10 Professors Crazy for Extreme Sports

Stereotypically, brains and brawn are often seen as mutually exclusive attributes; however, certain college professors didn’t read the rulebook. Instead of arguing over whether the pen is mightier than the sword, they picked up both and cycled, surfed or skated off with them. It may be an unlikely list, but that’s what makes it all the more fascinating. Read on for ten extreme sports-loving professors.

10. Francis Slakey – Mountain Climbing and Surfing

Francis Slakey – Mountain Climbing and Surfing

Georgetown University lecturer and physicist Francis Slakey is a full-blown adrenaline junkie. In 1997 he set out on an incredible 12-year journey that saw him become the first individual ever to reach the top of the highest single mountain on every continent and surf all of the world’s oceans as well. In 1992 Slakey obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and then in 2007 he founded Georgetown’s program on science in the public interest. More recently, in 2012, he published To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes, about his danger-fraught but ultimately life-changing mission. “Most decisions we make on a typical day are absolutely inconsequential,” he has said. “What I’ve faced over the years in climbing have been really significant moments that aren’t just a physical test – they are also mental and spiritual, and they are significant and transformative.”

9. Jim Wahl – BMX Riding

 Jim Wahl – BMX Riding

Jim Wahl is an oral biology and biochemistry professor at the University of Nebraska. He’s also a BMX fanatic known as “Papa Wahl” by the other – younger – riders. Wahl started riding when he was nine. “I just never found anything more interesting to do,” he has explained. Then at the age of 18 he dreamed of making a career out of his love of all things BMX. “I was ready to be a pro racer. I was going to move to California, make a living at it,” he said. Instead, though, Wahl read cell biology at the University of Toledo in Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1993 and completed his Ph.D. in 2000. Since 2003 he’s been teaching at the University of Nebraska, and together with his sons he still races whenever he gets the chance.

8. Jeff Cain – Spartan Racing

Jeff Cain

University of Kentucky pharmacy management professor Jeff Cain is a thrillseeker who competes in grueling Spartan races around the U.S. Cain studied at the University of Kentucky, earning himself a B.B.A, an M.S.E., and eventually a doctor of education degree in 2007. Currently, he in addition serves as the education technology director of the university’s pharmacy college and also conducts scientific research. In 2012 Cain won the first Louisville, Kentucky Stampede competition, and he retained his title in 2013. Cain describes himself as “a former non-runner turned competitive obstacle racer” and maintains his own obstacle course racing blog, On My Way to Sparta. He started the blog to document his preparation for the 2012 Spartan Race in Vermont and keeps it going to educate and inspire “those on their own quest to achieve excellence.”

7. Hugh Herr – Rock Climbing

Hugh Herr – Rock Climbing

Biophysicist and rock climber Hugh Herr is a truly inspirational character. During a 1982 climbing trip, he and another climber got trapped in a heavy snowstorm on Mount Washington, and Herr ended up having to have both of his legs below the knees surgically removed as a result of frostbite. After his accident, Herr took to studying, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in mechanical engineering, before eventually earning his Ph.D. in biophysics at Harvard in 1998. He is now an award-winning biomechatronics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his work focuses on creating incredibly advanced, life-changing prosthetic devices. Using his own specialized inventions, Herr even picked up his climbing career – and got back to just as high a level as he was at before his amputations. In 2011 TIME included Herr on its list of innovative Game Changers, describing him as the “Leader of the Bionic Age.”

6. Thomas Iliffe – Cave Diving

Thomas Iliffe – Cave Diving

A professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston, Thomas Iliffe is also famous around the world as a cave diver – and furthermore he has found around 200 new species. Iliffe earned his master’s degree from Florida State University in 1973, following it up with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 1977. In 1989 he joined the faculty of Texas A&M University at Galveston. And in November 2013 he was made a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Iliffe is an expert on the evolution, biological diversity and conservation of cave-dwelling marine life, and he has won several awards during his prestigious career, including a 2013 National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section Exploration Award.

