The Active Times 50 Best Athletes Slideshow

The Active Times 50 Best Athletes Slideshow

Forest Woodward

Ashima Shiraishi began her climbing career in the most unlikely of places: New York City’s Central Park. When she was only six years old, Ashima and her parents were wandering through the park, when they came across Rat Rock—a boulder 15 feet high and 40 feet across. Ashima joined the amateur climbers and scrambled easily to the top. Seeing his daughter’s talent, Ashima’s father Hisatoshi (also known as Poppo) took her to Rat Rock almost every day. With his help, and an abundance of natural talent, little Ashima's reputation quickly grew huge in the climbing community.
Today, at the age of 11, Ashima is one of the best climbers on the planet, a veritable rockstar. With encouragement from her now-coach, climbing legend Obe Carrion, she has become stronger and more graceful on the rock, sending a long list of impressive routes and winning numerous competitions. Last year alone, she set records in both bouldering and free climbing, becoming the youngest person to send a V13 boulder problem (Crown of Aragorn in Hueco Tanks, Texas) and the youngest person to free climb 5.14c (Southern Smoke and Lucifer, both in Red River Gorge, Kentucky). To nobody's surprise, she won the 2012 American Bouldering Series Youth National Championships. From here, it's a given that Ashima's talent and reputation will only climb higher.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Ashima Shiraishi, click here.

Andy McCandlish/Red Bull Content Pool

Even if you don’t recognize the name, chances are you know exactly who Danny MacAskill is. In 2009, he showed the world just how creative and inspiring trials riding—a sort of trick riding that tests bicycle handling skills over natural and man-made obstacles—could be in ‘April 2009,’ a clip that went viral and now has more than 32 million views on YouTube. He followed up with a number of equally impressive videos (most recently ‘Industrial Revolutions’) that further demonstrated an almost poetic ability to transform everyday urban environments into two-wheeled playgrounds. He was nominee for the Laureus World Sports Awards’ Sportsman of the Year and National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year, and he is a testament to his sport. Watch out for news of his recent adventure riding in Livigno with bike trials legend Hans Rey.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Danny MacAskill, click here.

Tim Kemple/The North Face

When Diane Van Deren was pregnant with her third child, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Despite the debilitating condition, Van Deren continued to pursue her athletic passions and found relief while running mountain trails.
After 10 years of seizures, however, the athlete made the hard decision to have part of her right temporal lobe removed in a radical brain surgery. Although it stopped the seizures, the procedure had side effects. In particular, it limited Van Deren’s ability to process the passage of time. Little did she know that this setback would give her a psychological advantage in ultrarunning. Now Van Deren can run—literally—for days on end with no sleep and no concept of how far she’s gone. If a trail is not clear, however, she has to mark the route or rely on her team to keep her on track.
Van Deren has gone on to rock the world of ultrarunning. In 2012, she set the world record for fastest time on North Carolina's 1,000-mile Mountain-to-Sea Trail (22 days, 5 hours, 3 minutes). She called it her "last epic," and it topped off a series of amazing accomplishments. In 2008, she won the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300—a foot race across the frozen Canadian wilderness. The next year she returned to the Yukon to place first in the women's division of the 430-mile race. On a fractured ankle, Van Deren also finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska which required her to pull a 50-pound sled for 250 miles in below-freezing weather. She has competed in numerous other 100- and 300-mile runs and climbed South America’s highest peak—Aconcagua—in 2010.
—Jessica Khorsandi
For more on Diane Van Deren, click here.

CrossFit Games Inc.

Many of Rich Froning's records are in events that most people haven't even heard of, blazing through timed workouts in the rising sport of CrossFit. Still, when you're sporting the title of "Fittest Man on Earth" for your second straight year at the tender age of 25, it demands attention. Froning picked up CrossFit—"the sport of fitness"—shortly after graduating from Tennessee Tech in 2009, and quickly established a name in the sport by placing second at the Crossfit Games in 2010. He went on to win in 2011 and 2012, making him a fitness celebrity and the sport’s first repeat champion. There are, of course, hard numbers behind Froning's athletic prowess that translate for you and me: at 195 pounds, he deadlifts 525 pounds, squats 425 pounds, snatches 270 pounds, bench presses 335 pounds and can perform 70 straight pull-ups. Fittest man on Earth? Maybe. A fitness beast? Definitely.
—Alex Glascock
Fore more on Rich Froning, click here.

Dustin Snipes/Red Bull Content Pool

There's something about Lolo Jones's casual, I-don't-give-a-damn public persona that belies the adversity she's overcome in her personal life, as well as her gnawing failure to seal her track legacy on sport's grandest stage, the Olympics. See, Jones grew up poor in Des Moines, Iowa. Her family lived in the basement of a Salvation Army for a time, and she shoplifted frozen dinners to help feed her siblings. Those experiences apparently drove her to succeed, and when her family announced plans to move to a different town—one without a track—Lolo stayed behind to train, rotating between quasi-foster families while she attended high school.
The stage was set, and Jones went on to Louisiana State University, where she was an 11-time All-American track superstar. Since then, however, she's had plenty of breakthrough performances on indoor tracks, but has never been able to carry that success over to outdoor track and field, where she'd need it for Olympic glory. A three-time indoor national champion (2008-2010) and two-time indoor world champion (2008, 2010) in the 60m hurdles, she was ranked first in the world in the 100m hurdles going into the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She was leading the final and even pulling away from the pack, until she clipped the ninth of 10 hurdles and broke her stride, putting her in a dismal seventh. Hyped again before the 2012 London Olympics, she came in fourth.
But, like the tough girl she's always been, Jones dusted herself off and began to master a new, unlikely sport—bobsled. She made the U.S. national team and, in January, won her first bobsledding world championship in the mixed team event at St. Moritz. She may not be out on the track, but Jones is still clearing hurdles.
Despite having the same score (30) as Froning, Jones edged out Froning with her long-time success in competition (including NCAA titles), and her adaptability in rising to the top of a new sport virtually overnight.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Lolo Jones, click here.

