Going to the Extreme

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Your heart races alarmingly, thudding in your chest and ears. Your blood pressure soars. Your fingers grow clammy, your toes cold, your face pale. Your mouth is dry, your breathing fast and shallow. You’re as acutely alive as you’ve ever been, yet peculiarly detached from reality. A fraction of a second expands like an hour.

You’re not stretched on an ER gurney, near death. You’re experiencing the “fight or flight” response God endowed you with to help preserve your life when in danger. But you’re not a soldier in Iraq, nor a missionary in West Africa. You’re an aficionado of one of the “extreme sports,” and that automatic fight-or-flight reaction is the sought-after “adrenaline rush.” It’s one of the things that keeps you coming back for more and more of these crazy, risky, exhilarating activities.

Such sports offer some combination of speed, height, danger, or spectacular stunts—one or more extreme factors that traditional team sports don’t provide and that result in that coveted “rush.” In the 1970s a sensational form of stunt-filled skateboarding devised by disenchanted urban California teens emerged as one of the first “extreme sports.” But that phrase didn’t reach the popular culture until about 10 years ago, after the first televising of what ESPN called the Extreme Games (now the X Games). Since then, more and more people everywhere—mostly young, but older too—have taken up one or more of these sports that allow them unique encounters with God’s creation and push them to their limits. Christian Reformed folks are no exception. Let’s meet a few of them.

Cody Schelling, 19. Rodeo bareback rider, bull rider. South Dakota.

In his weekday life Cody Schelling’s both a cowboy—he works on horseback with the cows on his father’s farm near Armour, S.D.—and a student at South Dakota State University, majoring in agribusiness. He’s a member of Corsica (S.D.) Christian Reformed Church.

Cody loves horses. Alongside his dad, “as a kind of father-son thing,” he breaks them to ride. He got into the rodeo a couple of years ago. And he candidly admits, “My biggest thing is the adrenaline rush.”

Bareback riding certainly provides that. “You climb down onto a wild horse,” he says matter-of-factly. The horse wears a purpose-made flank strap, which tightens as it bolts out of the chute. The strap is then uncomfortable for the horse, and the animal instantly tries to rid himself of it by bucking. The rider’s sudden presence adds to the horse’s annoyance, further encouraging it to buck. One-handed, the rider grips the handle of the “rigging” on the horse. “You jerk your hand back and put your other hand in the air for balance,” Cody says. “You straighten your legs, fling your spurs, and dig them into the horse’s neck. And you try to hold on for eight seconds. You get up to 50 points for how well you get the horse to buck and 50 points for how well you ride.”

Should a Christian treat animals like that? “I don’t have a real good answer to that,” Cody admits. But he adds, “Not hurting the animals is a big issue. You can’t have sharp spurs. If you draw blood, you’re disqualified.” He’s also convinced that some horses enjoy bucking. Horses with that tendency are bred to highlight that quality. One such horse of Cody’s stood out. “You could just tell he loved to buck. And when he’d run by you after he bucked you off, he seemed to be laughing.”

Cody recently also started bull riding. The object is the same: to try to stay on the bull for eight seconds before he throws you off; and then to get out of the way before he gores you. It’s not something Cody will continue to do. “Bull riders are hardcore,” he says. “I’ve seen a 2,000-pound bull stomp a guy, and he got up and walked away.” All rodeo events require that kind of stoicism. The phrase is “cowboy up.” You hide your pain, regardless of how bad it is. And there will be pain in the rodeo, no matter the event. “It’s not whether you’ll get hurt, but when and how bad” is a truism among rodeo riders, Cody says. In fact, he had a friend who was killed.

That danger causes a Christian to ponder whether it’s OK to put himself at such risk. “The question is where to draw the line between fun and stupidity,” Cody says. That line is pretty high for him. “I’ve popped my shoulder out of the socket and popped fingers out numerous times. That is stupid. But then, I could be drinking or smoking pot, or doing a lot of worse things.”

Cody has a larger reason for being a fool in that hazardous, gritty world. He’s a fool for Christ. “The rodeo is a place to get drunk and find women afterward. I meet up with a lot of immoral people. I see it as a way to minister,” he says. And he can do that much better as a participant. Many rodeos won’t let non-entrants “behind the chutes.” His witnessing for Christ from rodeo to rodeo has earned him the good-natured nickname Circuit Rider, like the circuit-riding preachers of pioneer days.

