Upfront: In the Minds of Champions

Four adventurous women embrace the challenges in extreme sports. Many of us enjoy learning to ski, swimming laps, running half marathons and carrying a gym bag full of paraphernalia for other athletic pursuits and leisure sports and games. Not only do we want to stay in shape and maintain our health, but we know how much fun it is to make new friends on the tennis court or hiking a mountain trail. Sure, those extracurricular activities are fun. But when it comes to climbing a 14er or learning to fly a hot air balloon, many of us take our hiking boots and go home. After all, racing a car or kayaking a whitewater river is risky business, and that’s where our fears bump right up against the realities of doing an extreme sport.

A few of our female friends are taking bigger chances when it comes time to learn a new sport. They adopt the go-forit attitude, the take-no-prisoners approach to getting fit. These stories are about women who have chosen to learn some fun and games that are inherently dicey. Come along as we meet four women who have stared fear in the face … and won.

Meet Danelle Ballengee, world champion multisport adventure racer; Dr. Carol Rymer Davis, gas air balloonist and the first female winner of the Gordon Bennett Cup; Sherry Ray, driver of vintage race cars; and Marion Downs, tennis player, Danskin mini-triathlon swimmer, skier and sky diver.

The attitude of a champion Danelle Ballengee, 35, understands the sacrifices and risks involved in doing what she loves — adventure racing — as a full-time job. Before becoming a world champion in adventure racing, a fastgrowing sport that incorporates trail running, mountain biking, paddling, climbing, rollerblading and mountaineering, Ballengee set the Colorado 14ers Female Speed Record in 2000 by climbing all 53 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in under 15 days. She went through six pairs of shoes. Ballengee was also a champion snowshoe racer, winning 103 races in 11 years, including an undefeated streak from 1997 through 2001. She has asked herself many times during her endurance competitions, “Why am I doing this?” And her answer is always the same: “I love the people in the sport and also being outside in different environments. I like pushing myself, using my body and seeing how far it will go. To do well or win sometimes requires a lot of suffering. It’s definitely not a walk in the park.” But Ballengee’s endurance, mental fortitude and fitness were tested to the extreme this past December when she slipped on some ice while running on a trail with her dog Taz in Moab, Utah. Ballengee fell, bouncing off three successive rock faces, falling the equivalent of a two-story building and landing amazingly on her feet. But the impact of the fall crushed her pelvis, causing severe internal bleeding. She crawled a quarter of a mile in five and a half hours, while dragging her injured left leg to a puddle so she could use the cap of her water bottle to scoop the melted snow into her mouth.

Ballengee says, “When I was falling, I kept thinking, when am I going to land? It all happened in a split second, and when I landed I thought, whoa, I’m alive. I’m not paralyzed. I thought, it’s going to be a long walk out of here until I realized I couldn’t stand up or move my left leg.” She and her dog huddled together through two freezing nights and three days until she was finally rescued, thanks to Taz running down the trail in half-hour stretches to find help on the third day. Ballengee says her fitness saved her life, as did all the training she had had at staying awake in endurance sports. She practiced mini head sit-ups to stay awake at night and shouted all day for help. She rubbed her feet as much as she could reach them to stave off frostbite, despite her excruciatingly painful broken pelvis.
Ballengee lost one third of her blood, suffered frostbite on both feet and went through six hours of surgery on her pelvis, where the doctors inserted multiple screws and plates. She is currently in a wheelchair and has to learn to walk again, but the doctors are hopeful for a full recovery. Whether she will be able to compete again at the world-class level she attained before is still a question, but despite the constant pain and setbacks she remains optimistic.

She explains, “All I cared about was living. So I think about that. I have these frustrations. I miss being able to go outside and run, being in the woods. Daily tasks take forever, taking a shower, getting dressed. I’ve stayed pretty positive. I think I’m healing up; it’s just going to take time.” But Ballengee remains undeterred in her passion for her sport and the outdoors: “To use my body and to push myself and to see how fast I can go, that’s always been appealing to me. And I like being able to see some unique places in the world.” And she knows how to deal with fear and the jitters before a competition. Last year Ballengee participated in a five-day solo adventure race consisting of running, biking, rope climbing and kayaking in Costa Rica in a jungle known for its poisonous snakes. She recalls, “We were mountain biking on rugged jeep roads on trails that aren’t on the map. The night before the race I was so nervous I was going to get lost or I was going to get bitten by a snake. In a way it was scary because I was just out there alone, but at the same time it was exciting.”

