Parents_On_The_Edge
No Fear

What 3 Extreme Athlete Dads Learned About Risk, Family, And Raising Kids

When you think of an “adrenaline junkie,’ what do you picture? A person who jumps out of a perfectly good airplane? Or surfs waves that would arouse Roland Emmerich? Or climbs mountains where frozen bodies are used for mile markers?

That label is all well and good for twentysomethings who think nothing of dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse. But what happens when it’s not just about you? That’s a big question for 3 extreme athlete dads: decorated BASE jumper Jon DeVore, legendary big wave surfer Shane Dorian, and National Geographic Explorer Mike Libecki. Yes, these athletes are some of the best in the world, but things can always go sideways in the worst possible way.

Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

Their professions can be a source of anxiety of the family. “If I’m on any of those more intense projects, [my wife’s] an absolute mess for sure,” says DeVore. He, Libecki, and Dorian understand that people call them irresponsible for doing what they do with families waiting at home. But they also point out that focusing only on the danger misses major parts of the story. These men aren’t idiots seeking a dopamine spike, but compelled professionals entering every situation with every base covered. And, approve of their life choices or not, the perspective they’ve gained on risk influences what they pass on to their kids and deserves meaningful consideration. Appropriately taught, managed, and respected, risk can reap amazing rewards.

Reshaping Risk

As the Red Bull Air Force Manager and one of the world’s foremost wingsuit BASE jumpers, Jon DeVore spends his days dropping out of planes in specially designed nylon bodysuits, shooting through narrow chasms, soaring over Manhattan and skimming cliffs at speeds upwards of 120 mph.

“To be honest, I can be on an exit point and I’ll have a wave of emotion, like ‘What the hell am I doing? I don’t need to be doing this exact thing right now,’” DeVore says. “And the thing driving those thoughts are the flashes of my wife and kids.”

There are many other jobs where the occupational hazards are daunting. Police officers. Firefighters. The Armed Forces. Crab fisherman. Loggers. But the risks taken by extreme sports fathers feel different. They aren’t public servants or doing dangerous jobs out of socioeconomic necessity. Each freely honors the part of their DNA pushing them towards danger. So what is the risk/reward tradeoff? If they’re doing their job responsibly and optimistically, it means a chance to show their kids what it looks like to live life unafraid.

“To be honest, I can be on an exit point and I’ll have a wave of emotion, like ‘What the hell am I doing? I don’t need to be doing this exact thing right now,’” DeVore says. “And the thing driving those thoughts are the flashes of my wife and kids.”

“I can be on an exit point and I’ll have a wave of emotion, like ‘What the hell am I doing?,” says DeVore. “I don’t need to be doing this exact thing right now.”

There is an entire world where the occupational hazards are daunting. Police officers. Firefighters. Men and women in the Armed Forces. Crab fisherman. Loggers. Gary Busey’s personal assistant. But the risks taken by extreme sports fathers are different. They don’t spend their days doing tasks that happen to be dangerous — their task is to be dangerous. So what is the risk/reward tradeoff? Well, if they’re doing their job responsibly and optimistically, it means a chance to show their kids what a life lived unafraid looks like.

Thrill-Seeking Vs. Adulting

Shane Dorian is a legend and innovator in the big-wave surfing world, and his name is spoken with reverence on days when whitecaps tower more than 20-feet high. He’s also seen people, including one of his mentors, die on the water. Still, Dorian felt invincible throughout most of his career. “I surfed and lived like I couldn’t die doing it,” he says.

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Then he got married and his wife became pregnant. And, like most new dads, youthful invulnerability morphed into a newfound feeling of uncertainty. “It wasn’t like I was trying to become responsible,” says Dorian. “It naturally happened. All of a sudden, I was like ‘Oh shit, I really have to be as safe as I possibly can.’”

A near-death experience in 2010 at the legendary California big wave spot Mavericks officially tipped Dorian’s priority scale. The scare pushed him to develop an inflatable wetsuit that’s widely credited with helping improve the sport’s safety record — and made him dial down his own risk taking.

Today, Dorian only surfs big waves with a safety team in place. Where he once would hop the globe chasing swells, he now saves himself for the truly epic days, and minimizes the ones where the waves are “absolutely treacherous.” He still does it — but the goal is to cruise a wave, not conquer one.