And as good as the adrenaline rush is, he says, “saving souls is much more fun, a much bigger adrenaline rush than riding bareback.”

Tara Kamps, 22. Rock climber. New Mexico.

Tara Kamps, 22, clings to a rock face on a mountain in West Virginia, where she often comes to climb. Tara is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Gallup, N.M. But she has spent much of the past five years in Michigan, at Calvin College, where she’s an English major. And she travels frequently throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and the Southwest to do the sports she loves.

In West Virginia Tara and a handful of friends are top-rope climbing: At some previous time anchors were bolted into the cliff (or wall or ledge) by a professional climber. Now the first order of business is to hike around the cliff to the top and drop a doubled rope over the edge. Back at the bottom, the climbers use the already-existing anchors and the newly dropped rope, along with crevices in the rock for toe- and hand-holds, to climb the rock face.

“I love being outside,” Tara says. “I love the feeling of pushing myself really hard to accomplish something.” That’s why, for her, rock climbing takes its place beside sea (open water) kayaking, mountain biking, snowboarding, downhill skiing, canoeing, and the slightly more sedate backpacking. She even leads groups of Calvin students, sometimes faculty and staff too, on overnight trips in some of those sports. Tara credits her high school experience as a facilitator at Rehoboth Christian School’s ropes course for having helped her hone the leadership skills she now uses on those trips.

For Tara, an additional attraction is the camaraderie group climbing provides. “It’s a social thing. And we encourage, push, challenge each other in a healthy way.”

Tara insists that the kind of climbing she does is “fairly safe, if you take precautions.”

“For me, a huge part of the attraction is being out in nature and enjoying God’s creation,” she says. And “there’s an adrenaline rush. I would fall into that category. I’m addicted to it!”

Lindsey Scheltema, 17. Motocross racer. Michigan.

Now a senior at South Christian High in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a member of Covenant CRC there, Lindsey Scheltema became interested in motorcycles at age 8. That’s when her dad, who’s loved and owned motorcycles since his teenage days, bought a small one for Lindsey’s brother. “I ended up taking over the bike,” Lindsey says. Three years later she joined the world of motocross (“MX”) racing.

A motocross bike is a small, off-road motorcycle with a fairly small engine. Races take place on courses full of hills, sharp curves, and other obstacles that test the riders’ skill.

Lindsey now races in the MX amateur national series, which has sent her to Tennessee, Texas, and California. When at home in Michigan, she trains at a gym and practices with friends. That “helps you learn how to handle your bike with other racers on the track, and you can get a better feel for what race day will be like,” says Lindsey.

She’s passionate about motocross. “When most of your life is taken up by one thing, it almost can become an addiction,” she says. It’s an addiction, though, that Lindsey feels has brought her closer to God. She believes the discipline of racing has helped her be more disciplined in her relationship with God. Lindsey notes that at the racing nationals she also gets to hear “incredible sermons with motocross illustrations” from Kevin Cozad. Cozad is himself a racer, but also a pastor and the leader of the “MXers for Jesus.” The program encourages and nurtures Christian bikers and witnesses to non-Christians.

Lindsey knows her sport is dangerous, and she has gotten hurt “due to misjudgments, not paying full attention, certain track obstacles, and other racers.” But, she insists, “risks are taken by everyone, every day. Fewer people die racing motocross in a year than get killed in car accidents and by gunshots every day.” And she notes, “I’m not scared to take a risk knowing that God will be right there by my side.”

Steve Buys, 20; Matt Korthuis, 20; Jeremy Triemstra, 21; Kyle Van Strien, 20. Enduro car racing. Michigan.

A long, invisible line from Lynden, Wash., through Denver, to Kalamazoo and Portage, Mich., unites the hometowns of these four Calvin College students. But there’s nothing imaginary about their friendship or their shared new love of enduro racing.

Enduro (from “endurance”) is a form of amateur stock car racing that involves normal four-cylinder cars, modified for safety. Drivers must wear a helmet and a fire suit.

