The Athletes


Doug Ammons

Category: Athletes



In 2010, Outside Magazine made a list of their top ten all time game changers in adventure since 1900. Doug Ammons was number seven. Ammons is one of the greatest kayakers of all time. His solo descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine is such an incredible feat that—even though it’s been 22 year since that descent—has yet to be repeated. As Outside’s editors explained: “What Reinhold Messner did for alpinism, Ammons did for kayaking.”


But Ammons’ athletic prowess is only half the reason he’s featured in The Rise of Superman. Besides being one of the greatest adventurers in history, Ammons is also a PhD in psychology, the editor of two major scientific journals, and a researcher in how people learn cognitive and motor skills. In short, he’s a uniquely qualified expert in the intersection of flow and adventure sports.


Here’s a deeper look at the relationship between flow and adventure sports, in Ammon’s own words:


Not to get too esoteric, but I think of flow in a different way than it is usually talked about. It strikes me that “flow” is our internal experience of the order of nature, and it occurs at the times we are able to blend into those forces, to match their character and patterns, as if they are an extension of ourselves, or we of them. In some sense, it is as close as we can get to a direct experience of the world’s mystery and our place in it.


In prior times, mystics and ascetics sought such experiences through deprivation in extreme environments, starving, sleepless, meditating, wrestling internal motives and hallucinations in a quest for spiritual purity. They considered these experiences revealing the true order of the outer and inner worlds. Today, we get at these same experiences through action and adventure sports and we call them “flow.”

Of course, I’d probably be considered crazy if I talked of such things with my kayaking and climbing buddies. And yet, the power of the spiritual source is still present—even when we try to deny it. The strongest climber, most outrageous snowboarder, or brashest young kayaker is sometimes transformed by nature, forced to step outside of his ego and personal will.  And there, naked and vulnerable, he becomes again a tiny human grappling with the infinity of nature.

There is something hugely inspiring about that reality. We don’t conquer anything—we blend with it.  The overwhelming cultural bias of using manipulative or conquest metaphors, like athletes “conquering” a mountain or river,” “shredding” a wave, or “slaying the gnar”, makes it impossible for us to articulate, or even acknowledge, what is really going on, and the purity of what we do and what we experience. The blind spot we create prevents us from facing the spiritual truth of blending ourselves with nature’s forces, and yet it is there.


In the world’s mountain ranges and coursing rivers and the waves of the ocean, we could all be Hindu sadus, Christian spiritualists, alchemical sorcerers, Buddhist holy men, or Native Americans on vision quests. Instead, here in the 21st Century, we’re adventure athletes, who, lacking better vocabulary and without a true spiritual tradition, call it “flow”.