Christie Eastman

There are a lot of incredible whitewater kayakers out there, exploring the limits of the sport on first descents of wild rivers and running monster waterfalls across the globe. But, unless a kayaker makes a big, attention-grabbing statement, she won't register on the public radar. For Christie Eastman (nee Glissmeyer), that moment came on Mother's Day 2009, when she plunged her kayak over the lip of Oregon's 82-foot-tall Metlako Falls and straight into the record books. The daredevil stunt wasn't an average run for Eastman, but it also wasn't a stretch for the paddling veteran.
Eastman grew up rafting in southern Utah and became a raft guide in Idaho, where she started kayaking at the age of 19. She progressed from sea kayaking to playboating to creeking and the high-stakes, almost-exclusively-male discipline of running waterfalls. She's also enjoyed a successful racing career, having twice won the Western Whitewater Championship Racing Series, among other races. Today, she spends much of her time on the water on multi-day, self-supported wilderness trips across the Pacific Northwest with Femme 45, a group of daredevil female paddler that includes friends Kate Wagner and Melissa DeCarlo.
—Jessica Khorsandi
For more on Christie Eastman, click here.

Eric Parker

For years, Canadian Ben Marr has criss-crossed the globe to explore and run some of the world's biggest waters, in search of a mythical moster rapid he jokingly calls "Ginormica." He's not yet found the beast, but along the way he's distinguished himself as one of the world's finest expedition kayakers, notching first descents in China, Chile, Malaysia, Canada and the Congo, to name a few. He's also an accomplished big wave freestyler (watch his flare-lit ride on a 15-foot standing wave in Quebec's Mistassibi River) and a dominant creek racer, which has caused some whitewater afficionados to call him the world's best all-around paddler.
The past couple of years have seen Marr really come into his own, taking part in groundbreaking expeditions in North America and Africa. In late 2011, he joined legendary kayaker Steve Fisher on a first descent of the Congo's Inga Rapids, which, at 1.6 million cubic feet per second, are the highest-volume rapids in the world. Before Fisher's elite group ran them, the Inga had swallowed up countless adventurers who dared to run them, and turned away many more. Then, in August of 2012, while paddling the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a harrowing, 45-mile stretch of Class V+ rapids on British Columbia's Stikine River, Marr completed Site Zed, the last remaining un-run rapid in the canyon. That made him the first person ever to succesfully run the entire Grand Canyon of the Stikine, which is considered one of the world's great proving grounds for whitewater kayakers.
—Peter Koch
For more on Ben Marr, click here.

Andrew Skurka

At the relatively tender age of 31, Andrew Skurka has already hiked more than 30,000 miles through some of the world's most remote wildernesses. He usually travels alone, completing some of his most dangerous expeditions—like a 4,700-mile trip through Alaska and the Yukon—on his own power. On that trip, he backpacked, skied and packrafted for six straights months to complete the adventure. And that was just the last in a long string of hare-brained schemes that carried on for eight years while Skurka lived hand-to-mouth and out of his car, in true adventure dirtbag fashion.
None of Skurka's ambitious, long-distance journeys are larks, though. He's not the John Muir type, just waking up one day and striking out for some far away landmark or distant point on the map. He carefully plans and calculates his trips, ensuring that he can travel as fast and as light as possible (think: calorie-per-ounce ratios and tarps instead of tents). The idea is to move through the wilderness unfettered, and engaged with the landscape instead of with gadgets and extra gear and other non-necessities. He calls his technique "ultimate hiking." He's even written a book about it: The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide. Now that he's settled down with a house and fiancée, his major expeditions seem to be on hold, though he still travels the country preaching the ultralight religion and inspiring people everywhere to get outside.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Andrew Skurka, click here.

Know No Limits

Oscar Sanchez overcame his first major obstacle when he graduated from high school, leaving behind the drugs and violence of hard-edged L.A. street life to become a hard-bodied Marine. He adapted well to the discipline and routine of military life, and excelled through the ranks until he eventually joined the Marine Corps' Special Forces team, FORCE RECON. Sanchez served in 14 different countries before deciding to transfer to the military's most well-known and elite force, the Navy Seals.
While Sanchez’s youth is a success story in itself, the next chapter of his life is even more miraculous. In July 2001, a hit-and-run motorcycle accident left Sanchez paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. None of the incredible physical and mental challenges he'd faced in the Special Forces could compare with what he would face going forward. To pull himself out of his post-injury depression, Sanchez adopted what he calls a “proactive approach to life.” He completed a degree in business administration and public communications at San Diego State University in 2006 and began competing in the adaptive sports of handcycling and triathlon.
Before long, his mental fortitude and physical toughness translated to athletic success and he won several titles. Now, more than a decade after his accident, Sanchez is a five-time handcycling world champion, a Paralympic gold- and silver-medalist, and an Ironman (he finished the 2010 Ironman World Championships). He's also a motivational speaker and an official spokesperson for the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation, both roles through which he hopes to pass on a piece of his indomitable spirit.
—Megan Taylor Morrison
For more on Oz Sanchez, click here.

Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

Decathletes are jacks of all trades, well-rounded athletes who master 10 track and field disciplines—100 meters, pole vault, shot put, long jump, 400 meters, javelin, high jump, discus, 110-meter hurdles and 1500 meters. It's such a difficult, grueling competition that the Olympic gold medalist is named the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” a tradition started by no-nonsense King Gustav V of Sweden at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. Ashton Eaton, the 2012 Olympic champion, has not only proved himself to be the best, but also shattered a decade-old world record, prompting many to recognize that, this time, the title may be more than a traditional honorarium.
—Peter Koch
Click here for more about Ashton Eaton.

Cameron Baird/Red Bull Content Pool

In 2005, it looked like Aaron Gwin's short, bright career in motocross was over. He was only 17, but nagging injuries from motocross and, before that, BMX riding, forced him to give up his sport. Three years later, though, a friend and professional downhill racer loaned him a bike and encouraged him to enter a race. In his very first competition, he took third place. Pretty soon, he signed on with Yeti Cycles and started rising through the ranks of downhill racers, aided by the skills he'd gained from his early BMX days. That year, he took the Mountain States Cup Championship Series by storm, garnering four first-place finishes, as well as taking eighth place in the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.
In the past two seasons, the man is nearly bulletproof, dominating at the World Cup level and setting a new record for most victories in a single season (five). Two months ago, he left Trek World Racing to ride with Specialized, and the mountain bike world will be watching this spring as he tears down the mountainsides of the world, try furiously to ride his way into the record books.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Aaron Gwin, click here.

Felicity Aston

Felicity Aston loves exploring the earth's frozen fringes. Ever since a three-year stint (2001-2004) as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey, she's been venturing deep into the world's coldest places—crossing Greenland's inland ice sheet, racing across Arctic Canada, skiing and trekking through the Siberian winter—until, finally, as natural progression would suggest, launching expeditions to the South Pole. On her latest journey, which wrapped in early 2012, she became the first-ever woman to ski solo across Antarctica. It was the kind of trip that tested her mettle in ways you wouldn't expect. Was she worried about freezing solid in a storm or falling into a crevasse? A little. But what really worried her was staying sane for two months alone in an empty landscape, and the very real possibility that hypothermia, the so-called "silent killer" of polar expeditions, might subdue her without her even knowing it. She cried (alot, too) she hallucinated, she even spoke to the sun, but in the end, Aston proved herself.
—Peter Koch
For more on Felicity Aston, click here.