The track is short (3/8 of a mile, or 0.6 km) and the speeds turtle-like by professional racing standards (55-60 mph on the straightaways, or 90-100 km/h). But races range from 100 to 200 laps (are we dizzy yet?), which means they last two or three hours. That’s where endurance comes in. Staying power is also required because a race consists of as many as 170 cars maneuvering up to five abreast around the small track while trying to avoid serious collisions.

Even so, it’s essentially a demolition derby. At the end of a race there may be 30 cars left intact.

“The crazy thing is, there are no caution flags when accidents occur,” says Kyle Van Strien. “Instead, racing continues until a driver is in a dangerous position, then the red flag is thrown and the driver’s allowed to get out of the car and off the tracks. When a car breaks down on the track, it’s left there. As you can imagine, by the end of the race there are a lot of cars on the track, which means that all the cars left running have a lot to dodge.”

“We have a 1990 Ford and a 1994 Chevy Cavalier that we converted into race cars,” Kyle explains. The Kalamazoo Speedway, where they race, set up the enduro races to get a broader spectrum of people racing and watching the races.

As motor sports go, enduro isn’t terribly expensive, though the four friends need sponsors in order to buy, convert, and maintain their cars.

“It’s an extreme rush, no doubt about it!” Matt Korthuis says. “The quantity of split-second decisions you make is absolutely insane, and when you know that making a wrong decision could end you up in a wall or upside down, the rush is multiplied.” Kyle did flip his car. During his second race “I got nudged into the front-stretch wall,” he recalls, “and flipped up onto my side and upside down. The car slid about 20 yards down the front stretch on its roof. I didn’t have time to be scared, but after sitting upside down for a minute I realized that gas was pouring through the floor and into my helmet and on my fire suit.” That scared him. Still hanging upside down, he struggled to get his harness off and promptly fell onto his head. He was shaken but not really hurt. He’s thankful a rescue worker reached him then and pulled him out of the car.

Jeremy Triemstra has brought his girlfriend, parents, brothers, friends, and even his grandparents to see a race. “They all loved it,” he says. His grandparents “were a little concerned” for his safety, but he assured them he wouldn’t get hurt.

Steve Buys has so far driven only one race, but it was one exhilarating race. “Before the race I could feel my heart bumping harder and harder. I said a lot of short prayers, but my nerves couldn’t be calmed. When the flags waved I couldn’t even feel my body, I was so excited.” He settled in after a few laps, but afterward, he says, “I couldn’t help but laugh and smile for the longest time, it was just such a rush.”

All four of the friends are convinced that their racing is not incompatible with their faith.

Steve says, “We have definitely made some friendships with our co-racers, and they can tell what God is doing in our lives.” Matt adds, “I think God smiles when he sees me using the engineering brain he gave me, when troubleshooting a broken car. And I also think that we’re able to bring glory to God just as any other athlete can by using the skills and talents God has blessed us with.”

Devyn Dennison, 17. Rodeo calf roper, barrel racer. New Mexico.

Devyn Dennison, a Navajo student at Rehoboth Christian School in Gallup, N.M., is a staunch defender of the rodeo. Though she loves it, “it wasn’t a choice,” she says. “My family has done it for three generations. I was born into it.” And she’s good at it. The weekend before The Banner talked with her, she and her sister won $8,000 at the Indian National finals.

The calf roping Devyn does, called breakaway roping, requires lightning reflexes and precision hand-eye coordination. The horse starts from behind a barrier, giving the calf a head start, then gallops to a position where the rider can throw. The rope encircles the calf, the catch is made, the horse plants its front legs, and the rope breaks away from the saddle horn. When that happens, it’s over, all in a flash. Devyn’s best time at the Indian Nationals was 2.7 seconds. She sees her horse as a participating athlete. That’s true in barrel racing too, which demonstrates not only her skill as a rider, but how fast and agile her horse is.

The rodeo is so much a part of her life that she has never thought about how the calves might be reacting to this treatment or about the rodeo culture in general. “The animals are bred to do this,” she says. “They aren’t wild animals, and there are rules and regulations about how the animals are supposed to be treated.” She’s convinced that a Christian can participate for the glory of God. As for the risk, she’s philosophical. “Even if I do get hurt, it’s up to God to decide if I should die or live.”

