The Active Times 50: World’s Best Athletes

The Active Times 50: World’s Best Athletes

The Active Times 50: World’s Best Athletes

Since our first ranking of the world’s best athletes in 2013, there have been young athletes who have proven themselves, mature athletes pushing the bounds of what the world thought was possible and legendary athletes who continue to expand on their impressive careers. A lot has happened in the world of sport since 2013, so we’re ranking earth’s best athletes once again.

#50 Mark McMorris—Snowboarder

Many professional athletes have had the good fortune of learning their sport soon after they started walking and the opportunity to start competing early on, but not Mark McMorris. He grew up in Saskachewan, a flat Canadian province and didn’t start competing professionally until 2009. Still McMorris, who is now only 21, has not only proven himself in major competitions and on film, but is a pioneer in the sport of snowboarding. Best known for being the first snowboarder to ever successfully land a backside 1440 triple cork, he’s no stranger to pushing the boundaries. In fact, after making his way to the 2014 Winter Olympics and competing with a cracked rib, he still managed to win bronze in slopestyle. It’s clear there’s a lot to come for this young and talented athlete, but his career thus far, his determination and his ability to push the sport forward have earned him a spot in the world’s top 50 athletes.
—Diana Gerstacker

#49 Chris Froome—Road Cyclist

Photo Modified: Flickr / Jaguar MENA / CC BY 4.0

In 2012 Froome was dubbed a “rising star of British cycling.” Today, a two-time Tour de France winner, he’s widely regarded as one of the most successful riders in the world. His rise to cycling stardom began in 2010 when he placed second at the 2011 Vuelta a España. From there, he went on to win stage seven in the 2012 Tour de France and a bronze medal in the time trial event at the 2012 Olympic Games. Following several more stage race wins he eventually went on to win the Tour de France in 2013 and then again in 2015. “I love the sacrifices, the training, the hard work,” Froome told Velo News of the rigorous training he put in leading up to his 2015 victory. “That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I love riding my bike. I love pushing my body to the limit. I love the freedom that cycling gives you.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#48 Tanner Hall—Skier

He’s been called “the most influential freeskier in history” and has a career of major wins and a storied history to match the title. As a teenager, Hall moved to Park City and dropped out of high school in order to pursue freeskiing professionally. Years of major competition wins (11 X Games medals), top-tier videos and awards were intersected by two ski injuries—one in 2005 that Hall was able to quickly recover from and another in 2009 that was more serious. After overshooting a jump, he suffered from tibial plateau fractures and blew out his ACLs. While he was recovering from the injury, he lost his best friend, C.R. Johnson, in a ski accident and he spiraled downward from there. After receiving help from family and friends and several years off the mountain, Hall recovered and is back at it. You can still find him on the mountain, happier than ever to be out there and making some of the best backcountry ski films in recent years.
—Diana Gerstacker

#47 David Wiens—Mountain Biker

Wiens, a wildly successful mountain bike racer, may have officially retired from the sport in 2004, but our panel expert, Gale Bernhardt, a prominent elite triathlon coach and accomplished mountain biker, recommended him for our list. “He is still racing long distance events and is loved by athletes because he is so approachable. He is a top-shelf honorable guy,” she told us. After learning more about his epic career, we knew he deserved to be considered. The incredibly impressive cyclist is best known for winning the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race six consecutive years in a row (from 2003 to 2008). Not to mention, one of those victories was against Lance Armstrong; in the 2008 Leadville 100 Wiens snagged the top spot from Armstrong by nearly two minutes while also setting the course record with a finish time of 6:45:45.

Currently, Wiens races as part of the Topeak-Ergon Racing Team (mostly just to stay in shape, he told The New York Times) but, as Bernhardt pointed out, remains as humble as ever. “I never did any of this to be seen as a hero or a legend, and find it quite strange,” his bio reads. “I am just a guy who likes to ride his bike, and likes to give my all when doing it.” Not only does he give his all but he also gives back. “He also devotes a large amount of time to volunteer work in his community,” Bernhardt said. Most recently, according to his Twitter feed, he held a few free mountain biking mini-camps for high school students in Denver.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#46 Courtney Conlogue—Surfer

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / Eva Rinaldi / CC BY 3.0

Courtney Conlogue is a rising star in the world of women’s surfing—no easy task with the talented lineup of others competing, but she holds up well under pressure and trains relentlessly. Practicing in heats of 20 minutes, to mimic competition, Conlogue spends about six hours a day in the water and her rigorous training is paying off. On top of a career of impressive wins, Conlogue is the closest she’s ever been to a world title. Surfing Magazine said she’s “[America’s] first world title hopeful since Lisa Anderson in 1997.” Her rising success comes at a time when women will finally be earning the same prize money from the World Surf League as their male counterparts.
—Diana Gerstacker

#45 Katie Ledecky—Swimmer

Photo Modified: Flickr / PoolSafely / CC BY 4.0

It’s crazy to think that Ledecky’s accomplishments as a swimmer have already been compared to the likes of Michael Phelps. In fact, Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic and world-renowned expert on health and human performance, told Outside Online that what she’s achieved is on an entirely different level. Specifically, he was referring to the 2015 FINA World Championships where she became the first swimmer to ever win the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m individual freestyle races in a single meet. Not to mention, in addition to crushing the competition, Ledecky set three world records.

