Outside magazine, October 1997
Maybe we were just wearing our caps wrong. All the necessary equipment had been lying about for decades: little banana-seat bicycles and plywood to build ramps, plenty of elastic and tall cranes, and all the gravity you could ever fall into. But now, like lemmings leaping off a trompe l'oeil cliffscape, the extreme pose is everywhere, adopted not only by great athletes but by the vast, ungifted hordes. Where did it come from? Maybe you saw the first spawnings in the late seventies at your local surf break — an increase in adolescent baldness, a few bold moves swiped from the skateboard brethren, an unmistakable sneer. Maybe, on the slopes in the mideighties, you saw the first weird beast lope by in a woolen jester's cap. And then, suddenly, it was Halloween every day — peroxide buzz-cuts, Mad Max getups, the South Sea Island iconography of topknots and cuneiform tattoos. By the summer of 1995, when ESPN hosted the first X Games, the rad snarl of extreme sports had already been mainstreamed by the grunge-fueled freeze-frames of MTV Sports and the ubiquitous Mountain Dew commercial — so much so that today the image of the flying snowboarder has become the Platonic Ideal for all the things that admen lust after: Youth! Energy! Attitude!
Where will the extreme end? By the cruel laws of fashion, probably with a backlash to a crew-cut conservatism Ç la Jim Thorpe. Meanwhile, we live in entertaining times, when the three-ring circus of monolithic team sports has burst open into something like 30 popular alternative sports, each with its do-or-die ethos and fearless young stars. Witness the cockatiel crest of Glen Plake (the ur-punk of skiing who may well be the progenitor of all things "extreme"), still cartoon-fresh after more than a decade. Or the tragic stylings of downhill mountain-biking phenom Missy "The Missile" Giove, who has often chosen to accessorize her Celtic Mistress of the Two Realms look with a dead piranha necklace and a pouch filled with the ashes of her childhood pet dog. Consider the sorcerer's sabbat tattooed across the sinewy trunk of ultramarathoner Ben Hian. Or the John-Wayne-Gacy-as-the-killer-clown fright mask of skateboarder Simon Woodstock. Follow, if you can, the psychodrama of snowboard genius turned mountain-bike hellman Shaun Palmer, who works a shtick that's somewhere between Sid Vicious and the Tasmanian Devil. Dude, you gotta back that shit up. And of course, the extreme athletes always do, the good ones anyway, with passë virtues like strength, courage, and raw talent, however oddly their demons drive them to dress.
Illustration by Thomas Fluharty