Kyle Folkema, 20, BMX dirt jumping. Michigan.

Like Lindsey Scheltema, Kyle Folkema’s sport has “MX” in its name, but there are major differences. The “B” stands for bicycle, not motorcycle. Kyle rides a small, 20-inch hand-braked bike with a long front end designed for racing or for stunt riding on flat ground, 12-foot vertical ramps, dirt jumps (earthen ramps), or ramps originally developed for skateboarding.

Kyle, a Calvin College student, is from Fremont, Mich., where his family has a dairy farm. When in fifth or sixth grade, he built dirt jumps at the farm in an area that was previously the family garden. “I got sick of picking weeds, I guess,” he jokes.

Most of Kyle’s jumps are now 5 or 6 feet tall, and there’s a 10-foot gap over which he must jump to a landing. He has long since used up all the space available to him.

“I like to hit multiple jumps in a row,” he says, referred to in BMX lingo as a “rhythm section.” “There’s nothing like flowing from one jump to another, just blasting, not even necessarily doing tricks, just smooth, like butter.” Whether doing difficult tricks or a rhythm section, the key is to make it look effortless.

Most BMX riders now learn to ride at skateparks, says Kyle. There are three within a half hour from the farm, so once he got his license to drive, he started visiting them. “That opened up a whole new world, “ he says. While still in high school, Kyle was appointed to a committee working to get a skatepark in Fremont.

Unlike some BMXers with images to uphold as rebel loners, Kyle relishes meeting many new people at the skateparks. “I’m not too big into riding alone. I like to hang out when I ride, talk about whatever, crack jokes, and fly through the air.” He has since visited skateparks in places as far from his home as Chicago, Cleveland, and Louisville, Ky. And now, during summers, he teaches kids at Spring Hill Camp in Evart, Mich., how to ride.

The faster he can ride and jump, the better Kyle likes it. Skill, practice, and self-confidence are crucial to staying safe. When there <I>is <I>pain, he thinks it’s worth it. But sometimes the tragically unexpected happens. His roommate was knocked unconscious at the Fremont skatepark. “He started convulsing, foaming at the mouth, and bleeding everywhere,” Kyle says. Kyle told the gathered crowd they should pray. “One of my friends whom I had always known to hate God and proclaim to be an athiest said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ We all stood gathered around waiting for the ambulance and prayed.” The roommate survived with a concussion and slight temporary memory loss. “I like to think that if I just changed one kid’s mind about God a little bit, then I’m doing what God has called me to do,” says Kyle. “A lot of skaters/bikers really don’t want to be preached at, they just need good friends that are good influences. My hope is they see God through my actions and wonder what it's all about.”

Timothy Selles, 17. Snowboarding. Alberta.

Tim Selles is a first-year student at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, but his home, and snowboarding territory, is in western Canada’s Rocky Mountains, in Lethbridge, Alberta.

“Snowboarding is quite different from skiing because instead of having two skis to ride on while facing the bottom of the hill, you have one board to ride on and you’re facing sideways instead of directly down,” Tim explains. “It has a far different feel than skiing. The reason I prefer it is because I also enjoy skateboarding and wakeboarding, and these sports require similar skills and stances on the boards. Overall, it's just a different feel from skiing.”

There are two ways to snowboard, Tim says. “You can just ride down the hill, or you can try tricks while riding. Things like jumps and rails to slide on can be found at almost every ski hill, and there’s a wide variety of difficulty levels for runs on a ski hill.” Tim enjoys riding at his own pace, “taking any jumps available and just taking my time and enjoying the view.” He’s not always out to test the limits. “I ride all kinds of different slopes, from the easiest bunny hill to some of the steepest, most challenging hills. It just depends what kind of ride I and my friends are in the mood for.”

As for potential danger, as with other extreme sports, “snowboarding is all about knowing your own limits and then always being a little more safe than you think you need to be,” says Tim. “Avalanches aren’t a concern to me because ski patrol groups will have potentially dangerous sections roped off so no one can enter. If anyone does go in, then they’re just not being very wise. I think about the fact that I could get hurt or killed in the same way I think about it every time I drive a car.”