Alpine Canada

Nine years ago, Canadian freeskier Josh Dueck misjudged a jump—he overshot the landing and fell 100 feet—and landed at a figurative crossroads. Lying in a hospital bed and paralyzed from the waist down, he could either accept his fate and give up on his passion (he was a top freesking coach), or find a way to get back into the mountains. It wasn't a hard choice.
Within a year, Dueck was back on the slopes he loved, learning to sit ski. Among other competition highlights, he won a silver medal in the men's slalom sit-ski at the 2010 Paralympics and took took gold in the 2011 X Games Mono Skier X event. But none of that compared to the freedom and sense of accomplishment Dueck felt last February when, against all odds, he "went upside-down" again, landing the first-ever sit-ski backflip. Dueck's courageous story and passion for skiing was documented in award-winning 2011 film The Freedom Chair, which continues to inspire viewers everywhere.
—Jessica Khorsandi
For more on Josh Dueck, click here.

Flickr/David Kusserow

Mark Cavendish, the so-called "Manx Missile" has made a career of dropping cyclists in the final sprint. If he can stay with the big guns (the Lance Armstrong types) for the first 100km of a race, all he needs to do is hop on the leadout train, wait until the finish is within striking distance, find some open road ahead, drop the hammer and—BAM!—he takes the win. Born on the UK's Isle of Man, he started out as an amateur mountain bike racer. Later, he joined the British national track cycling team and won gold medals in the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in 2005 and 2008.
Cavendish really made his mark as a stage-race sprinter, though, starting with the 2008 Grand Tour season. At the relatively tender age of 22, he took two wins in the Giro d'Italia and four in the Tour de France, catapulting him into the spotlight as Britain's most successful cyclist. Since then, he's shown an uncanny ability to get himself into perfect sprinting position time after time, and has won 36 Grand Tour stage victories, making him the 9th winningest stage cyclist of all time. The only other active cyclist to take more stage wins, Alessandro Petacchi, is 39 years old. Cavendish has a confidence that borders on arrogance, but if the bold young rider can stay in it for the long haul, there ought to be many more wins in his future.
—Peter Koch
For more on Mark Cavendish, click here.

The North Face

To see her now, you'd think Lizzy Hawker has been running through forbidding mountain environments her whole life. Since 2005, she's made her mark with incredible feats of endurance in long-distance (some are 100 miles or more) alpine trail races. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, for example—which she's won five times—makes a 103-mile circuit around the Mt. Blanc Massif through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, with 31,168 feet of uphill. She also owns the record for the fastest time running from the thin air of 5,131-meter (17,588-foot) Everest Base Camp to the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, nearly 200 miles away. In 2011, she attempted to run the entire 1,000-plus-mile length of Nepal's Great Himalaya Trail with minimal support, but came up short when she lost a pouch with her sat phone and permits. She's hoping to try again in 2013.
But this is all new to her. In fact, prior to her lark entry in the 2005 UTMB, Hawker was a doctoral student studying physical oceanography at Cambridge, which had taken her on several British Antarctic Survey expeditions to the Antarctic and South Oceans. She still proofreads academic papers and edits theses and dissertations, but, for the most part, has left that very secure life behind to pursue her passion of running free in the mountains. How's that for pursuing higher education?
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Lizzy Hawker, click here.

Alastair Humphreys

In an era of helicopters, GPS and Google Earth, it’s hard to imagine that there’s much left to explore on this planet. Fortunately, we have characters like Alastair Humphreys to show us otherwise. He's bicycled around the world, walked across India, rowed across the Atlantic, and is planning one of the most ambitious Antarctic expeditions ever (an unsupported walk from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again, in the footsteps of Robert Falcon Scott). But his most admirable project might just be a series of ‘microadventures’ designed to prove that you don’t have to travel around the world to find adventure, and that anyone can (and perhaps should) be an explorer.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Alastair Humphreys, click here.

Flickr/Peter Borcherds

Kristin Armstrong has always been an athlete. First, as a teenaged junior Olympian swimmer, and next as a serious triathlete who competed in the 1999 Ironman World Championships. So when she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 2001—a condition that would prevent her from running again—it, surprisingly, turned out to be a bittersweet moment. She had to quit being a triathlete in her prime, sure, but she also discovered that cycling was her true calling. Within two years, she was racing professionally and, in 2004, she won the U.S. road racing championship (her first of two) and competed in the Olympics. She'd go on to master the individual time trial, winning three national championships, two world championships and Olympic gold medals in 2008 and—following a one-year break to have a baby—2012. Today, Armstrong is the most decorated female cyclist in U.S. history.
—Kurt Miller

For more on Kristin Armstrong, click here.

Shutterstock/Peappop

Surfing prodigy-turned-force-to-be-reckoned-with John John Florence likes to object to his diminutive nickname in interviews, but both sides have a point. Having gone pro at age six (no, really), and surfed Hawaii's infamous Pipeline before he was ten, Surfer Magazine called him "the original prepubescent superstar, the most famous surfer in the world under 4 feet tall." And yet Florence doesn't surf like the kind of wide-eyed tyke you'd expect to be called "John John."
The oldest of three boys, all pro surfers, Florence has been crushing waves with the big boys since he was 13, when he became the youngest ever to compete in the North Shore's presitigious Vans Triple Crown—and he did pretty well, too, beating out none other than surfing great Shane Dorian in one event. Oh yeah, the Triple Crown? He won that in 2011.
Now on the ASP World Championship Tour for his second season, Florence is battling it out with men twice his age. In 2012, his rookie season on the tour, Florence placed a solid 4th, scoring a victory at the Billabong Rio Pro.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on John John Florence, click here.