Basically, as Outside Online reporter Bradley Stulberg put it, “No one has ever dominated a single stroke across such diverse distances like Ledecky did in Kazan.” Furthermore, Joyner said her performance ranks in comparison to “Jim Ryun’s sub four-minute high school mile, Eddy Merckx’s cycling dominance, and Secretariat’s Triple Crown as among the most remarkable endurance performances ever.” Remarkable indeed. And now, as this insanely gifted swimmer diligently trains with her sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the world can’t wait to see what records she’ll break next.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#44 Jamie Anderson—Snowboarder

Best known for bringing home the women’s gold in the first-ever Olympic slopestyle event, Jamie Anderson’s impressive career has been building to that big Olympic win ever since she first started snowboarding at nine years old. By age 13, Anderson had made her way through the nationals, Junior World Championships and the Vans Triple Crown to be one of the youngest athletes to have ever qualified and competed in the Winter X Games. She won her first professional slopestyle competition at age 15 and has been a force in the world of snowboarding ever since. Today she is a fixture on the podium of major slopestyle competitions (she has medaled at every X Games slopestyle event she’s entered) and she also won two coveted ESPYS awards this past year for both best female action sports athlete and best female U.S. Olympian.
—Diana Gerstacker

#43 Sage Kotsenburg—Snowboarder

Watching Kotsenburg nail a slopestyle run it’s clear the 22-year-old snowboarder is entirely in his element. For what’s typically considered an extreme sport, he makes it look graceful, almost effortless. Of course, he began honing his snowboard and slopestyle skills at a very young age, but his hard work and passion have certainly paid off. Kostenburg’s breakout performances came in the 2009/2010 season when he earned a podium spot at all three Dew Tour stops and at the age of 16 became the youngest ever Dew Cup Champion. Shortly after he was invited to compete in the Winter X Games where he earned a bronze for Big Air in 2011 and a silver for Slopestyle in 2012.

His biggest claim to fame, though, is his 2014 gold medal win for Slopestyle in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. 2014 was the first time Slopestyle was introduced as part of the Olympic competition and Kostenbrug was the first ever athlete to take the top men’s spot. What stands out about Kostenburg most, though, is his unique style and his unwillingness to conform to the status quo. “I’m not going to change for the judges. At the end of the day I don’t care what a judge thinks about my snowboarding,” he told Transworld Snowboarding. “If you like it, awesome. If you don’t, that’s fine with me. Everyone has their opinion, but this is how I snowboard. Whether it’s Olympics or X Games or powder or rails. I look at things a little bit differently and I like to do weird stuff.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#42 Adam Peaty—Swimmer

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / Chan-Fan / CC BY-SA 4.0

Take two world records, add three gold medals on the world stage (in 2015 alone) and what you have is a swimmer that’s practically guaranteed to make waves in Rio. While this hard-fought and swift success would go to any young athlete’s head, Peaty insists enjoying the sport and avoiding the pressure is how he got to where he is now.

“Just because someone says I could become Olympic champion next year doesn’t mean I’m going to get ahead of myself,” he told The Guardian. “I am only this successful because I’m so good at grounding myself. Once I’m back in the training regime it’s brutal and I am going to get better every day—so that no one can get near me.” Despite his one-step-at-a-time attitude, this 20-year-old’s rapid rise suggests he is, in fact, poised to take Olympic gold in his favorite event—the 100m breaststroke.
—Diana Gerstacker

#41 John John Florence—Surfer

Shutterstock/ Peappop

When asked about watching Florence ride, pro surfer Mitch Crews didn’t hesitate to convey just how talented the young but accomplished surfer really is. “He makes it look stupidly easily no matter how big or small the wave is,” Crews told Monster Children. “He is the man out there, rules the line up and makes everyone look silly. He is the man, and most of us are not.” Like many elites, Florence began practicing his craft at an early age. By the time he turned 13 he had already dominated the sport’s amateur ranks by becoming the youngest surfer to ever compete in the Vans Triple Crown series and winning four consecutive age-group national championships. Most recently, he claimed the top spot at the 2014 Quiksilver Pro France where he impressively conquered fluctuating eight- to 10-foot swells competing with what was described as “unparalleled comfort and confidence” in constantly changing conditions.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#40 Yiannis Kouros—Endurance Runner

With a nickname like “the Running God” you just know Yiannis Kouros has got to be one of the best athletes on earth. The now 59-year-old ultrarunner is a veritable hero to runners from around the world, having broken more than 160 world records, some of which he set himself when he was younger. “[He] holds every men’s outdoor world record from 100 to 1,000 miles and every road and track record from 12 hours to 6 days,” said our panel expert Tina Muir, an elite, Saucony-sponsored runner and 11-time Division II All-America athlete.

The man is a machine and he attributes his success not to his diet or training regimen, but to his mindset. “Like a tree that grows stronger with more branches and roots, you need to find more and more ways to be inspired,” the runner and poet told Runner’s World. It seems his motivation and determination have led him to be a source of inspiration to others and many consider him to be the single greatest ultrarunner of all time.
—Diana Gerstacker

#39 Yunidis Castillo—Paralympic Runner

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / Fanny Schertzer / CC BY-SA 3.0

Castillo, one of the fastest Paralympians in the world and Cuba’s most decorated Paralympian, lost her right arm in a car accident at age 10. Obviously, though, she never let the loss stop her from participating in sports. However, she didn’t take up athletics until 2000 when she was 23, but it was only four years later when she made her debut at the Paralympic Games in Athens. It was in 2006, though, when Castillo made serious strides at the IPC Athletics World Championships. There she snagged gold in both the 100m and 200m events. Following that performance she not only earned two gold medals in the same events at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, but also set new world records in each. Nicknamed “The Bullet” and “Queen of Speed,” Castillo is also known for having won a hat-trick of T46 sprint events at the 2011, 2012 and 2013 World Championships, placing first in the 100m, 200m and 400m sprint events. Looking ahead to the future, Castillo shows no signs of slowing down. She is currently working hard in hopes of earning herself a few more Olympic-level gold medals. “Rio 2016 may be the perfect event to end my career on a high note,” she told International Paralympic Committee reporter Hernán Goldzycher.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#38 Mayan Smith-Gobat—Climber