Tim loves the beauty of the snow-covered mountains. “It’s really an excellent way to enjoy God's good creation. I find it really relaxing and worshipful, and it can potentially be a form of witness,” Tim says. But it’s also “just plain fun. The thrill of trying new tricks, learning how to carve down a hill, or landing a big jump is really intense. I could compare landing a big trick in snowboarding to scoring a big goal in an important hockey game. When I land a big trick I feel that I've really accomplished something. Even if it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to anyone else, it feels good to know I'm capable of doing it and just enjoying the abilities God has given me.”

Tim thinks further about that. “God gave everyone abilities, and it’s only right to use them to his glory. There's also a pretty rough crowd in the snowboarding scene, just like any other extreme sport, and the possibility for evangelism is really there. I've heard of a few places that run snowboard schools/youth centers with the focus of teaching kids to snowboard responsibly and at the same time introducing them to Christ and strengthening their faith lives. I would just like to add that when many people see extreme sports, they might think it's silly or useless, but I very deeply believe that there are possibilities for the expansion of the kingdom of God into every area of life, including extreme sports.”

Sam Yohannes, 32. Skateboarder. California.

If there’s an average resident of San Jose, Calif., Sam Yohannes isn’t it. He was born in Ethiopia, as a child came with his family as refugees to the United States, then was moved and settled in San Jose by the State Department. A devout Christian who always enjoyed kids, he became an evangelical youth pastor part time. Knowing he was looking for full-time work, an aunt of one of the kids told him about a job opening in Granite Springs CRC, Lincoln, Calif. Until then he'd never heard of the Christian Reformed Church. But “all I needed to know was it was Bible-based and Jesus was loved,” he says. “Simple choice for me.”

Skateboarding is a popular sport among the 5th through 12th graders Sam ministers to. There are skate parks, but parking lots are also popular--until store owners or the police chase kids away. Not long ago Sam decided he needed to learn to skateboard to meet the kids on their own turf. “I had to come to their field,” he explains. “It was because of Jesus I had to skateboard. The kids know I care, and I’m trying to understand and relate to them by showing them love.”

Sam has been a runner all his life. “I can run with my eyes closed,” he says. But at age 32, learning to balance comfortably, let alone gracefully, on a fast-moving sophisticated board with wheels is a wholly different challenge. “Trying skateboarding is fun, but I need to be very careful,” he says.

Bradley De Haan, 31. Mountain biker. Ecuador.

Brad De Haan grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and went to Dordt College (Sioux Center, Iowa). He has since traveled to far-flung places and has had adventures most people only dream of. He now lives in Ecuador with his Ecuadoran wife, Erika, and baby daughter. In earlier days he was not an athlete and not very brave, he says. “It has always been hard for me to push myself and do new things. It was hard for me to get in front of a group of people and talk, to leave my country the first time, to get married, to meet my neighbors and tell them about the love of Jesus.”

But it was particularly through learning to mountain bike--which he also found hard--that God began to change him. “I have learned to enjoy doing new things and to not be afraid of them,” he says. Since marrying and becoming a father Brad is less interested in mountain biking than in hiking, the latter which his wife likes to do too. But he can still say, “I feel that high-risk sports have opened the door for me to live a high-risk life, a life in which my personal ego is not that important, and I can risk loving someone who is hard to love and share the news of Christ with someone who has not yet heard or understood. It is possible to do high-risk sports for the wrong reasons, but mountain biking has been a stepping-stone for me.”

He adds this unique perspective: “Mountain biking can serve the same purpose that fasting served for Jesus and many others: facing the physical challenge not for the purpose of endangering our bodies but into freeing our spirits from earthly fears and desires to better serve the Father.”

Joel Adams, 48. White-water rafting, scuba diving, spelunking. Pennsylvania, Michigan.

Joel Adams, 48, attributes his still-acute sense of adventure to growing up reading stories by Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, and Mark Twain. He now teaches computer science at Calvin College, but he grew up on a farm two hours from the white water of the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania--white water his church youth group explored on rafting outings.

