paddle of her homeland's Lomsdalen River and the remote Reykjafoss in Iceland. She also nailed the 2002 Norwegian Freestyle Championship title and, last May, wore the bronze at the Pre-Worlds in Austria.
"My ex-boyfriend was a kayaker," says the five-foot-eight former synchronized swimmer. "As soon as I tried it, I couldn't get enough." Today, Saether is putting the gears to her testosterone-pumped costars in kayaking films like Teton Gravity Research's Valhalla.
"She'll step up and run gnarly drops, and we're like, 'Aw shit, now we gotta go,'" says Bozeman, MontanaÐbased pro paddler Ben Selznick, 25. "She's one of the best female paddlers in the world." Apparently that's what happens when you spend more than 300 days per year in a boat. "Maybe I'm a little bit of a control freak," says Saether. "I want to master everything about paddling." Mark Anders
Michael Phelps 
His dimensions aren't freakishly impressive (six foot four, 187 pounds, 7 percent body fat, size 14 flippers), but world-record-destroying, ass-kicking swimmer Michael Phelps has something else going for him: the Equalizer. After this kid flip-turns from breaststroke to freestyle for the final leg of the 400 individual medleya moment when even the strongest of swimmers pop up to chug some airPhelps stays underwater. Last August, at the P66 Summer Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he stayed under for an extra 12 meters and Man-from-Atlantised right past his main rival, Erik Vendt, surfacing in the lead and breaking a two-year-old world record. "Very few people are in good enough shape to do that," says Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach of six years. "Everybody went nuts." Phelps, who also holds the world mark in the 200 butterfly, serves as the yang to Australian freestyler Ian Thorpe's yin. Both are shooting for a gaudy number of golds at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. The magic number is seven, which is how many American swimmer Mark Spitz won at Munich in 1972. Eric Hagerman
Brad Ludden 
Though some of his pro-paddling peers are notorious self-promoters, spud-boat superstar Brad Ludden is cut from different neoprene cloth. Sure, he's won his share of rodeos, including three golds at the Teva Mountain Games in his hometown of Vail, and yeah, you can catch him hucking his heart out in films like Nurpu and Valhalla. Then there are those 75-plus first descents of rivers like the Luapula, in central Africa, and the upper reaches of Indonesia's Asahan. Yet Ludden, who next plans to paddle the upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia, stands apart for a different kind of achievement. In August 2001 he founded First Descents, a free, weeklong paddling camp based out of Vail that aims to build confidence in young cancer patients. "That's where my heart is," says Ludden. "It's the one thing in my life that I know is good. I don't question it." Neither do we. M.A.
Norman Maktima 
Glorieta, New Mexico
"When Norman stalks fish, it's like watching a heron," says Duane Hada, 40, who coached Maktima as a member of the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team back in 1998. "He's got that predator in him." That year the hip-wader crown prince, then 18, netted the highest score at the Youth World Flyfishing Championship in Wrexham, Wales. At 21, Maktimawhose father taught him to fish on New Mexico's Pecos River at age sevenbecame the youngest American ever to compete in the World Flyfishing Championships, in Sweden. A member of the San Felipe Pueblo, Maktima hopes to develop sustainable fishery management programs on Indian reservations. Last spring he completed his bachelor of science at Washington State's Whitman College with a double major in environmental studies and biology. His senior thesis: "Dietary Habits of Rainbow Trout in the Walla Walla River." Says Maktima, "I'd go out there for a whole day and pretty much just fish." He got an A. S.H.
Ben Ainslie 
Falmouth, Cornwall, United Kingdom
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Ainslie settled for silver in the Laser event after Brazilian Robert Scheidt, the eventual gold medalist, forced him into a false start in the last race, disqualifying him. Four years later, in Sydney, Ainslie returned the favor, boxing Scheidt in on the first upwind leg and then hanging on for the overall victory. Ainslie's response to Scheidt's subsequent griping? "What goes around comes around." A few months later, the British phenomwhose father, Roddy, skippered a yacht in the first Whitbread Round the World racesigned on with the Seattle-based America's Cup syndicate OneWorld Challenge. "I thought I would have the chance to be helming the boat," he says, "but that never happened." Quitting OneWorld, Ainslie bulked up 20 pounds, jumped into a Finn dinghy (bigger and more powerful than a Laser), and on his first try won this summer's Gold Cup at the Finn-class world championships in Piraeus, Greece. After the 2004 Games in Athens, Ainslie expects he'll give the America's Cup another goprovided, that is, he can do a little steering. R. B.
Mariann Saether