Born at the base of New Zealand’s highest mountain, the draw of altitude and high peaks was an ever-present theme for Mayan Smith-Gobat. As a teenager, she focused primarily on skiing until a major accident on the mountain turned her attention to climbing. Skipping the traditional route of training in a climbing gym, Smith-Gobat started training outdoors immediately and attributes that process to her comfort on some of the most difficult rock faces on earth. Today she’s one of the most accomplished women in the sport of climbing, with several first ascents, many time records and a style that is completely her own.
—Diana Gerstacker

#37 Hazel Findlay—Climber

Findlay has been climbing since she was six years old. In the early days of her career she became a six-time British junior champion, but by the time she was 16 she gave up competing and chose to dedicate her talents to her true passion of trad climbing in the wild. “I nominate [Findlay] because of her ‘first woman’ ascent, but mostly because of the mental power she developed in order to achieve bold and scary routes,” said Arno Ilgner, a pioneering rock climber and creator of The Warrior’s Way. That “first woman” ascent he’s referring to was her scaling of Dave Birkett's Once Upon a Time in the Southwest in the U.K.—a quite challenging and daunting British E9 6C route. “The coastline around this area is really rugged and rocky with crashing waves and it’s quite wild really,” Findlay said of the climb location in Devon. “The wall has a real atmosphere because of that. Just being down there on the beach your heart’s pounding.”

Of course, she managed to overcome both the mental and physical hurdles that accompany such an intimidating and arduous ascent, and in the process became the first woman not only to climb that route, but also an E9. “A few years ago I don’t think anyone would have put money on a small blonde lass climbing E9 on the sea cliffs,” Findlay’s father said. “I wouldn’t have put money on it.” Findlay has been a professional climber for four years now and is also renowned for having free-climbed El Capitan three times.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#36 Izzi Gomez—Stand-Up Paddler

At 18 months old, Izzi Gomez was on a surfboard before she even learned to swim. From there her skill on the water exploded and today the young stand-up paddleboarder is not just competing with people twice her age, she’s beating them. In the past two years alone, Gomez earned back-to-back world champion titles and at the 2014 SUP awards she was voted female paddler of the year. With accomplishments like these, you’d never guess Gomez is only 15 years old, but her age only means there’s a lot more to come from this talented paddler.
—Diana Gerstacker

#35 Gwen Jorgensen—Triathlete

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / MartinPrutz / CC BY-SA 3.0

ESPN recently dubbed Jorgensen “the most dominant triathlete in the world,” and it’s really not hard to see why. The 2014 and 2015 ITU World Triathlon Series champion, she’s been undefeated for more than a year—when she earned her tenth straight win of the series in May 2015 she became the first triathlete ever to accumulate that many consecutive first place finishes. As we complied our preliminary list of the world’s best athletes, Bernhardt, recommended Jorgenson noting that her accomplishments as a competitive triathlete are “far above” any others’. “I really just love triathlon. I love being able to compete...and being able to see how far I can push myself is really exciting,” Jorgensen told ESPN. Given her past and recent performances (she’s only been a competitive triathlete for five years, by the way), it certainly seems as though her limits are nearly boundless. And although she placed 38th at the 2012 Olympics in London (because of a flat tire), she’s certainly the favorite for the upcoming 2016 Games in Rio.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#34 Kye Petersen—Skier and Adventurer

Described by some as the best skier of his generation, Kye Petersen is one of the few athletes that seamlessly masters both big mountain backcountry and the park and pipe. His style is one-of-a-kind, perhaps best described as attention-grabbing, and it’s landed him on the podium in the past, but more often puts him at the center of major ski films. To date, Petersen and his signature style has appeared in more than 15 films and even when he’s not on camera, you can often find him traversing snow-covered backcountry in search of the next epic run.
—Diana Gerstacker

#33 Wilson Kipsang—Endurance Runner

Photo Modified: Flickr / NH53 / CC BY 4.0

By far one of the world’s fastest marathon runner’s, this Kenyan powerhouse is not only the former marathon world record holder (2:03:23), but overall one of the most accomplished endurance runners in the world. He was the bronze medalist at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London (and of course has his sight set on gold for the Summer 2016 Games in Rio) and is the first athlete ever to break 2:05 in the marathon six separate times. Adding to his impressive list of accolades, Kipsang is a two-time winner of the London Marathon, where in 2014 he set the course record with a 2:04:29 finish, and he’s also previously won the New York City Marathon (2014) and the Berlin Marathon (where he set the world record in 2013). In addition to  the 2016 Summer Olympics, Kipsang is also looking ahead to the 2015 New York City Marathon, where he’ll aim to defend his title against a highly competitive field.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#32 Pauline Ferrand-Prevot—Cyclist (Multi-Discipline)

This young cyclist wasted no time making big news, both for her huge competition wins and her versatility on a bike. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot not only competes in road cycling, cyclocross and cross-country mountain biking, but she dominates across all platforms. Just this past season, at only 23 years old, Ferrand-Prevot became the first woman to ever hold all three world titles simultaneously. And her 2015 wins join many other major podiums from the past few years. Add this unprecedented success and her calculated riding style to the fact that she’s just at the beginning of her career and we’re sure to see much more from this top-tier cyclist.
—Diana Gerstacker

#31 Mirinda Carfrae—Triathlete

It seems Carfrae was destined for greatness from the moment she first stepped foot into the world of triathlon racing. As the story goes, in high school Carfrae was a basketball player when a triathlon coach noticed her speed on the court and encouraged her to take a shot at the multisport discipline. With no background in swimming, cycling or running, she competed in her first triathlon at the age of 19 and soon after qualified for the 2001 Australian Junior Elite Team. Competing more and more, quickly she began to scoop up medals and eventually earned a third place finish at the Clearwater Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2006 and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship title the following year.