Shutterstock/Joriah Mosin

It's no wonder that Kilian Jornet Burgada is a mountain man. Like many Catalonian kids, he grew up with a picture of a mountain on his wall (the perfect spire of the Matterhorn, in his case). He poured over the books of Reinhold Messner, and his parents strapped skis on his feet before he'd taken his first steps. Shortly thereafter, they brought him hiking and climbing in the Pyrenees, and his formal education was begun. Today, he's an accomplished mountaineer and "sky runner" (someone who runs steep-pitched endurance races in the mountains above 6,600' altitude) who moves through the mountains with a primal grace that appears almost animal in nature.
Jornet Burgada's list of accomplishments is long: he's a five-time world champion and three-time European champion ski mountaineer, won the Skyrunner World Series in four out of five years from 2007 to 2012 and took the world-famous Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in 2008, 2009 and 2011. But his biggest challenge to date is still in front of him. Last year, he embarked upon Summits of My Life, a four-year-long project in which he hopes to shatter the speed ascent and descent records on some of the world's most lofty, spectacular peaks, including Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali, Everest and, yes, the Matterhorn. He already has the records on Kilimanjaro (5h22min up/7h14min down), and last September he shattered the record for a speed traverse of Mt. Blanc via the Inomminata Ridge (a 26-mile route with nearly 12,500 feet of elevation gain and semi-technical climbing) in just eight hours and 42 minutes.
—Peter Koch
For more on Kilian Jornet Burgada, click here.

Andrew Burr

Kyle Dempster is the biggest-time alpine mountaineer you've never heard of. Maybe it's because he keeps such a low profile between climbing trips, living in the same house where he grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and running a small coffee shop. But last year alone he climbed the North Buttress of Alaska's Mount Hunter twice in a single week and put up new routes on K7 and Ogre (for which he just received his third Piolet d'Or—French for "Golden Ice Axe"—climbing award nomination), in Pakistan. The year before, he spent months exploring Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan by bicycle and putting up huge first ascents of obscure, mysterious mountains along the way.
Dempster, who began climbing with a seat belt for a top rope anchor at the age of 12, climbs with classic alpine style, assaulting hard-to-access mountains with long approaches by his own power. For him, climbing is a spiritual and introspective journey that he pursues as passionately today as when he first discovered it as a kid. He's also an ice climber and a long-distance cyclist, taking after his father, who's never owned a car in his life.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Kyle Dempster, click here.

Inka Matouskova

Adam Ondra, 20, is part of a new generation of climbing—a group of young people who were introduced to the rock at a very early age. His parents met through the sport, so it seemed perfectly natural to take their son along on climbing trips. When Ondra was just three years old, his parents roped him up for his first climb. By the time he was nine, Ondra could manage lines with 8a ratings—a challenge too hard for most adult climbers.
Ondra's quest for increasingly difficult outdoor routes has led to some epic family road trips across Europe. Because he doesn't yet have a driver's license, the young Czech's parents often drive between crags overnight, while their son sleeps in the back seat. Although an early introduction to the sport was likely part of Ondra's success, there's no doubt the athlete is also a climbing prodigy. Ondra has won world championships in both bouldering and lead climbing, and has established the two hardest routes in the world: La Dura Dura in Spain and The Change in Norway—both rated 5.15c.
—Jessica Khorsandi
For more on Adam Ondra, click here.

Erik Boomer

Erik Boomer, nicknamed "The Honey Badger," is an athlete-explorer who taps into deep wells of tenacity and determination on his adventures. He is an accomplished kayaker, with more than 30 first descents to his name, including Quebec's 100-foot-tall Chutes á Magnan waterfall, which he ran in 2011. Besides dropping over huge falls, Boomer has racked up a number of whitewater endurance feats, including a five-day paddle of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River (a 250-mile stretch that usually takes 20 days), an 10-hour push through the miles-long class V+ rapids of British Columbia's Grand Canyon of the Stikine (this "Everest of whitewater" generally takes three days to run) and a 9-hour speed run down 130 miles of whitewater from Idaho's Marsh Creek through the Middle Fork Salmon River and down to the Main Salmon at Cache bar takeout. In 2011, Boomer completed the first-ever kayak circumnavigation of Canada’s polar bear-ridden Ellesmere Island, an epic, 1,485-mile slog for which he was named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year.
Boomer came out with the same score (39.5) as Ondra, but was put over the top by the relative risk he faces on his expeditions (walruses, polar bears and man-swallowing waves edge out 25-foot whippers any day) and the number of years he's been sticking his neck out there. Given his current trajectory, we're confident young Ondra will be climbing this list in future years with as much aplomb as he does a crag.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Erik Boomer, click here.

Brian Bielmann/Red Bull Content Pool

Some would say it takes cojones to charge down the face of a 45-foot wall of water at South Africa’s notorious, shark infested Dungeons—but they’d be wrong. Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira set the women’s world record there in 2009 for biggest wave surfed, once again reaffirming that big wave surfing isn’t just a man’s sport.
She’d just won the 2009 ESPY for Best Female Action Sports Athlete, and was on her way to her third straight Billabong XXL Award for best female performance in big wave surfing, a sport so dangerous there are only handful of people, let alone women, who perform at her level.
Gabeira has ridden the world’s monster waves, from Teahupoo in Tahiti to Hawaii’s Jaws, but she only first picked up a board at 14, and got serious about the sport when visiting Hawaii at age 17. Now just 25, the Brazilian phenom won her fifth Billabong XXL in 2012 and is poised to break even more records.
Jessica Khorsandi
For more on Maya Gabeira, click here.

Jay Nemeth/Red Bull Content Pool

Born in Austria the same year Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, it's no wonder a young Felix Baumgartner dreamed about flying and skydiving. Over the ensuing years, a singular focus—he joined the military and practiced parachute jumping, which led to skydiving, BASE jumping and all-around daredevilry—and a dream invitation to the Red Bull Stratos Project brought "Fearless Felix," now 43, to the edge of space last October.
Standing on the lip of a balloon-lifted capsule at 127,852 feet, he took a magnificent step into the unknown that sent his body hurtling earthward at 843.6 mph (a speed that, had his jumpsuit failed, would've "made his skin boil"), making him the first person ever to break the sound barrier without vehicular power. And 8 million people watched him, breath held, until he landed safely in the desert below. We're not sure why Felix loves jumping into the unknown, but we look forward to taking the next leap with him.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Felix Baumgartner, click here.

adidas/Rich Crowder

New Zealander Mayan Smith-Gobat began her athletic career at age 7 with competitive horseback riding. At 16, she began alpine climbing and competed in skiing. An extreme skiing accident at 21 pushed her to delve into rock climbing, and she’s been pushing the boundaries of female climbing ever since. In October of 2012, she achieved the first female ascent of Australia's Punks in the Gym (the first 8b+/5.14a ever established), but that impressive feat came on the heels of a truly record-breaking season in Yosemite. In the valley, she shattered the women's solo and team speed records on The Nose of El Capitan, in addition to completing the first female linkup of The Nose and Half Dome. Smith-Gobat has a laundry list of first ascents under her harness, including New Zealand routes The Giving Tree (5.14a), Kiapo Wall (5.12b), and the first free ascent of Shadowland (5.12d) in the Darren Mountains. She sustains her climbing through sponsorships, selling her oil paintings, route-setting, guiding, and co-owning a café in Omarama, New Zealand, with her mother.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Mayan Smith-Gobat, click here.