Like Dorian, DeVore, too, works hard to mitigate the risk. Before attempting his first BASE jump, he had more than 10,000 conventional skydives under his belt. He’s meticulous about preparation, training, and equipment and wants to make his sport as safe as possible.

The question isn’t whether the activities are dangerous — they 100 percent are — but again, that stereotype of cavalier, thrill-seeking man-children doesn’t apply. Dorian and DeVore confront risk with great respect. And that makes all the difference to their families.

Credit: Shane Dorian / Facebook

What Does ‘Risk’ Really Mean?

“If you go somewhere like India and see 3 people on a moped carrying a fridge, it’s a relatively normal thing to see. Or at least not an unusual thing,” says Eric Brymer, registered psychologist and specialist at Leeds Beckett University. Brymer focuses on wellbeing outcomes from nature-based and adventure activities — like an X Games Ph.D. He says the hypothetical movers are aware of the risks, and still believe they’ll reach their destination in one piece.

Brymer notes the fact this sort of thing makes people nervous reinforces an important point: Risk isn’t simply defined by hard data and actuarial tables. Conventions in a given community play a huge role in shaping perception. “There are cultural aspects that we have to take into account,” he says. So much of what people believe about risk and behavior, Brymer notes, “is learned over years.”

“Instead of being worried about kids falling out of a tree and maybe bruising themselves, we’d be more concerned about the benefits they’re getting from this.”

That type of socialization impacts the ways in which we evaluate choices others make. Think about it. Military service is objectively more dangerous than accounting, but nobody is calling military dads bad fathers for doing their duty. The same person who thinks skydiving is crazy may see football as totally normal, despite being statistically more dangerous. Brymer says ignorance impacts analysis as well. That which you don’t understand naturally seems riskier.

Preconceptions about risk aren’t just important for judging the actions of others, or even evaluating risks you’re willing to take as parents. Consciously or not, you deliver lessons on risk to your children every day, both passively and actively. How you communicate those messages is significant. Brymer says the tendency – particularly in a reflexively litigious American culture – is to consistently frame moments with even minor risk in negative terms, focusing on low-percentage, worst-case scenarios at the expense of positive outcomes.

Changing the common language around risk, Brymer believes, would be beneficial.

“Instead of being worried about kids falling out of a tree and maybe bruising themselves, we’d be more concerned about thinking about the benefits they’re getting from this,” says Brymer. “The realization of what they’re capable of doing. The enhanced self-esteem. The enhanced confidence.”

It’s a matter of saying, Let’s know enough about this risk so we manage it effectively, Brymer notes, and giving real consideration to both sides of the risk equation.

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Can You Teach Fearlessness?

Mike Libecki has dedicated his life to exploring the most untouched areas on the planet; some so far flung they don’t have names. He makes his living as a National Geographic Explorer and an expert in solo ascents — his coworkers are normally rattlesnakes, hungry polar bears, avalanches, and, during one expedition in Afghanistan, the Taliban.

Libecki also has a daughter, Lilliana. When she was in Kindergarten, Lilliana told her dad she’d like to see the penguins in Antarctica. Six years later, Libecki decided to give her the chance.

Libecki wasn’t reckless, and he trained his daughter to be the same. For 2 years, they trained together, making backcountry climbs and ski runs in harsh weather. They poured over maps and painstakingly reviewed every carabiner, emergency beacon, and ice ax they’d need. She learned discipline, patience, optimism, commitment, goal-setting, and the benefits of practice. And once there, the pair were in constant communication, evaluating every situation from the weather, to snow conditions, to the location of crevasses. The 20-day trip went off without a hitch.

Granted, Libecki was only one of a handful of people on the planet has the skill set to conceive of such a trip, but the takeaway is the same for any dad who wants their kid to start to become a self-possessed person.

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“As far as outdoor activity – climbing, skiing, adventure – in those terms, risk can only be explained by showing and doing. Not by just telling,” says Libecki. “You learn how to make a fire when you’re camping. You know how to bandage yourself up. Like learning math, like learning music – you simply become better at what you do by doing it. And that includes being safer at the same time.”