From then on she continued to dominate the sport, earning her well-deserved spot at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii in 2009 (where she placed second) and eventually going on to become a three-time Ironman World Champion. Currently, she also holds the Kona Course record with her 2013 finish time of 8:52:14. “I'm always striving to see what my potential is on the Big Island in that race. That's what drives me. That's my motivation,” Carfrae told SHAPE.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#30 Tatyana McFadden—Hand Cyclist

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / Howard N2GOT / CC BY 4.0

From the very humblest of beginnings, Tatyana McFadden worked tirelessly to become one of the best athletes in the world. Born with spina bifida (a hole in the spine), she spent the first part of her life in a Russian orphanage, without even a wheelchair to help her get around. Paralyzed from the waist down, McFadden relied on her arms to help her move until she was adopted, brought to the U.S. and given a wheelchair. In her new home, she was enrolled in sports to help improve her health and that’s where she found her niche. From the time she was 15, McFadden was competing on the Olympic level (and winning) and by the time she was 24, she was the only athlete in history to ever win six world championships in the same event. Meanwhile, McFadden also dominated in the marathon circuit, becoming the first person (man or woman, able-bodied or disabled) to win the Grand Slam (winning four major marathons in one year) in 2013, and in 2014 she repeated the accomplishment. Still training and competing, McFadden also advocates for the rights of people with disabilities and speaks publicly about healthy living.
—Diana Gerstacker

#29 Sarah Sjöström—Swimmer

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / Kanal 75 / CC BY 3.0

Not only is Sjöström currently one of the world’s most triumphant and versatile sprint swimmers, but she’s particularly accomplished when it comes to butterfly events—arguably the most difficult of the four swimming strokes. A four-time long course world champion and three-time short course world champion, the Swedish swimmer has been collecting medals since 2008 but it was recently, at the 2014 FINA World Championships when her world-record-setting performance in the 200m freestyle earned her the gold medal. Not to mention, she placed first in both the 50m and 100m butterfly events in there, too—both of which she also currently holds the world records for. Widely regarded as one of the fastest freestyle and butterfly sprinters in the world, like many of our top athletes Sjöström is also looking ahead to the Summer Games in Rio with her sights set on the 100m butterfly and 200m freestyle events.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#28 Georgia Gould—Mountain Biker

Photo Modified: Flickr / Roxanne King / CC BY 4.0

Since 2006, Georgia Gould has been a force in the world of mountain biking—an unlikely success story considering her birthplace in Baltimore. She discovered her love for mountain biking when she moved to Ketchum, Idaho in 1999 at the age of 19. After only five years pursuing the sport she moved into the professional ranks and became a fixture on the podium. Through World Cup wins and trips to the Olympics, Gould made a name for herself in the world of mountain biking. Although her recent seasons haven’t been as podium packed as previous years, Gould is still training and competing more strategically than ever. Her versatility in the saddle and determination are two of the top reasons she’s such a fierce competitor.
—Diana Gerstacker

#27 Tina Maze—Alpine Skier

The most successful female skier in Slovenian history, a four-time world champion and a two-time Olympic champion, Tina Maze is arguably one of the best skiers competing right now. In early 2015 she made history by becoming the oldest female skier to win gold in a Championship event.  To truly understand the extent of her success, though, you have to understand the world of ski racing, where most competitors are known for specializing in one or two events. Not Maze, though. Not only is she the only skier to compete in all five disciplines, but she’s a serious medal contender in each, too. In fact, she’s one of three women to have won all five in a single season. “It’s always hard to go from one discipline to another—to get the right timing, to be fast in slalom, to be smart in downhill,” Maze told The New York Times. “It takes a lot of training, a lot of work, a lot of experience.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#26 Kevin Jorgeson—Climber

On January 19, 2015, after six years of preparation and 19 days spent charging up the Dawn Wall, two climbers successfully scaled a route that no one thought passable. One of those climbers was Kevin Jorgeson. A talented climber early on, Jorgeson started indoor climbing at age 10 and by 19, he was the number one climber in the U.S. for his age group. He then decided to take his practice to the outdoors, bouldering difficult sections and finding a new appreciation for climbing. When the opportunity came to join Tommy Caldwell on the Dawn Wall, Jorgeson couldn’t pass it up. Despite the fact he had never done anything like it, Jorgeson managed to scale what’s been called “the hardest route ever climbed.”
—Diana Gerstacker

#25 Tommy Caldwell—Climber

Yes, when it comes to the impressive scaling of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in January of 2015, Caldwell and Jorgeson are absolutely considered a team. Both big wall climbers were nominated for a spot on our list by multiple experts on our panel, but Caldwell, with a lengthy list of notable first ascents in addition to Dawn Wall, was able to sneak one spot ahead of Jorgeson. In fact, not only has he claimed an overwhelming number of first ascents, but many took place on some of the most difficult climbing routes in the world, including  Linea di Eleganza (VI 5.11b A3 M7) at Fitz Roy in Patagonia and Flex Luthor (5.14d/15a) at the Fortress of Solitude in Colorado. Ilgner, who nominated both Caldwell and Jorgeson for their perseverance, noted that Caldwell’s vision to climb the Dawn wall emerged seven years ago (Jorgeson joined him a year later). “They have been relentless in their persistence for learning what was necessary to achieve their goal,” Ilgner said. “This points to the importance of valuing the process of climbing over the achievement of the end goal.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#24 Nouria Newman—Paddler

