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The Rise of Superman

New book looks into the science of "flow" and sports progression

| posted on March 18, 2014

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Have you ever wondered why it took nearly a half century of surfing—from the sport’s Duke-led resurgence to Noll and company’s charging in 1957—for people to work up the courage to ride Waimea, but now it seems like big-wave barriers are broken down each winter? If so, then The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Performance is here to answer your questions.

Author Steven Kotler spent a decade researching what drives action sports athletes—who have far outpaced their mainstream sports brethren in terms of progression—to push themselves and their specialties to unheard of new heights. His theory is that the Lairds and Ian Walshes of the world are better able to tap into “flow” than us mere mortals, a condition that we enter when we shut our brains off and react to the moment. The Rise of Superman is full of scientific explanations about why flow helps athletes perform at their peak, why this is on the upswing in recent decades, and how almost anybody can better tap their ultimate potential. 




An excerpt from the preface:

For the surfers who made their names riding giants in Oahu, Maverick’s was the wave they refused to believe in, the wave that threatened their territorial hold on unparalleled excellence. But the rumors didn’t stop, and something had to be done. So in December of 1994, when a monstrous Aleutian storm sent furious pulses down the California coast, three of the world’s most famous Hawaiian big-wave riders—Ken Bradshaw, Brock Little, and Mark Foo—boarded red-eye flights to San Francisco to see for themselves.

Of the trio, Foo was arguably the most well known. This wasn’t just about talent. All three were ferocious watermen, but Foo was equally ferocious about fame. In the late 1980s, when he quit the pro tour and decided to make his bones in big surf, his strategy was twofold. Until his arrival, big wave riders had taken a no-frills, shortest-path-out- of-danger approach to their craft. Wipeouts were avoided at all costs, because wipeouts could kill. But Foo carried his small-wave slasher’s style into the larger surf. He took bigger risks and—the other portion of his strategy — he bragged about them too. “If you want to ride the ultimate wave,” said Foo — as often as possible, always when there were journalists around — “you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Foo cultivated fame. His Rolodex contained the names and numbers of the world’s best surf photographers. Rarely did he venture into the waves without making a few phone calls first. On December 23, 1994, he didn’t have to bother. Throughout the 1990s, Maverick’s fearsome reputation had been growing, but the winter of ’94 brought some of the biggest waves in history to California’s coast. December’s four weeks would soon be dubbed “the month full of monsters” and the media couldn’t resist. By the time Foo, Bradshaw, and Little made it out to the lineup, there was a helicopter buzzing overhead and three boats filled with photographers parked just outside the impact zone.

Despite the hype, that morning turned out to be disappointing. Few big beasts rolled through, not the bedlam that had been expected.

This changed a few minutes before noon. Black lines appeared on the horizon, and someone onshore screamed, “Set!” The events that would make this date famous in history were only, horribly, moments away.

The gentlemen from Hawaii wasted no time. Both Foo and Bradshaw started paddling for the second wave of the set. According to surfer’s code, because Bradshaw was positioned deeper — that is, closer to the wave’s curl — the ride was his. To be sure, there were plenty of days when Bradshaw would have staked that claim — hell, there was a river of bad blood between Bradshaw and Foo—but during the past year the two had become close. To honor that friendship, in a decision he’ll spend the rest of his life second-guessing, Bradshaw pulled out of the wave.

Foo dropped in.

Ironically, the wave wasn’t much by local standards. Faces there have been measured to eighty feet—the size of an apartment complex. This one was merely a house. But surf legend Buzzy Trent said it best: “Waves are not measured in feet and inches, they are measured in increments of fear.” And Maverick’s, no matter the size, is the stuff of nightmares. Just the hydraulics alone are ridiculous. In seconds, the wave can radically change shape: wall, drop, lift, kink, shimmy, shake. And for first-time riders, there’s really no telling what’s coming next.

In this particular case, the wave jacked up and the bottom fell out. In the resulting chop, Foo dug a rail and pitched himself head first into hell. For a moment, it looked like he had enough speed to punch straight through the wave, but he didn’t dive deep enough. The curl caught him, snatching him up, hurling him over the falls. In photographs of the event, Foo can be seen just then, in ghostly silhouette, trapped inside the very belly of the beast.

These photographs are the last time anyone saw Mark Foo alive. Exactly what killed him, no one knows. Maybe he hit his head on the reef and blacked out; maybe he snagged his leash on a rock and couldn’t pull free. Whatever the case, his body was found an hour later, floating facedown in the water outside the harbor entrance.

Word of his death traveled fast and far. Newspaper stories, magazine articles, television features—the coverage kept coming. “The publicity surrounding the event was unprecedented,” writes Jason Borte at Surfline. “The story quickly spread around the world. Although Foo wasn’t around to enjoy it, it was the sort of fame he always wanted.” It was, without question, the most public moment in surf history. It was also something of an “I told you so” moment.

Since the early 1980s, action and adventure athletes had been pushing into increasingly dangerous territory. If for no other reason than the law of large numbers and the frailties of the human body, it was only a matter of time. Everybody knew, sooner or later, somebody was going to die. “The fact that someone had died surfing Maverick’s was a shock,” wrote big-wave rider Grant Washburn in Inside Maverick’s: Portrait of a Monster Wave, “but not surprising. That it was Foo, one of the most experienced and prepared athletes in the sport, was hard to grasp. He was one of the best, and that left us all more vulnerable than we had hoped.”

Thus the plot thickens. The theory of evolution says we exist to pass along our genes. Fundamental biology tells us that survival is the name of the game. So potent is this dictate that in 1973 the psychologist Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, arguing that everything we think of as civilization — from the cities we build to the religions we believe in — is nothing beyond an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the awful knowledge of our own mortality. A chorus of researchers has since seconded this opinion. These days, scientists consider the fear of death the fundamental human motivator, the most primary of our primary drives.

Then Mark Foo died.

Before his passing, it could be said that the consequences of tickling the edge were still somewhat unknown. Certainly, others had died for these dreams. Mountain climbers went by the dozen. Skydivers too. And skiers? In Chamonix alone, nearly sixty perished every year. Somehow, though, there had always been a way to rationalize these events. Inexperience, bad equipment, bad weather, freak accident, whatever. Mark Foo, though, was a household name. When he went, he took plausible deniability with him.

Evolutionary science tells us his extremely well-publicized death should have produced a serious downtick in the pursuit of the dumb and the dangerous. Athletes, realizing their lives really were on the line, should have started backing away from the line. But that’s not what happened.

Not even close.

In 1994, the number of big-wave riders in the world totaled less than a hundred. These days, it’s well into the thousands. The same holds for the extreme wing of every other action and adventure category. The phenomenon is ubiquitous. Right now, more people are risking their lives for their sports than ever before in history, and, as Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “It is not often that Death is told so clearly to fuck off.”

Trying to explain why this happened is not easy. In the years since Darwin published The Origin of Species, survival and procreation have become the only scientifically acceptable answers to “What is the meaning of life?” This recent upswing in gleeful, wanton abandon pushes hard on these answers, challenging foundational notions in biology, psychology, and philosophy. This, then, is the gauntlet thrown by the likes of Mark Foo, the very far frontier, the razor’s edge of our knowledge, the uneasy and somewhat spiritual truth that for an ever-burgeoning segment of the human population, these sports really are worth dying for.

Buy The Rise of Superman now.