Rather than teaching Lilliana to be reckless, Libecki trained her in the opposite. She learned discipline, patience, optimism, commitment, and the reward of practice.

The same goes for Shane Dorian’s son Jackson, 9, who has an adventurous streak like his father. Together, they spend huge chunks of time outdoors, participating in everything from bow hunting to cliff jumping. Dorian has grown accustomed to the side-eye from parents when Jackson walks past adults on a 10-foot ledge on his way to something twice as high. And he’s is comfortable seeing his son on those jumps because they haven’t skipped any steps in preparation along the way.

“What those people don’t see are all the days we’ve spent just swimming, and then getting to the next step,” he says. “Where it’s jumping off a 3-foot cliff or a mini diving board, and then going to a 5-foot cliff, then a 10 foot, then a 15-foot cliff.”

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And he’s mindful about how to get them to that point. Dorian routinely quizzes Jackson about confronting risk respectfully and for the right reasons “I talk to my kid all the time about how he doesn’t need to try and impress his friends. He doesn’t need to try and impress me at all,” he says. “I want them to really think about what they’re doing, and then also why they’re doing it.”

“I want them to really think about what they’re doing, and then also why they’re doing it,” says Dorian. “I talk to my kid all the time about how he doesn’t need to try and impress his friends. He doesn’t need to try and impress me at all.”

But, what if you’re action dad and you have a passive kid? Dorian’s daughter Charlie is in many ways the polar opposite of his son. “She’s super conservative. She’s risk-averse,” he says. Just as Dorian encourages, but guides, Jackson’s spirit, alternatively he doesn’t push his daughter to do things with which she’s not comfortable.

“I think we just sort of get the kids that we get, with their personalities,” he says. “We just try to help them along as parents on their path to become good humans when they grow up. To have fun, and be safe along the way.”

Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

DeVore follows the same logic. “The biggest thing I’m trying to pass on to my kids is that I’ve found a way to turn my passion into my profession, and I’ve watched 98 percent of the world not do that,” he says, adding that the worst thing would be for his kids to wake up and hate their life.

“The biggest thing I’m trying to pass on to my kids is that I’ve found a way to turn my passion into my profession, and I’ve watched 98 percent of the world not do that,” says DeVore.

He regularly takes his kids to wind tunnels where they can simulate the sensation of his day job. A lot of parents can’t believe he’d introduce them to something so dangerous.

“I tell [those parents] that it’s not necessarily that I’m trying to get them to follow in my footsteps, but that I’m trying to take them out of their comfort zones because the more my kids do, the more they realize they can achieve and conquer what was scaring them or making them nervous,” he says. “I want them to be nervous and find a way to overcome it.”

Learning To Fly (Or Climb … Or Surf)

“What are you protecting them from, and is actually what you’re doing protection?” asks Brymer. “If you really want to look at the long-term aspect of protection, you’re saying is ‘I want to make sure that my children are well prepared for the life that they’re about to lead.’”

It may go against your instincts and everything your neurotic brain holds dear, but maybe there’s such a thing as too much safety. As DeVore, Dorian, and Libecki can all attest, you’re probably not assessing that risk correctly. For them, these are challenges to safely overcome, not moments to panic and blow things out of proportion. And they’re not just talking about activities you do in wingsuits and wetsuits.

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“Whether it’s them standing up on stage for the first time, all the way down to hitting their first big ski jump where they haven’t gotten air yet, it’s just going to make you a stronger person. Mentally, physically, and everything in the middle,” says DeVore.

 

They do what they do because it drives them, because they love the challenge, and – yes – there is a rush feeding something inside. These guys are unquestionably wired differently than the rest of us and admit to balancing an inherent selfishness in the need to live their lives honestly against deeply meaningful family obligations. But it’s no less reductive calling them “adrenaline junkies” as it is calling you a “middle management addict.” (Life, and people, are complicated.) Most people will never probe the extremes that DeVore, Dorian, and Libecki have (or would even want to) and some might say they’re bad fathers for the choices they make. But all of us can consider and apply lessons from what the 3 have learned about the realities of risk. Because where you may see a jungle gym disaster for your kid, they see a jungle gym opportunity. Ask yourself why, and an honest answer might change your perspective.