5. Yung Tae Kim – Skateboarding

Yung Tae Kim – Skateboarding

Yung Tae Kim is a self-described “skateboarding physicist,” “educator” and “digital artist” based in California. Yung got into skateboarding as a teenager growing up in Atlanta. He attained his bachelor’s degree in physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and went on to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yung has been a staff member at Northwestern University, DePaul University and Lake Forest College, and at present he holds an advisory post at Puget Sound Community School. Fed up with traditional education methods, Yung moved on to devise online series “The Physics of Skateboarding,” which helps skaters consider the science behind their much-loved sport. In 2010 Yung worked on sports video game Tony Hawk: Shred. And in 2011 he gave a TED talk entitled “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?” “There are no grades,” he explained. “The goal in skateboarding is to learn the trick. The reward… is landing the trick.”

4. Kurt Refsnider – Mountain Biking

Kurt Refsnider – Mountain Biking

When he’s not lecturing at Prescott College in Arizona or researching glaciers in the Rockies or Arctic, geologist, adventurer and mountain biking enthusiast Kurt Refsnider takes part in extreme endurance races across North America. In 2011 Refsnider won “self-supported” ultra event the Tour Divide, which follows the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route stretching 2,745 miles from Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Impressively, he is also the current record holder in the 300-mile and 750-mile Arizona Trail races as well as being a board member of the Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance. Refsnider attained his Ph.D. in geology from the University of Colorado in 2011 and then joined the staff at Prescott, where he specializes in Earth science. Mixing business and pleasure, perhaps, his courses include one titled “Geology through Bikepacking.”

3. Paul-Marie Cathelinais – Skimboarding

Paul-Marie Cathelinais – Skimboarding

Paul-Marie Cathelinais is a Dominican priest, philosophy professor and skimboarding enthusiast. When he’s not surfing the shallower parts of the Cap-Ferret headland in the French region of Gironde, Father Cathelinais can be found at Bordeaux’s St. Paul Monastery. He describes Cap Ferret as “one of the most beautiful places in France” and uses the escape as something almost like a form of meditation. Cathelinais – who studied at IPC – Facultés Libres de Philosophie et de Psychologie in Paris – initially quit skimboarding after he joined the monastery. However, he later picked up the sport once more to break up the monotony of everyday monastery existence. Reportedly, Cathelinais has the full support of his church and is even attempting to reach out to sponsors.

2. Sarah Gerhardt – Surfing

Sarah Gerhardt – Surfing

In 1999, 25-year-old Sarah Gerhardt became the first female surfer to brave notorious Californian big wave spot Mavericks. At the time, Gerhardt was working towards her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Gerhardt’s inspirational tale was told in 2006 documentary One Winter Story. “I liked riding bigger and bigger waves, so I started looking for them and went to Hawaii to ride them. When I heard about Mavericks I knew that I wanted to surf there,” she has explained. Gerhardt completed her Ph.D. in 2003 and now lectures in chemistry at Monterey Peninsula College and Cabrillo College in California. And when she’s not teaching or looking after her children, Gerhardt still occasionally takes on Mavericks, with its 25-foot waves, as well as surfing locally in Santa Cruz.

1. Tom Winter – Skateboarding

Tom Winter – Skateboarding

Silver-haired University of Nebraska classics and religious studies professor Tom Winter turned into an online sensation in 2012 when photos of the 68-year-old skateboarding his way to lectures surfaced on social news site Reddit. “Nine pages of memes and a site I never knew about before yesterday,” he said. “It’s a pretty good photo.” Winter has been skateboarding on campus since 1993, but he only became famous almost 20 years later when a student snapped a photo of the unlikely skater and posted it. “When I starting teaching here in 1970, faculty didn’t get free parking,” Winter explained. He therefore decided that it would be better to park elsewhere, toss a bicycle and later a board in the trunk, and take an alternative route to class. In September 2012 Winter declared that he was retiring. “Stay active. It’s good for you,” he has said.