adidas

From the time Sasha DiGiulian began climbing at the age of 7, it was obvious she had a knack for the sport. When her local climbing gym held a competition, she entered on a whim…and won. From there, it didn’t take long for her climbing career to take off. Since 2004, she’s been racking up titles and prizes across the world at an absurd rate, including three straight national championships, the 2011 world championship and the 2012 Arco Rock Legend Award—more or less the Oscar of the climbing world—for sending 5.14d (9a) on Kentucky's Pure Imagination and Spain's Era Vella.
Just as impressive as her climbing skill is DiGiulian's brain. She's currently living in New York City, trying hard to balance climbing with an Ivy League education in business and marketing at Columbia University. Last year, she gave a TED talk in Montreal and partnered with HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation to put on her “Boulder Like a Girl” climbing clinic.
With a vision as sharp as her rock-crawling skills, DiGiulian is nowhere close to topping out, both on and off the crag.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Sasha DiGiulian, click here.

Flickr/nathangibbs

Big wave surfer Mark Healey is known for a lot of things, not the least of which are his bone-crunching, face-slashing wipeouts. He’s hit bottom, been raked over rocks, and battered his body top to bottom—all in the name of riding waves that few others dare.
"If you’re going to get really good waves and try to set the standard,” he once told Surfline, “it’s inevitable that you’re going to eat copious amounts of s***.”
It also helps, during those long hold-downs, that Healey can hold his breath for four minutes. Not only is this waterman one of the world’s great big wave riders, but when he freedives with great whites and tiger sharks and spearfishes tuna for dinner, you start wondering if he was born in the ocean. (He’s won a World Cup spearfishing tournament in Baja, by the way.)
Born in the ocean is not far from the truth: Healey is a Hawaii native, and was raised on Oahu’s North Shore, one of surfing’s meccas, where he began catching waves as a small child.
Healey continues to surf the world’s monster waves—we’re talking 50- and 60-footers—and was one of the pioneering surfers who proved that Maui’s infamous tow-in giant “Jaws” could be paddled into with pure human muscle.
Healey has been called “the next Laird Hamilton” by fellow big-wave rider Dave Wassel, (Hamilton is the sport’s living legend), but Healey, ever self-deprecating, just calls himself “dumb” for continuing to make the drop on man-eating waves:
'If you’re gonna be dumb," Healey told Surfline, "you’d better be tough.”
—Mark Lebetkin
For more on Mark Healey, click here.

Flickr/BlackpitShooting

Marianne Vos is, simply put, an unstoppable force on skinny tires. Whether blazing down a road, tearing through a muddy cyclocross course or zipping around a track, chances are she's at the front of the pack. It helps more than a little that she got an early start in bike-crazy Holland. At the tender age of six, while she was still too young to race, Vos took up training with her older brother's team. By the time she was eight, she started her racing career. At 15, she won her first two national championships in mountain biking and junior road racing. She finished second in the national junior time trial.
That was just the beginning of a career that's included Olympic gold medals in track and road cycling, two world road racing championships (not to mention five second-place finishes) and six world championships in the Dutch-dominated discipline of cyclocross. For the uninitiated, cyclocross is a on-road/off-road cycling discipline in which riders navigate mud, grass, gravel, pavement, sand and mulch on a one- to two-mile circuit course, shouldering their cycles where terrain is too steep and wooden barriers block their path. It's grueling, and a far cry from the relatively controlled environment of road racing. Plenty of x-factors—snow, muddy hills, obstacles—can spoil one's race, which makes Vos's run all the more impressive. And she's done it all by the age of 25. Her career still has another decade or more left in it, and we can't wait to see what she does with it. Our bet? Win a whole lot more.
—Peter Koch
For more on Marianne Vos, click here

The North Face

Last spring, Colorado-based ski mountaineer Hilaree O'Neill assessed Everest's southeast ridge and the Lhotse Face from the 21,500-foot-high vantage point of Camp 2. All she could see was ancient blue ice and—worse—lots of rock. The whole face was bare, and rock fall was a huge problem. There were no lines to ski, no snow to even plant a ski in. Still, some part of her searched for a glimmer of hope, some impossible sign that she might be able to ski from the summit. It was a huge disappointment after all of her hard work and training, but rather than feel sorry for herself, she O'Neill climbed Everest and neighboring 8,000-meter peak Lhotse within 24 hours.
Up until that point, her entire life had worked up to that descent, beginning with learning to ski at Steven's Pass when she was three years old. Later, the classic Warren Miller ski film Blizzard of Aahhs inspired her to move to the French Alpine village of Chamonix, where she took up ski mountaineering. Today, she's one of only a few women who climb the world's biggest mountains to ski down them. To date, she's climbed and skied Denali, Cho Oyu, Mt. Waddington as well as notching first descents in Russia's Kamchatka, Canada's Baffin Island and the Andes. Always a skier at heart, O'Neill brings true dedication to her passion and admits that she spends more of her time now climbing and scouting the giant routes than she does cruising down them.
—Peter Koch
For more on Hilaree O'Neil, click here.

Lucas Gilman/Red Bull Content Pool

South African Steve Fisher is a waterman to his core. He's been voted best all-around kayaker by his pro-peers three times over, and his pro circuit successes include winning the Montreal Big Water Invitational, Gorge Games H2H and Camel White Water Challenge. He’s run rapids in more than 50 countries, and has scores of first descents including the Yarlung Tsang Po in Tibet, the Irrawaddy in Myanmar and the Salween in China.
However, his most monumental achievement yet is his descent of the Inga Rapids in the Congo—what some say is the fiercest whitewater journey on the planet (not to mention politically perilous). He’s been nominated for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. So what’s next for Fisher? Rumor has it a 4,000-kilometer source-to-sea journey down the Congo River to the Atlantic could be in the works.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Steve Fisher, click here.

