This morning I attended a New Yorker Festival event titled “Fearless!” which featured rock climber Alex Honnold who is best known for his record-setting, free-solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, multiple world record holding skydiver and base jumper Roberta Mancino who has wingsuit flown over Villarrica, an active volcano in Chile, swimmer Diana Nyad who made history when she swam from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, and high-wire artist Philippe Petit who walked between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974. It was an inspiring group to say the least. The discussion was moderated by David Grann of the New Yorker.

The discussion

First of all, if you aren’t familiar with these people, I encourage you to learn more about them. That introduction barely scratches the surface on their accomplishments, who these people really are, and their inspiring perspectives on the world. Philippe considers himself “a filmmaker who hasn’t made his first film”, Diana tries to be an inspiration, and Alex and Roberta both expressed that they were professionals in their sports. Most of them found their inspiration when they were quite young and formed big dreams from an early age. Diana recalled growing up in Fort Lauderdale during the Cuban Revolution and asking her mother while looking at at the ocean “where is Cuba?” and her mom pointing out to sea and saying, “we are so close you could almost swim there” and a dream was born. Roberta always wanted to fly as child. Alex starting climbing as a kid at climbing gyms and took his mother’s advice “if you are going to do something, do it well” to heart. Philippe’s true creative spirit as an artist started very young and after teaching himself to be a magician at the young age of 6 then moving on to juggling, felt the call of the high-wire as he explains it. He sees the high-wire walking as a form of art.

After some background and stories by each of the panel, the discussion turned more towards how their experiences felt in the moment and whether they experienced fear or adrenaline and how they managed that. There was some discussion about specific risks. Alex climbing El Capitan without a rope, Roberta’s base jumping and flying over an active volcano, concerns of sharks and lethal jellyfish during Diana’s swim from Cuba and Florida, and the obvious risks or walking on a wire between two very tall buildings. Most of them responded that they had worked really hard planning and training for their goals so by the time they got to them they felt quite comfortable. They had prepared well enough and were familiar enough with the task that fear and adrenaline were less of a factor. Alex talked about a study that was done on him to gauge his brain’s “arousal” reaction and how MRIs showed little reaction to what would be considered pretty evocative photos. He credits this to working through his fear responses so that he becomes comfortable and therefore what once seemed outrageous starts to seem less so. That confidence with exposure seemed to resonate with other panelists, as well.

At a certain point the discussion started to veer into a more philosophical direction. There was discussion about having the privilege of being able to think about more than just survival in our daily lives and how we choose to use our time. All the panelists responded to a question about whether their time outside of their sport felt boring by saying they don’t tend to feel bored or waste time. They have other things they enjoy, sure, but they don’t spend time sitting around and being bored. They fill their days. They want to “live life to the fullest.” Most of them expressed that they felt their sport was an expression of themselves or art or helped them to better know themselves. They all felt that they would be doing their sport or art until they die. Being at different points in their life in terms of age didn’t seem to influence their answers other than those on the panel that were older talking about goals shifting. Diana swam from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64 so I can’t imagine what a scaled back goal will mean for her.

My takeaways

It was a really engaging discussion and their personalities made it very entertaining, as well. The one resounding message that I took away is the power of intention and resolve. Diana told a story about being covered with lethal jellyfish and surviving.Her doctors called it a miracle. She credits her resolve to live. This message of tenacity and perseverance resonates with me and is something that I feel I have experienced, albeit to a lesser degree, as well. (I won’t be climbing El Capitan anytime soon.) As athletes, I feel that we all have. It’s something that is acknowledged in that saying about running the first 20 miles of a marathon with your legs and the last 6.2 with your heart and/or mind. We know that mental training can have an impact on pain tolerance, confidence and motivation when things get tough. I am starting to acknowledge mental influence in my strength training especially lifting, too. I truly believe in the power of the mind and it’s ability to influence our body’s physical reactions.

The power of the mind can be an asset and positive influence, but it can also hinder us. How you perceive, process, and react to situations every day influences your decisions. All of those little decisions you make on the daily which I like to call “micro decisions” are what make up the majority of your life. So my practical application of what I took away from this discussion would be to not just think about mental training for your athletic goals, but to think about it in the context of your entire life. What are you afraid of? What are you really scared of? How is that holding you back from your goals? How can you move past your fear? I think President Franklin D. Roosevelt summed it up quite succinctly. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”


Some further reading and watching about or by the panelists:

The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber

This Woman Is One of the World’s Most Daring Wingsuit Fliers

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