No one is immune to the risk
To our knowledge, no one has tracked the annual number of action sports deaths through the decades. But with 11 pros having died in 2011, this may be the grimmest year in the sports' collective history.
Due to a crunched timeline from the first death to the last, it felt like even more. From Feb. 28, when 25-year-old Ryan Hawks suffered fatal injuries at a Freeskiing World Tour competition at Kirkwood, Calif., to Nov. 25, when BMX dirt jumper Dane Searls, 23, succumbed to injuries from an accident at an Australian nightclub, the action sports community averaged one pro athlete death every three weeks.
And that's not even counting the many action sports industry-related deaths experienced throughout the year, including Surfline founder Sean Collins, co-founder of Vans and creator of the Waffle sole James Van Doren, Thrasher magazine co-founder Eric Swenson, Dogtown surfer and original Z-boy Chris Cahill, snowboard and surf legend Chuck Allen, and "Jackass" crew member Ryan Dunn.
You could argue that stretch was nothing but a fluke. You could also argue it portends a dark future for these sports and their athletes, who court risk naturally and on a daily basis. There's no way to prove or disprove either point of view.
What endures is the grieving for people who were in the prime of their lives. The average age of the 11 deceased pros, all male, was 27. Only two died during competitions: Hawks and Josh Lichtle, 23, who died of heat stroke during a motocross race in November. The rest perished in a spectrum of ways, ranging from avalanche to car accident.
The psychological influence of such a deadly year is debatable. Lester Keller, who has spent 14 years as the sport psychology coordinator for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, says the deaths are a product of the activities more than the athletes themselves. "I think it has to do with the evolution of modern sport," Keller said. "As you get toward the edge of what's possible, which a lot of these guys are doing, the risk factor goes way up."
Keller added: "Psychology plays a role in everything we do, but to say there's a new kind of sportsman emerging -- no. I just think it's where sport is going."
As an example, Keller cited the modern pursuit of human flight. "There wasn't wingsuit BASE jumping 20 years ago," he said, a point that speaks to the late-October death of Antoine Montant in the French Alps. Montant, 30, began paragliding when he was 9 -- taught by his brother, Valéry, who perished in an accident in 2006 -- and had become one of the world's most respected and fascinating speed fliers when he died during a jump gone wrong, alone in a remote and rugged area of the Haute-Savoie.
Montant, like many of this year's deceased pros, perished while at the top of his sport. The same can be said of big-mountain snowboarder Aaron Robinson, 24, a two-time North Face Masters tour champion who died in a fall near El Colorado, Chile, in July; and Kip Garre, 38, a mountaineer and guide who had skied some of the world's most technical lines before he and his girlfriend, Allison Kreutzen, were killed by a large avalanche as they climbed a rarely skied couloir in California's Eastern Sierra.
The message is as it's always been: No one is immune to the risk, not even the best in the world. Especially not them, it seems. In speaking of freestyle motocross star Jeff "Ox" Kargola, who died at 27 during a 1,376-mile ride across the Baja Peninsula in May, cinematographer Jay Schweitzer told ESPN: "Just last week I was out shooting with him at Danimal's and he was at the top of his game, riding like I'd never seen him ride before."
This subject is on my mind often, partly because it has influenced so much of our coverage, but more because of how real these risks are and how real the ensuing heartbreak is, even from afar. Consider Hawaii's Sion Milosky, a 35-year-old father of two who died while surfing a monster swell at Mavericks in March.
A few months before his death, Milosky gave an interview in which he said: "My wife, my daughters, they're what I live for." But he, like countless others past, present and future, also devoted his life to his sport. After he died, his prime sponsor, Volcom, released a statement about Milosky that said in part, "If Sion set out to do something he would do it, no questions asked." Those words carry entirely different meaning for a big-wave surfer than, say, a wide receiver.
The risk-reward paradox is confounding, and perhaps too abstract for an uninitiated observer to understand fully. The very nature of these sports is that, unlike some of their mainstream peers such as football or basketball, they are often less a sport than a manner of living. There are exceptions, but I would bet that a vast majority of action sports pros don't wake up and think, "I have to train today"; they wake up and live how they'd live even if they weren't being paid to do it -- and that, in turn, fuels their athletic performance.
In reflecting on this tragic year, I always return to Kip Garre, a personal friend with whom I'd shared deep conversations about life's meaning. I wrote after he died that his greatest gift was inspiring others to live with the same free spirit and zest for daily adventure that steered his life -- a feat he achieved without trying. Every speaker at Kip and Allison's memorial service touched on the same trait.
I understand the argument that enhanced technology, gear and information are contributing to the increased number of accidents and deaths in action sports, especially as the athletes push for more mainstream recognition. There's no question that holds true in certain cases. But unless the structure of these sports changes, and their lifestyle roots are usurped by a more formal foundation, it's hard to fathom much changing.