When it comes to versatility on the water, Nouria Newman is practically impossible to beat. The 24-year-old paddler not only competes in canoe, freestyle and extreme kayaking, but she is a force in each sport. In 2013 she took first in the Ottawa XL (a top freestyle competition), months later she was named the Under-23 European vice champion in slalom, but perhaps most impressive were her back-to-back Extreme Kayaking World Champion titles in 2013 and 2014. This hardcore paddler is certainly no stranger to the podium and watching her navigate some of the toughest whitewater in the world, it’s not hard to see why she often comes out on top.
—Diana Gerstacker

#23 Kim Havell—Freeskier, Climber and Ski Mountaineer

It’s hard to put Havell’s accomplishments as a skier and ski mountaineer into words. Not only because of the sheer breadth of what she’s achieved, but also because everything she’s done is, quite frankly, incredible. To start, Havell has skied on all seven continents, with first descents on four, and she is one of five people and the only woman to have ever skied all the direct couloirs of the notorious Little Wasatch Ridge in Telluride, Colo. “With dozens of ski accomplishments spanning the globe under her belt, Havell has emerged as one of the preeminent female ski mountaineers of our time,” Outside Online wrote of her career in 2012. Of course, even that esteemed acknowledgment is barely enough to truly convey Havell’s innovative success.

She’s skied and explored all over the world, including in the Himalayas and the Karakoram range in Asia, but she’s said she particularly enjoyed the Grand Tetons, where she completed 65 different routes, including the first female descent of the infamous Otter Body. When asked about what inspires her, Havel said it was anyone who was able to help her learn what she needed to know in order to conquer her goals. “It was a slow process of self-education to get out there and do the things I dreamed about. I spent a lot of time developing mountain sense and skills, finding the right partners, lining up appropriate objectives, and learning about risk versus reward,” she told Outside Online. “I find anyone with passion, talent or commitment, and lots of heart inspiring.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#22 Kelly Clark—Snowboarder

Kelly Clark is, without a doubt, the most dominant woman in snowboarding history. It’s not just her mind-bogglingly long list of major competition wins, the fact that throughout her career she’s managed to win every major snowboarding competition or her three Olympic medals that set her apart from other talented snowboarders, but also her longstanding status as a pioneer in her sport. The queen of the halfpipe, Clark is the winningest snowboarder in competition history—male or female—but she doesn’t let her status go to her head. She’s still a humble girl from Vermont who also established The Kelly Clark Foundation to help kids reach their potential in snowboarding. While the foundation will help foster the next generation of snowboarders, Clark is still on the snow dominating today.
—Diana Gerstacker

#21 Apa Sherpa—Mountaineer

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / Mogens Engelund / CC BY-SA 3.0

There’s no doubt in our minds, a man who’s reached the top of Everest 21 times (more than anyone else in the world) and who’s undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and outstanding mountaineers in the world, deserves a spot on our best athletes list. He has a simple but impressive and life-saving philosophy, “Everest will always be there.” Sherpa’s first and foremost priority is keeping his team members safe and it is this strategy that has bolstered his success in reaching the summit time and time again. Sherpa officially retired from climbing in 2011 but that didn’t stop him from setting more records. In 2012, on a mission to raise awareness about climate change in the Himalayas, he and his team covered 1,700 kilometers on foot across 20 Himalayan districts in just 99 days. Currently, Sherpa is an active climate change educator and Mount Everest conservationist, but what he proved each time he set out to conquer Everest still holds true: “greatness is best used to serve others.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#20 Sarah McNair-Landry— Ski Mountaineer and Adventurer

“Sarah is a Canadian polar adventurer and filmmaker, still in her 20s. Her parents, renowned Arctic guides, brought up Sarah and her brother Eric in Iqualuit, Nunavut, and introduced them to adventure early on. At the age of 18, she became the youngest woman to ski to the South Pole—an unsupported and un-resupplied trip. A year later she dog-sledded to the North Pole, becoming the youngest person to reach both poles. Since then she has traversed the Greenland Ice cap five times, including by snow kite, and dog-sledded to Elsmere Island. With her brother Eric she did a kite buggy crossing of the Gobi Desert. “In the midst of all this she became a filmmaker and has documented all her adventures,” said Maria Coffey, a renowned explorer, award-winning author and founder of the adventure travel company Hidden Places. “I met Sarah in 2008…at the Banff Film Festival and she was giving a multimedia presentation about kite skiing the North West Passage with Eric. She is delightful—passionate about her adventures, in love with the wild North and having a lot of fun along the way.” She recently spent four months circumnavigating Baffin Island by dog sled, alongside Erik Boomer and has also produced films on the environment.
—Diana Gerstacker

#19 Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner—Mountaineer

Groundbreaking, gutsy, astonishing, inspiring—yes, these words accurately describe Kaltenbrunner and her extraordinary mountaineering accomplishments, yet somehow it still seems as though her greatness isn’t fully conveyed. The Austrian mountain climber has been conquering massive peaks since her teen years, but it was in 2011, after reaching the summit of K2, when she cemented her spot in world history by becoming the third woman to ever summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, but the first ever to do it without using supplementary oxygen.

Following her seemingly insurmountable accomplishment, Kaltenbrunner was named National Geographic’s 2012 Explorer of the Year. When asked about reaching the top she said, “I have never had a view like that. There were no clouds, you could see to Nanga Parbat. I had the feeling that I was one with the universe. It’s still present in my heart.” Perhaps one of the most inspiring aspects of her story, though, is her dedication to pushing her physical limits by climbing without supplementary oxygen. “From the very beginning, it was very important to me to climb these peaks with my own energy, without the high-altitude porters, and, of course, without the supplemental oxygen. I wanted to feel good about how I climbed,” she told National Geographic. “If my body hadn’t been able to handle it, I would have just rather gone and climbed a 5,000- or 6,000-meter peak, rather than use oxygen.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#18 Chris Sharma—Climber

Undoubtedly one of the most talented climbers of our time, Sharma is no stranger to pioneering some of the most difficult climbs out there, but he isn’t doing it for the sake of pride. In fact, he draws on intense self-motivation and happens to be a hugely respected figure in the climbing community.