Flickr/surfglassy

This 25-year-old Aussie surfed her first pro event as a wildcard at age 17, won her first world championship at 19, and has tacked four more titles onto her total since. The first four came consecutively during her first four tours, by the way, something no other man or woman has done in professional surfing. She’s the youngest-ever inductee into not one, but two surfing halls of fame (So Cal’s and Australia’s) and, if she continues on this course, may become the most decorated female surfer of all time well before she turns 30.
Hell, if Gilmore keeps shredding waves like she is, she could give 11-time men’s champion Kelly Slater a run for his money—not that there's any ill will. Asked by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010 if anyone can beat his record number of titles (then ten), Slater responded, "I think Stephanie Gilmore will."
"She's tried for four world titles," Slater added, "she's won four and there's no one out there right now whose telling me or showing me they're going to beat her anytime soon."
But Gilmore's passion for the sea goes beyond her dominance in surfing. Gilmore, along with Slater, is on the advisory board for ocean eco-activists Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Stephanie Gilmore, click here.

Todd Meier/Red Bull Content Pool

Rebecca Rusch, one of the world's best endurance mountain bikers, knows pain. She knows how to endure it, how to channel it, how to shut off her brain's protests and set her body on auto-pilot hours and miles into a race. That's how the 44-year-old competes against—and crushes—women half her age in grueling mountain bike races where she rides up and down rugged singletrack courses for 24 hours (or hundreds of miles) without stopping. Her incredible endurance has taken her to four straight victories at the Leadville Traill 100 MTB—a hellish, 100-mile race across the high-altitude (9,200'–12,424'), oxygen-deprived terrain of the Colorado Rockies—as well as seven different national and world mountain biking titles.
Before she found her niche in cycling, Rusch was a professional adventure racer, competing at the highest international level for a decade. During that time, she led several teams, including a groundbreaking mostly female team and another that won the 2003 Raid Gauloises Adventure Racing World Championships. In 2010, she won the Masters Cross Country Skiing World Championship. All of this is to say that you's be very hard-pressed to find a more driven athlete. Rebecca Rusch simply doesn't stop, knows that all pain is only temporary. And that's why she's so unstoppable.
—Peter Koch
For more on Rebecca Rusch, click here.

Larry Maurer

British triathlete Chrissie Wellington accomplished a lot in her relatively short professional triathlon career. Though she didn't start triathlon training until she was 29, she went on to win four Ironman Triathlon World Championships, and became one of only three women to win three consecutively. Along the way, she shattered numerous long-standing records. Her 2009 Ironman Hawaii time of 8:54:02 broke a 17-year-old course record, and her world record time for Ironman-distance triathlons (8:18:13) is 27 minutes and 35 seconds faster than the best time by any other woman ever.
But last year, she shocked the triathlon community when she announced her retirement, having fulfilled her major athletic goals. Wellington has experience working with the UN on water, sanitation and health projects in western Nepal, and is now fully focused on her development projects there, as well as her autobiography, A Life Without Limits. She describes her journey as a spiritual one, where she continues to seek self-discovery without resting on her (incredibly impressive) laurels.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Chrissie Wellington, click here.

Mingma Sherpa

Apa Sherpa—nicknamed "Super Sherpa"—is unique among famous Everest summiteers in that he never dreamed of climbing it. In fact, it was his father's untimely death that forced him into working on the mountain as a 12-year-old boy. His village, Thame, Nepal, was only 20 miles from Everest, so he went to work as a porter for expedition trips in order to provide for his mother and five siblings. As such, he moves up and down the mountain with a worker's efficiency, hauling heavy loads at lung-searing altitudes with grace a good humor. In 2011, he touched the top of the world for the 21st time, more than anyone else in the world.
Today, Sherpa lives in Draper, Utah with his wife, where they're providing a better life for their three children. But he still returns to Nepal every spring to climb Mount Everest, save for last spring, when he led the first expedition to complete a trek of the 1,056-mile Great Himalaya Trail spanning the Nepalese Himalayas.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Apa Sherpa, click here.

Tommy Chandler

At 1:30pm on December 30, 2010, Greg Hill skied to a halt on Rogers Pass and glanced at his watch. Rather than the time, it displayed "2000015." Hill had made it, he'd skied 2 million vertical feet in a single year on his own power, skinning, ice-axe-and-crampon mountaineering or just plain trudging up every single one of those feet. Though he completed the mission in his home range of British Columbia's Selkirk Mountains, the journey had taken him—and his family—to remote mountain ranges from the Yukon to Patagonia (he went south during the northern summer), and up 71 different mountains for a total of 1,039 runs. To pull it off, Hill had to power through bad weather, sickness and more than his fair share of avalanche risk in order to average 5,500 feet a day.
That day was more a culmination of a lifetime of backcountry touring than a single year of grit and determination. Over the years, Hill’s enthusiasm for earning his turns has takn him up 190 separate mountains, many of them first ascents.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Greg Hill, click here.

Crowie Bike KONA 2011 Retul

Craig "Crowie" Alexander knows his body. And not just in the way of a 15-year triathlon veteran who regularly pushes his body beyond reasonable limits. He's so attuned, in fact, that he doesn't even bother with the high-tech, fitness-monitoring formulas and gadgetry—heart rate monitor, VO2 max calculations, etc.—that have become de rigueur in the sport ("I believe most racing is done by feel," he told Triathlete Europe, "not by a predetermined set of numbers or formulas.").
He also happens to be a college-educated, certified physiotherapist (physical therapist), a fact that helped him coach himself to success in his early career, as he rose through the ranks of pro triathletes to win the inaugural Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2006. But it was after he linked up with coach Chris Carmichael, in 2007, that his performance really skyrocketed, with 2008, 2009 and 2011 Ironman World Championships, as well as a second championship at the 2011 Ironman 70.3. He's one of only four men to win the Ironman championship three times and, at 38, became the oldest male champion (while simultaneously breaking the 15-year-old course record of 8:03:56). In addition to dominating the pro triathlon scene, Alexander helps guide other athletes and passes the torch of his success at triathlon training camps.
—Megan Taylor Morrison
For more on Craig Alexander, click here.

Flickr/Kristian Thorgersen

When Bradley Wiggins led the peloton onto Paris's Champs Élysées last July, nearing the end of a 2,173-mile journey, it was more than a victory for himself. To Great Britain, who hadn't won a Tour de France in more than a century, it was a symbolic win that marked a revival in British cycling. For Wiggins, it was the end of a banner UCI season in which he inked his road-racing legacy by becoming the only man to win the Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de France in the same year. That he would go on to win gold in the Olympic time trial made 2012 that much more special for him. Now, he's tied for Britain’s most awarded Olympic athlete (with seven medals), and his appreciative countrymen call him "Sir Bradley" (he was knighted for his "contributions to cycling" at the end of the year).
—Alex Glascock
For more on Bradley Wiggins, click here.