During and after college Joel worked at InterVarsity camps in Ontario’s Muskoka/Georgian Bay area, where he got a taste of white-water canoeing (more dangerous than rafting). During graduate school Joel was no computer nerd. At meetings of the Pittsburgh Grotto Society he learned the climbing techniques needed for spelunking (exploring caves). Soon after he also took up scuba diving.

Joel sees a parallel to his computer science vocation and these extreme sports. “One of the things I like about computer science is that it keeps advancing and changing, which makes it a challenge to keep on top of, much less teach. So rafting a river, exploring a cave, or diving a site are enjoyable, at least in part, because of the novelty. Each is different every time.”

The speed and the unexpected in white-water rafting provide the “rush.” “Rafting is fun the way roller coasters are fun,” Joel says. “By contrast, diving and spelunking are actually relaxing.” Diving, in fact, “is a bit magical.” “Imagine yourself floating between heaven and earth,” says Adams. He envisions diving as a kind of underwater flying. “You look down and see the ocean floor 30 feet below you; you look up and see the surface 50 feet above you. It’s kind of like being able to fly like a bird, only in water instead of the air. And if you stop ‘flapping your wings’ you hang suspended instead of falling. It makes me marvel every time.”

Adams firmly believes that, in each of these sports, preparation covers a multitude of sins, including preventing accidentally killing yourself. “Training and practice help you keep your head under pressure,” he says, giving an example. His most recent diving trip was to Iceland, in a lake with 34 F water formed by a melting glacier. His rental equipment included an ill-fitting mouthpiece. Toward the end of the frigid dive, his lips grew numb. “I was having trouble keeping a seal around my mouthpiece, and I was breathing in water each time I inhaled,” he says. “The first time I got a throatful of water, it was scary. But my training kicked in.” Though afraid, he instinctively put his tongue to the roof of his mouth to block water from entering his throat but still let air flow in around the sides of his tongue, just as he'd been taught to do. When that technique worked, it calmed him so he could finish the dive as planned.

Joel is keen on his three sports because of what each allows him to see of creation. “I’ve seen rock formations in caves whose beauty . . . left me awestruck at the treasures God has hidden in the earth. The amazing complexity of a coral reef’s ecosystem shouts out the sheer extravagance of God's creativity. Few things bring to life Psalm 29:3-4 (“The voice of the Lord thunders over the mighty waters . . .”) like white-water rafting. To paraphrase Eric Liddell, ‘God made me for a purpose and gave [us] the gifts to engage in these activities. When I enjoy these wonders of his creation, I imagine God smiling in delight.’”

for discussion

  1. Marian writes: “You’re an aficionado of one of the ‘extreme sports,’ and that automatic fight-or-flight reaction is the sought-after ‘adrenaline rush.’ It’s one of the things that keeps you coming back for more and more of these crazy, risky, exhilarating activities.” Are extreme-sports enthusiasts wired differently from the rest of us, or can we relate to their love for these kinds of experiences? Give some examples.
  2. Consider this exchange:
    Marian: “Should a Christian treat animals like that?”
    Cody: “I don’t have a real good answer to that… Not hurting the animals is a big issue. You can’t have sharp spurs. If you draw blood, you’re disqualified.”
    Marian: “[Cody’s] also convinced that some horses enjoy bucking.”
    What do you make of that? Does our God-given mastery over animals allow us to pester them for our amusement?
  3. Cody admits, “It’s not whether you’ll get hurt, but when and how bad.” He had a friend who was killed. Other athletes mentioned in this article also admit that what they do presents a significant risk to life and limb. How much risk-taking is allowable for a Christian? In what instances?
  4. Lindsey argues that her sport, while dangerous, brings her closer to God and allows her to witness to non-Christian kids. Do you buy that as sufficient reason for her pursuing her “addiction”?
  5. From your own life experiences, what would you want to tell these young people? What did you learn from them?

About the Author

Marian Van Til was a founding member of Jubilee Fellowship CRC, St. Catharines, Ontario. She and her husband live in Youngstown, N.Y., where Marian works as a writer, editor, and church musician. Her first book, George Frideric Handel: A Music Lover’s Guide, was released in June.

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Wailnkg in the presence of giants here. Cool thinking all around!

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