“On March 7, 2015, Chris Sharma made the first ascent of El Bon Combat (5.15b/c) at Cova de Ocell, outside of Barcelona, Spain,” said Ilgner. “The above is a tangible achievement by Chris, but I nominate him because of his continuing intrinsic motivation. No other climber that I am familiar with is more in contact with his [or] her own motivation than Chris. Clarifying one’s motivation, making sure it’s intrinsic and following it is a more difficult accomplishment than achieving a 5.15.”
—Diana Gerstacker

#17 Candide Thovex—Skier

Not only is Thovex a highly decorated freeskier, but he’s one of the most innovative and daring in the world. “There’s likely not a single skier on snow that wouldn’t want to be able to ski and shine the way Candide Thovex does,” said when they dubbed him the second best freeskier of all time. “His skiing defines smooth.” And it’s his smooth, instinctive skills that continue to earn him increasingly impressive accolades. Despite the fact that he’s not particularly fond of competing, he’s placed first at the Winter X Games in everything from Slopestyle and Superpipe to Halfpipe and Big Air. Additionally, the Association of Freeskiing Professionals credited Thovex (along with the late C.R. Johnson) with “changing the face of halfpipe skiing” at the 2003 Winter Games “by going bigger than any of the snowboarders.”
—Katie Rosenbrock

#16 Usain Bolt—Sprinter

Photo Modified: Flickr / Brunel University / CC BY 4.0

We couldn’t compile this list without once again considering the man who’s widely regarded as the greatest sprinter of all time. An 11-time world champion and six-time Olympic champion, Bolt has been turning heads with his inconceivable speed ever since he began competing at the age of 14. That’s not to say he hasn’t worked hard to earn the level of success he’s achieved thus far, though. Some cynics said he didn’t have the right body type for sprinting and that he was too lazy to ever turn his innate talent into world-champion-level success. However, after overcoming several hurdles—many in the form of injury—Bolt eventually rose to superstardom when he won three gold medals and broke three world records (in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m) at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, becoming the first man ever to win all three races in world record time. Perhaps even more impressively, at the London Games in 2012, Bolt came back and snagged gold in all three events again. A seemingly unstoppable force, Bolt is seriously set on defending those titles for a third year in a row, as he recently announced he’s decided not to race for the remainder of the year in order to focus on prep for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#15 Dane Jackson—Kayaker

Watching Dane Jackson plunge 60 feet down the face of a waterfall or use whitewater rapids as an aid to complete flips in the air, it’s immediately apparent that he was born to sit in the cockpit of a kayak. The son of Olympic paddler Eric Jackson, he began kayaking early on and come time for competition, he was a force. Now just 22 years old, Jackson said he’s sure that kayaking is his calling in life and with more than 80 first place finishes and several Whitewater Grand Prix championships behind him, we’re inclined to believe him.
—Diana Gerstacker

#14 Maya Gabeira—Surfer

There are only a few surfers in the world with the talent and fearlessness to chase—and attempt to ride—the biggest waves on the planet. Maya Gabeira is one of those surfers, with accolades that include a 2009 ESPY for Best Female Action Sports Athlete and several Billabong XXL surfer of the year awards, in addition to a record-setting ride of a 46-foot-tall wave. Her credentials were dismissed by some, though, in the wake of a major accident that almost killed her.

When riding waves in October of 2013, off the coast of Portugal, Gabeira attempted an 80 foot wave. With too much speed, she lost control, crashed and after a series of major waves pushed her under and ripped off her life jacket, she was in a life-threatening situation. After rescue, Gabeira was rushed to the hospital and after several surgeries, a long rehab process and stinging comments from others in the sport insisting she didn’t have the skill to be out there, she recovered. She’s now working on her return to big wave surfing, with plans of making it back to surf Nazaré, the break that almost took her life.
—Diana Gerstacker

#13 Eric Larsen—Polar Adventurer and Mountaineer

“Without question, no one else on the planet knows as much about the Arctic zones of the planet as Eric Larsen,” said Christopher Sunnen, an adventurer who has spent the past 25 years pursuing high altitude adventure in mountain ranges around the world. “This former dog musher, expedition guide and educator has spent the last 15 years of his life traveling across some of the most remote spots on the planet.” Perhaps most impressively is his “Save the Poles” expedition. Larsen traveled across both poles and to the summit of Mount Everest—all in the same year. Not surprisingly, he’s the only person to have ever completed that journey in just 365 days and one of only 20 in the world to have done it at all.

What’s more, Larsen is one of only a handful of American’s who have skied both the North and South Poles and along with Lonnie Dupre he led the first ever summertime expedition to the North Pole, which involved pulling and paddling specially designed canoes over 550 miles of fluctuating sea ice and unchartered ocean. If that doesn’t scream grit and perseverance than we don’t know what does. It’s clear what fuels his drive, though. Larsen is dedicated to educating others about the outdoors. In addition to his expeditions, he travels the world sharing both motivational and educational lectures and will soon launch a documentary about his record-breaking Save the Poles expedition.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#12 Kilian Jornet— Endurance Trail Runner and Ski Mountaineer

When you learn what makes Jornet tick, you get the sense that he operates on a higher, almost divine level. “Above all, I conceive sport as a way to discover landscapes both inside and outside you,” he writes. “My life is spent pursuing and fighting for my dreams.” And it’s exactly that type of calling and understanding of the human condition that have made Jornet’s seemingly impossible achievements a reality for the Spanish endurance athlete.