Ben Moon

Alex Honnold is the face of rock climbing today. Mention the sport to any non-climber and they’ll scratch their heads, digging for the name of that guy from '60 Minutes' who climbs soaring cliffs with no ropes.
Honnold has earned international stardom for his ability to calmly free-solo big walls—that is, to climb thousands of feet above the ground without safety equipment. In his now-famous October 2011 ’60 Minutes’ segment, he wowed the world by whistling through his free-solo of Sentinel, a nearly 3,000-foot-tall vertical face in Yosemite National Park, and describing it as ‘mellow.’
Still, that didn't prepare anybody for what he'd do in Yosemite Valley only eight months later, in June 2012. Climbing through the night with no rope, he linked up a 7,000-vertical-foot speed ascent of Yosemite's Triple Crown—big walls El Capitan, Half Dome and Mt. Watkins.
Honnold is one of only a handful of climbers in the world with the incredible mental fortitude (and, some would say, dumb luck) to free-solo the world’s most daunting rock faces. But the relative fame hasn't gone to the lanky climber’s head. He still maintains the dirtbag lifestyle, living out of his van most of the year in a constant quest to push the sport of climbing to its vertical limit at North America's legendary crags.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Alex Honnold, click here.

Flickr/movimientobase

You could say that Ted Ligety was destined for skiing greatness from the beginning. He grew up in the resort-rich powder country of Utah's Wasatch Range, where he began his skiing tutelage at the age of 2. By 10, he was racing with a local team. Next, he went to the Winter Sports School, a college prep school that organizes its academic calendar around snow and serves as a feeder program for national teams in skiing, snowboarding, bobsledding and figure skating, among others. After several notable placements—including a slalom silver at the 2004 Junior World Championships—Ligety joined the U.S. Ski Team when he was 18. Two years later, he won gold in the the Super Combined at the 2006 Olympic Games.
All of that paved the way for his rare and spectacular ride into history at this year's World Cup Championships. After surprise victories in the super-G and super combined, Ligety settled into his groove and rocked the competition in the giant slalom by a massive 0.81-second margin. By doing so, he became the first man in 45 years—since legendary French skier Jean-Claude Killy won four in 1968—to win three gold medals at a world ski championships. It was an impressive display of skiing dominance, and secured his place as one of the top skiers of all time.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Ted Ligety, click here.

Robert Snow/Red Bull Content Pool

Pro athletes, for the most part, tend to mellow out with age. Their competitive edges dull, their chiseled physiques show the first signs of human frailty and, suddenly, where before there was only bravado and self-assuredness, humility starts to grow. For Garrett McNamara, though, 35 years of testing the limits of big-wave surfing has only made him more intense and more willing to take big risks on the world's truly monstrous waves. Just this January, at Portugal's Praia do Norte beach, he headed out into a roiling sea and towed-in to a killer 90-foot behemoth wave. To the onshore bystanders, it looked like a suicide ride, but McNamara stuck with it and surfed down its face and into the record books (his second record since riding a 77-footer there in 2011).
A North Shore native and an early adopter of tow surfing—a 1990s development that allowed surfers to catch bigger, faster swells—he's been taking on these man-swallowers longer than almost any other surfer, and it's finally paid off with these two consecutive world records.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Garrett McNamara, click here.

Chris Figenshau

Anyone who's watched a snowboarding movie in the past 20 years is familiar with Jeremy Jones. He's been featured in literally dozens of them, helicoptering into remote mountains, charging down steep backcountry terrain and carving lines in virgin powder that most of us can only dream about. What sets his latest films—Teton Gravity Research-produced Deeper and Further—apart, though, is that he and his team access every foot of vertical on their own power. No helicopter, no lifts, no snow cats. The films mark a change that began for Jones in 2009, when he committed himself to backcountry snowboarding and signaled the jump by launching Jones Snowboards, a company that makes big-mountain and backcountry boards. In doing so, he risked alienating his longtime industry sponsors and being dropped from the snow porn films that, for years, had allowed him ride some of world's best backcountry terrain.
The gamble paid off, though, and the filming of Further alone took him to Japan’s Alps, Austria’s Karwendelgebirge Range, Svalbard (a mountainous Norwegian archipelago just 600 miles from the North Pole) and Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias.Along the way, he's evolved from a big-mountain pioneer into a high-profile advocate for low-impact backcountry travel whose work has helped spark a positive movement in snowboarding towards pure, hard-earned turns.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Jeremy Jones, click here.

ESPN/Tomas Zuccareno

To look at her now, twisting and flipping in the air high above the halfpipe, you'd never guess that Gretchen Bleiler was born in the swampy flats of Toledo, Ohio. She moved to Aspen, Colorado at the age of 10, where she discovered snowboarding, and only five years later she went pro. Since then, she's made a name for herself in halfpipe competition, becoming the first female to land a cripple 540—an inverted aerial move with one-and-a-half rotations and a backflip. She is tied with Kelly Clark for most female Winter X Superpipe gold medals, with four total. Bleiler is also an active spokesperson for climate change, has created the first all-girls halfpipe competition, and designed a signature apparel line with Oakley. In 2008, she received the ESPY Women’s Action Sports Athlete of the Year award, as well as National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Spirit Award. When she’s not crushing on the slopes, Bleiler likes to mountain bike, read, practice yoga and surf in warm places.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Gretchen Bleiler, click here.

Flickr/Marcopako

It would take a while to list all of Phelps’ achievements, but the simple fact that he is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time speaks volumes to his dominance in competitive swimming. Of his 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them are gold—twice as many as his closest contender. He also holds world records in the 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley, not to mention his broader successes in non-Olympic competition. He has fascinated the public outside of the pool as well with his 12,000 calorie diet, freakishly hydrodynamic torso, and a 2009 pot-smoking controversy. He announced his retirement from swimming after the 2012 games in London, but in his wake he leaves a legacy that Olympians of all sports will pursue for years to come.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Michael Phelps, click here.

