The A-Team

Jan 12, 2001
Outside Magazine

It takes focus: Having set the Channel record, Streeter now coaches other aspiring crossers.

Kelly Slater, Capistrano Beach, California, July 2001

Alison Streeter


To the elite corps of long-distance open-water swimmers, crossing the English Channel is the world's most prestigious accomplishment. For even the strongest, the mere thought of pulling across this treacherous fetch just once—23 miles of stiff currents, punishing chop, and hypothermic, 63-degree water temperatures—is enough to send a shiver right down to their Speedos. Which is why Streeter's record 40th crossing this past July isn't just notable, it's downright astonishing. How does Streeter, a 37-year-old currency trader in London, claim the lone triple crossing by a woman (in 1990) and count only a single thwarted effort out of her 41 attempts? "I have a really good ability to concentrate," she says. "In the Channel, you can't think too far ahead or you get overwhelmed. I just take each hour as it comes." —Nick Heil

Tao Berman


The Case: In August 1999, Tao Berman threw a couple of gallon jugs of water into the bow of his kayak and hurled himself over 98.4-foot Johnston Falls in Canada's Banff National Park to break the world waterfall record. "If I'd landed flat," he now says matter-of-factly, "it'd probably have shattered all the bones in my back." For Berman, the drop was little more than calculated risk—the water jugs ensured a clean, nose-first landing—but the unprecedented media coverage, and his flair for self-promotion, gave him a reputation among his peers as just another hucker looking for attention. So what's a hucker to do? In August 2001, Berman, 22, obliterated two more descent records in under 24 hours. First, screaming over five falls (100 vertical feet) in 19.38 seconds, he beat the previous speed-altitude descent record by just under a second. The breathless run required surfing across a hydraulic and catching a tiny eddy to avoid being tugged to certain death over five more unrunnable falls. The next day he paddled 210 vertical feet of cascading falls to break the vertical-distance descent record—a flight plan that included launching 20 airborne feet onto a 45-degree rock slab. That kind of technical composure should silence his critics. "My hope," says Eric Jackson, reigning freestyle-kayaking world champion, "is that Tao will let his feats speak for themselves."

Second Opinion: "I go out and find waterfalls I think he might like," says Eric Link, Berman's videographer in the Twitch series of extreme-kayaking videos. "If it's runnable, he'll find a line. It's like watching a dog point a bird."

Why He'd Be a Ringer on Fear Factor: Berman never gets scared. Before launch, he imagines every move until he knows he can do it.

Next Big Thing: Going back to the Asia Cup in Thailand and Sumatra this winter to defend his extreme-racing title.—Peter Heller

Marcus "Flash" Austin


The Case: Forget his total dominance of kiteboarding's seven biggest events in 2000; it's Austin's single-minded devotion to the fledgling sport that elevates him above the pack. In France last April, Austin dared to ride in a 78-knot windstorm—more than four times a kiteboarder's ideal breeze. Seconds after launch he got ripped from his board and was "tea-bagged" three times before eventually unleashing and breaking a rib. Why'd he do it? "Some windsurfers were saying kiters were wimps." It's the kind of martyrdom you'd expect, considering his fairy-tale ascent: Boy working as Daytona bartender falls hard for little skimboards and big kites, wows tourists by wind-skimming down the beach miles at a time. Boy sees photo of kiteboarding pioneers in Maui, moves there after selling everything he owns. Boy gets sponsored by Mama's Fishhouse (seriously), assumes superhero nickname, and becomes icon of booming new sport. Although Austin spent 2001 nursing his injury, he remains kiteboarding's most rapturous spokesman. "My soul longs/seeks/wishes/ wants to surf my own imagination, to fly," he writes on his Web site. "Kitesurfing is...a means to break free and indulge in Life's Glory!"

Second Opinion: Says Robby Naish, of Naish Kiteboarding, an Austin sponsor: "His enthusiasm has been good for the sport. You wanna sponsor him; you just kind of don't want to talk to him about kiteboarding."

Flash in the Pan? Hardly. Last summer, Austin made history by kiting across the North Sea—a 75-mile solo trip from Norway to Denmark.