From early on in his career, Jornet has made a deep mark as “one of the fastest men on the planet,” as Sunnen put it succinctly. “[He’s] been setting a number of fastest known times in races around the planet, and on the planet’s highest peaks,” Sunnen said. “In 2013 he ascended and descended the Matterhorn in just under three hours, which was the fastest known time, and followed up that [record] with the fastest known time for an ascent and descent of Denali in 2014.” Jornet also holds the world record for the fastest ascent and descent of Mount Blanc and is currently training to be the fastest man to ascend Mount Everest, though Sunnen noted, after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, he placed his training for that goal on hold to assist in some of the humanitarian relief efforts.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#11 Kelly Slater—Surfer

There is no one more recognizable in the surfing world than Kelly Slater and it’s not hard to see why. For starters, the “King of Surfing” has a record 11 world titles to his name and also holds the distinction of being both the youngest and the oldest world tour champion—he won first when he was 20 and most recently again at age 39. Even at 43 years old, he’s one of the best surfers on tour, still managing to throw down tricks that fill younger pros with envy. Both in and out of the water, Slater is considered extremely successful and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. All the younger pros, prematurely dubbed “the next Kelly Slater” will have to wait at least a little bit longer.
—Diana Gerstacker

#10 Sean O'Neill—Paraplegic Climber

When it comes to inspirational pioneers of sport, Sean O'Neill is a name that comes to mind instantly. The now accomplished climber entered the sport, with help from his brother Timmy O'Neill, after an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down when he was 25. After years of completing incredible climbs with his brother and friends, though, he aspired to climb on his own—in 2013, he made it a reality.

Traditionally, paralyzed climbers would follow a non-disabled climber up the rock using a pull-up system. Instead, using a ratchet system he helped develop, O’Neill was able to navigate steep crack climbs in Yosemite Valley without a climber above. He was the first paraplegic climber to use the system and, the following year, he became the first paraplegic climber to scale Bridal Veil Falls. On top of his personal accomplishments, O’Neill is also developing equipment to help other paraplegic climbers make their own climbing routes.
—Diana Gerstacker

#9 Katinka Hosszú—Swimmer

With a quick glance at this Hungarian Olympian’s astonishingly long medal record, it quickly becomes clear why Hosszú is often referred to as one of the most versatile swimmers in the world. It was in 2011 when Hosszú first began to stand out as a star swimmer. That year—her junior year as a collegiate athlete for the University of Southern California—she snagged three gold medals at the European Championships and another three at the NCAA Championships. Subsequently, she won the Honda Sports Award and was also nominated for ESPN’s ESPY Awards in the Best Female College Athlete category. Since then she’s been somewhat of an unstoppable aquatic force. More recently, in 2013 she earned two more world championship titles and broke six short course world records. With no signs of stopping in sight, the following year she went on to earn the title of Female European Swimmer of the Year after setting a whopping 17 new Hungarian records, and at the 2015 World Championships she broke her first world record in the 200m IM and snagged a gold medal not only in that event but in the 400m IM, too.

To sum it up: she’s a two-time overall FINA World Cup Winner, an 11-time World Champion (if you count both short- and long-course championships) with multiple wins in the 100m, 200m and 400m individual medley (IM), as well as first-place World Championship spots in the 200m butterfly and the 100m and 200m backstroke events. In other words, she can swim every single stroke and she can swim them better than almost anyone else in the world.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#8 Marianne Vos—Cyclocross Athlete, Road and Track Cyclist

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / / CC BY 4.0

Not only has Vos earned an overwhelmingly extraordinary amount of championship titles and gold medals, but she’s done it across several different cycling disciplines. She competes in everything from cyclocross and road racing to mountain bike and track competitions and she’s found unbridled success across the board. In fact, some even consider her the “finest cyclist of her generation.” Vos found her love for the sport at a young age. She recalls “catching the cycling bug” at six and began racing by the time she was eight. It wasn’t until 2004, though, when she won her first rainbow jersey that she seriously began to consider a career as a pro. “There weren’t many girls who went professional on a full time basis but I decided to give it a go and try my best,” she wrote. Now a three-time World Road Race Champion and a seven-time World Cyclocross Champion, it turned out her best is way better than most and her passion, dedication and grit have certainly paid off.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#7 Will Gadd—Ice Climber, Paraglider and Adventurer

Will Gadd is one of the most versatile adventure athletes in the world. He’s made a name for himself in ice climbing, rock climbing, paragliding and kayaking—simply put, it seems there is nothing this adrenaline-fueled athlete can’t do. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is that at 48 years old, Gadd is coming off his most impressive year yet.

In August of 2014, he completed a record-breaking 400-mile-long paragliding journey down the Canadian Rockies alongside Gavin McClurg. Months later, in December, he was the first climber to ever successfully scale the toughest mixed-route ice and rock climb in the world—Helmcken Falls. After that Gadd was climbing the last of the ice on Kilimanjaro and then he became the first person to ever ice climb Niagara Falls. While his recent accomplishments are baffling, it’s also worth noting that he has an impressive history in the sport of kayaking (leading the way on several dangerous rivers), previously held solo world records in paragliding and even took three gold medals in the X games.
—Diana Gerstacker

# 6 Rebecca Rusch—Mountain Biker

As you make your way down the extremely long and detailed list of the many different sport achievements Rebecca Rusch has earned, it’s not hard to see how she earned the nickname “Queen of Pain.” She holds world titles in not just whitewater rafting and adventure racing, but also orienteering and cross country skiing. And on top of that, she’s essentially dominated the sport of endurance mountain biking since 2009 when she first raced and won the Leadville Trail 100. From there, she went on to win that race for three more years consecutively, and along the way collected a handful of additional record-setting victories at races like Dirty Kanza 200 and the 24 Hour MTB World Championships. In other words, not only is she a powerhouse endurance athlete, but one of the best in the entire world.