ASP Red Bull

David Lama isn't the first climber to fall in love with Cerro Torre. The 10,262-foot Patagonian spire is considered, among climbers, one of the world's most beautiful mountains. For years they've attempted the difficult ascent of the Southeast Ridge without the aid of controversial fixed bolts, placed in 1970 by Italian Cesare Maestri on a 4,000-foot verical face that would come to be known as Maestri's Compressor Route. Lama attempted the route in 2010 and 2011, but it wasn't until two of his peers—Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk—removed some 120 of the bolts that Lama was forced to rely entirely on removable protection, a much riskier proposition. He was exposed to greater risk, yes, but the lack of fixed protection pushed the 22-year-old beyond his limits. On January 21, 2012, Lama and partner Peter Ortner free climbed Cerro Torre, advancing climbing to a new level.
It seems that climb also advanced the Austrian's confidence on big mountains. Always a sport and competition climber—going back to when he was just a 10-year-old phenom racking up competition titles—after Cerro Torre, Lama went on to tackle two more huge climbs in 2012: Trango Tower (6,251 meters) via the Eternal Flame and Chogolisa (7,665 metres), both in Pakistan's Karakoram Himalayas. “Cerro Torre will always be a special mountain to me," he recently told National Geographic Adventure. "It changed me from a sport climber into an alpinist.”
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on David Lama, click here.

Route Heaven 5

It's some kind of miracle that Dean Potter is alive and well today. The daredevil climber has been rubbing elbows with death since the late 1980s, when he first made a name for himself as a dirtbag climber, eating salt-sandwiches and working $3 days to support his rock habit. From there, he moved on to free-soloing—that is, climbing without ropes for protection—big walls. Always a pioneer, he's invented new ways—freeBASEing is one example—of accommodating the climber's rush. FreeBASEing is essentially free-soloing beyond your known limits with the protection of a BASE jump parachute. When Potter is high above the ground and misses a crux move, rather than fall to his death he simply pushes back from the wall, starts a sickening swan dive towards the ground and pulls his parachute. His most famous feat to date is freeBASEing the Eiger's North Face.
Lately, though, he's been pushing the limit with "highlining," which is slacklining hundreds, or even thousands, of feet above the ground. What makes Potter crazier than almost anyone else highlining, is that he often does it without any protection—no tether, no rope, not even a BASE jump parachute (another technique he invented, called BASElining)—to save him if he falls. Last year, he highlined unprotected 6,000 feet above the floor of China's Enshi Gorge Canyon, in addition to his now-famous "moonwalk" on Yosemite's Cathedral Peak. When his feet are on solid ground, Potter enjoys a relaxed life in Yosemite Valley with his dog, Whisper, and the rigorous training regimens that allow him to defy gravity and, it would seem, sanity.
—Brian Berkovitz
For more on Dean Potter, click here.

Flickr/Jose Goulao

It's somehow fitting that a man named "Bolt" would become the fastest ever. His detractors said he had the wrong body for sprinting, was too lazy an athlete to harness his raw talents and join the world's greats. But the lanky, laidback Jamaican defied them all, loping down the track at world record-shattering pace time and again, even hampered by inexperience, headwinds and, in one notable (Olympic) case, an untied shoe.
In the 2012 Olympics, Bolt achieved not only the first double-double (consecutive wins in the 100-meter and 200-meter) for any sprinter, but also the first double-triple (he also won consecutive golds in the 4x100-meter relay). Along the way, he's set—and holds—world records in all of them, and has been called "a ghost," a national hero and the greatest sprinter of all time. We're not sure about the first two, but we most definitely agree with the latter.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Usain Bolt, click here.

Garrett Madison

There's a reason Ueli Steck is known as “The Swiss Machine.” He climbs the world's loftiest peaks and most challenging faces, sure, but he does so with the mechanical determination and calculated efficiency of a true machine. Witness the incredible sight of him setting his own speed record on the Eiger's North Face in 2008, an ice axe in each hand, his arms and legs pumping piston-like as he claws his way hungrily up the steep summit snowfield. One misstep, and it's all over.
A gifted mountaineer, Steck had notched the much sought-after first ascent of that legendary face seven years earlier, before setting out to make his mark abroad, putting up first ascents and speed records on remote peaks in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies and the Himalayas. In 2008, he became the first recipient of the Eiger Award, an honor given to those whose outstanding alpinistic achievements bring value of and fascination with the mountains to the public. Even as his profile has grown, Steck has remained an alpine purist who tackles his climbs in single, make-or-break pushes.
And last year proved that two decades of climbing hasn't slowed him down a bit. Prior to his May 2012 no-oxygen ascent of Everest, he and American Freddie Wilkinson acclimatized in classic Steck fashion—by climbing three nearby peaks, Tawoche (6,495m), Cholatse (6,501m) and Ama Dablam (6,914m) in quick succession.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Ueli Steck, click here.

Garrett Madison

Lindsey Vonn is, in short, the most decorated female American athlete in the history of alpine skiing. She is one of only two women to win four overall World Cup Championships, and one of six to have won races in all five disciplines of World Cup skiing. And don’t forget her 2010 Olympic gold medal in the women’s downhill—the first American ever to win that event. Her success has made her an alpine skiing icon, especially in the U.S. where she is adored by the media and the public alike. Sadly, her ambitions for 2013 were recently shattered when she crashed in the Super-G at the Alpine World Championships in Austria. She tore two ligaments in her knee and fractured her tibia, but still has high hopes for the Winter Games in Sochi next year.
—Alex Glascock
For more on Lindsey Vonn, click here.

Phil Ellsworth

Early in his life, no one could’ve guessed that Shaun White was destined for athletic greatness. In fact, he was born with a physical defect, a heart condition—Tetralogy of Fallot—that required two open-heart surgeries before he was 1. Only six years later, though, White garnered his first snowboarding sponsorship, and by 17 he was a professional skateboarder. Now he's, simply put, the best snowboard showman in the world, performing improbable tricks—flips, spins and grabs—high in the air above the Superpipe. He's medaled in 12 straight Winter X Games (including 13 golds, 5 silvers and 2 bronzes), won two Olympic gold medals and became the first snowboarder ever to score a perfect 100 in the X Games Superpipe competition. We won't say never, but it will certainly be a very long time before anyone surpasses Shaun White.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Shaun White, click here.

Flickr/Michael Dawes

The household name for surfing over the past two decades, Kelly Slater holds the most World Championship Tour victories with 51, 18 more than the next closest competitor. His longevity out on the waves has enabled him to not only be the youngest surfer to win an Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship, but also the oldest, the latter coming at age 39 (he’s currently 41). Because of these unparalleled accomplishments, Slater has his own video game (which is a classic), has been featured in 10 "Baywatch" episodes, and can be seen in 26 different movies. What’s Slater’s biggest accomplishment, though? Living the vast majority of his life on the beach and traveling around the world to catch the most badass waves.
—Kurt Miller
For more on Kelly Slater, click here.

The Active Times 50 Best Athletes Slideshow