Next Big Thing: Spreading the gospel. "I'd rather shun the limelight and teach the sport to people whose lives might be changed, like mine was." Hallelujah.—Steve Hawk

Pascal Cognard


"The virus of fishing was transmitted to him by his father," reads a line of artless English translation on Pascal Cognard's Web site. What else could explain the divine affliction of a man who has won more individual World Fly-Fishing Championships than any other angler? "I am the man who can remember all the different techniques," Cognard claims, appraising the skills that have led France to three world titles. He won his second of three world championships in 1997 in Jackson Hole despite having rarely fished from a drift boat (it's illegal in France). While bumbling competitors tangled their tippets, Cognard was the picture of precision and efficiency, rarely back-casting, and neatly presenting three dry flies at a time. No bead-head nymphs? Merci, non. True purists, the French team considers the shiny contrivances too lurelike.—Florence Williams

Kelly Slater


The Case: First, the numbers: youngest-ever professional world champ (age 20), second-largest pile of career prize money ($751,330, behind Sunny Garcia), most world titles (he quit the world tour after his sixth in 1998 largely due to competitive ennui). But those are just Cliff's Notes. Figuring out why Slater, 29, still rides waves better than any human in history is like trying to admire Einstein's theory of relativity—you need an advanced degree. Few surfers comprehend it. They praise his down-the-line speed, his lightning arcs in ghastly places, his ability to weave his way out of impossible tubes, even his onetime romance with Pamela Anderson. But a lot of top pros go fast, turn tight, make deep tubes, and date hot chicks. What, then? "Kelly's board is a pure extension of his mind," says Chris Malloy, who's surfed with Slater since he was 15. "His body works so perfectly with his brain that there's nothing lost in the translation between what he sees in his head and what actually happens on the wave."

Second Opinion: "He can handle pressure better than anyone I've ever known," says Rob Machado, who's finished second to Slater more times than he cares to count. "If 20 of his biggest peers are on the beach, he'll get the wave of the day...and blow everyone's mind."

Claim to Fame: In a sport that requires pretzeling into unnatural poses, Slater is a yoga teacher's dream: He can lie on his stomach and pull his feet flat to the floor beside his head.

Next Big Thing: Slater may consider another run at the world tour, but only if he can manufacture a new internal goal: "I guess it would be a nice challenge to see if I can come back and win the title after three years off." Whatever it takes. —Steve Hawk

Olivier de Kersauson


The Case: In the waterlogged, uncompromising world of offshore sailing, there is one route that, for its purity and sheer ruggedness, stands alone: around the world, nonstop, via the Southern Ocean. Record holders claim the Jules Verne Trophy, so named because the impudent sailors who dreamed it up a decade ago were convinced that a fast multihull sailboat could, like Phileas Fogg, girdle the globe in just 80 days. No one has pushed the concept with as much joie de vivre as the colorful and bombastic Frenchman who calls himself the Ocean Alchemist. De Kersauson, 57, who happens to be married to a descendant of Verne, is the only skipper who has managed two sub-80-day runs, and his record 1997 time of 71 days and 14 hours still stands. A protégé of France's first modern sailing hero, Eric Tabarly, whose single-handed exploits ignited the French passion for offshore racing, de Kersauson has almost certainly logged more miles in multihull sailboats than any other living sailor. And this past July, with characteristic élan, he launched the largest racing trimaran ever built, a 110-foot carbon-fiber beast called Geronimo. "Sometimes," says De Kersauson, "I think if I lived a thousand years and could sail around the world every year, I would."

Second Opinion: "He's one of a kind," says Antoine Sezerac, an editor at Voiles et Voilers, France's most popular sailing magazine. "Most of his friends have died at sea [including Tabarly, in 1998]. Now he is on his own and will chase records until the end of his life."

Qualifications as a Dramamine Pitchman: In pursuit of 20 different speed-sailing records—and sailing immortality—de Kersauson will average nine months at sea annually for the next five years.

Next Big Thing: Slashing his previous Jules Verne record to 60 days by sailing at speeds that could top 40 knots.—Tim Zimmermann

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