No doubt, it’s clear Rusch can endure pain, but last year she told Sports Illustrated she’d rather be known as the Queen of Perseverance because she prides herself most on never giving up. “I really am just a regular person. Physically—for example my VO2 max—I’m completely average,” Rusch told Sports Illustrated. “Just ask my trainer.” She went on to explain that what she really hopes to accomplish is to inspire other regular people, which is why in 2011 she launched the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour with the goal of inspiring more young girls and women to get involved with cycling.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#5 Ueli Steck—Mountaineer and Climber

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons / Ludovic Péron / CC BY-SA 3.0

Returning to the top of our list once again, “the Swiss Machine” is best known for his methodical conquering of some of the most dangerous peaks around the world. From his record-setting ascent on Eiger’s north face in 2008 to his no-oxygen Everest climb in 2012, he easily earned a spot on our 2013 list, but his latest accomplishments are what has kept him firmly in the category of the world’s best athletes. “In 2013 he completed a solo ascent of Annapurna’s South Face in 28 hours, a climb that earned him the Piolet d’Or in 2014,” said Sunnen. That same perilous climb earned him a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award this past year. In 2015, citing a wake-up call on Annapurna’s South Face, Steck took his career in a different direction, climbing all 82 alpine four-thousanders in just 62 days.
—Diana Gerstacker

#4 Adam Ondra—Sport and Free Climber

Reading Ondra’s beyond impressive list of accomplishments, it’s hard to keep up with just how much he’s achieved in such a little amount of time and on such a high level. By the time he was just 16 in 2009, Ondra had already conquered an astonishing amount of high-grade faces and qualified to compete in the IFSC Lead Climbing World Cup. Unsurprisingly, he won the competition that year and then went on to take home first place in IFSC Bouldering World Cup in 2010, becoming the first athlete to ever win gold in both disciplines. Since, he’s only gone on to prove he’s highly capable both in the wild and on artificial walls.

A recent profile of Ondra on CNN refers to the extremely versatile and innovative athlete as a “rock god” whose “redefined the art of climbing.” “I first saw him at the beginning of 2000 in Osp, a popular climbing destination in southwest Slovenia,” Alexander Huber, a veteran German free climber and mountaineer told CNN. “He was six years old and he was climbing stronger than most of the adults. You could see he was climbing with such ease.” So yes, you might say he has somewhat of an innate ability, but talent can only take most so far and Ondra points to his power, technique and mental strength when asked about his success. "There are way more powerful climbers compared to me but I think I can really take advantage of all my power due to my technique," Ondra told CNN's Human To Hero series. "Also, due to my mental strengths I can really reduce all the fear and doubts—I can be driven by this intuition and experience, and that's when I definitely feel I climb at my limits."
—Katie Rosenbrock

#3 Erik Boomer—Paddler and Adventurer

With a nickname like “the Honey Badger” it’s clear that Erik Boomer is all about exploring and pushing the limits. Best known for his kayaking career, which has been peppered with many first descents of dangerous rivers and waterfalls, Boomer is also a top-tier photographer and explorer.

After learning to paddle at a young age, a 15-year-old Boomer took a self-supported trip down the Colorado River, which solidified his decision to pursue professional kayaking. Flash forward and Boomer has “descended the Stikine in northern British Colombia—which is known as the Everest of the paddling world—eight times,” said Coffey. In 2012, he was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, for his unprecedented 104-day ski and sea kayak circumnavigation of Canada’s Ellesmere Island with Jon Turk. Just months ago he returned to the top of the world to complete another epic expedition, this time he partnered up with Sarah McNair Landry, and circumnavigated Baffin Island by dog sled.
—Diana Gerstacker

#2 Steve Fisher—Kayaker

A bold athlete on many different levels, Fisher is known for conquering what are easily considered the fiercest, riskiest and most challenging white water rapids in the world. “There’s a lot of fear from media and sponsors that I’ll get killed,” he told Red Bull. “I risk that quite often, but to them it’s different if you get shot. The outcome is more or less the same in my mind.” Clearly Fisher is quite a fearless athlete, and his continued demonstration of bravery in pursuit of paddling the planet’s most extreme and seemingly unreachable rapids—including first descents on the Irrawaddy in Burma, the Salween in China, the Yarlung TsangPo in Tibet—is what helped to earn the number two spot on our list.
—Katie Rosenbrock

#1 Alex Honnold—Climber

To identify the world’s best athletes, we sought out those that were versatile, willing to take major risks to accomplish big feats and, most importantly, athletes that are actively pushing the sport forward. Alex Honnold is the embodiment of those characteristics, but more than that, he’s redefining what is considered humanly possible in the world of climbing.

Honnold has dedicated his entire life to an unusual form of climbing. It’s called free-soloing, which essentially means climbing alone without ropes for protection. “He climbs fast and light, often with little or no protection,” said Coffey. His style has helped him break several speed records and go where no climber has gone before—one of his many notable achievements was completing the only known solo climb of the Yosemite Triple Crown, most of which he did without any safety equipment.

The 29-year-old first started climbing in a gym when he was five and by his late teen years he was one of the best young climbers in the world. “Instead of [finishing] college he went on the road, learning to climb in the outdoors, starting to free-solo on difficult terrain and quickly surpassing his heroes and mentors,” Coffey said. “I was on the film jury with Alex at the 2014 Trento Film Festival, and learned then that there is a lot more to him than his climbing ascents. He lives very simply—often out of the back of his van—and channels much of the money he earns as a professional climber into the Honnold Foundation, which supports sustainability projects. He is a remarkable young man…His commitment to his climbing is total, and despite his fame (he was mobbed by fans wherever we went in Trento) he is truly humble.”
—Diana Gerstacker