Ballengee’s continuing passion, drive and positive attitude continue to show through. “One of the things I’ve realized since the accident is just how grateful I am to be a part of the running and adventure racing community. Even though we’re all out there racing against each other, we’re all great friends. There’s a close bond. The support that I’ve had and the encouragement has really helped a lot,” she says. “I’m able to accept the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen, that I don’t know why I fell off the cliff, but either way I try to make the positive of it. Anything that happens to you, you might as well think of the good in it,” she says with a smile. Ballengee understands facing down one’s fears. “In my recovery, things are scary for me. When I got the new wheelchair, I was afraid I’d tip backwards. I was afraid of the ice outside,” she says. To other women, Ballengee offers this advice: “Fears can block people from trying things, and you’ve got to just do it. Start somewhere, and take that first step. Once you do, you get a lot more comfortable with it. It’s going to help you, not hurt you, and you’ll be happy that you did it. It makes your life better, the more capable you are and the more positive you are. People who can do a lot of things are happier; they feel confident that they can tackle the world.”

drCarolRymerDavisDr. Carol Rymer Davis
The goal-oriented athlete Carol Rymer Davis, a Denver radiologist, retired colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve, master ski racer, champion mountain climber and balloonist, has always set goals for herself. “A friend of my parents, a teacher, told me to write down my goals when I was 12 or 13. I wanted to be a doctor, get married, have three kids; I had two, and I wanted to climb Mt. Everest. I flew as high as Mt. Everest in a balloon, so that was fine. I wanted to climb all 53 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, and I did that by the time I was 17,” she says. She became the youngest female to climb all those mountains in Colorado. Davis moved to New Mexico with her husband, John, to complete her residency when they discovered hot air balloons. “I sold my car and rode my bicycle to work so we could buy a $1,000 share in a balloon,” she says. They got their gas balloon licenses in Europe, and in 1996 Richard Abruzzo asked her to fly with him. By 2004 they won the Gordon Bennett, making her the first woman in history to win the most prestigious international balloon championship.

She recalls, “We raced through six hours of drenching heavy rain — it was like the tropics. It poured into the basket. We were just soaked. It was heavy enough that it formed a little lake in the top of the balloon, so we pulled the valve and it would drench us.” About winning, she says, “This was my Olympics. I was on the podium with my gold medal and they played the national anthem, and I cried.” But like the other athletes, she has had to conquer her fears. “I was scared the first time I went ballooning,” she says. “You’re exposed; you feel the basket top is fairly low. I didn’t understand how it worked, so I wasn’t in control, but after a little while it was neat, a nice perspective, like walking over a map.” But she was still afraid of going high in a balloon. “Very early on in my training, I had checked out for a solo flight. It was a very windy day, and I went up quite high without much experience, so I was afraid. The burner wasn’t properly adjusted; propane was dripping on my head. I said to John, ‘I need to address this fear. I’ll do an altitude competition. I’m going to learn everything I possibly can about doing this,’” she recalls.

“We arranged everything, and I went to 18,000 feet. I loved it once I understood about the balloon, that it wasn’t going to fall apart on me. I just loved being in the air, so then I went ahead and made the world altitude record for a female soloist of 31,300 feet,” Davis says. Dr. Carol Rymer DavisAfter 30 years of ballooning, “I feel very in control. I’ve probably had everything go wrong and dealt with it. Sooner or later you’ll have a faster landing than you want,” she says ruefully, about the landing she had in Kansas in a race out of Albuquerque with her ballooning partner, Richard Abruzzo. Davis describes the ordeal: “We were in Kansas and got caught in a downdraft at 2 to 3,000 feet and got caught in a power line. The balloon continued on in the wind, we were caught in a ground line, and the basket went up, and Richard was gone. The basket tilted forward, and I was knocked unconscious. I looked over the side and I couldn’t see him. I’m in the basket by myself, the balloon is shooting up like a rocket, and I can only imagine he was dead, that he’d died in the fall. “I had to deal with the balloon by myself at 12,000 feet. I put myself together and made a perfect approach at 50 mph. I pulled the top and it didn’t open so now I’m this big sail bouncing and dragging along the ground at 50 mph with everything in the basket being torn off and thrown off, so I was getting lighter and lighter. I had the valve open to empty the gas when I went through a power line and a barbed wire fence. I got pushed outside of the basket, and I’m being dragged behind it through another barbed wire fence, and then it stopped.”

Richard ended up 10 miles downwind with a broken wrist, pelvis and ribs. He spent 10 days in the hospital. Carol suffered bad road rash, but was only briefly deterred from ballooning again. “I thought long and hard afterward about continuing ballooning. My family initially was not wildly enthusiastic about my doing it again. But it’s part of who I am. We were among the best in the world. To walk away from that because of something that was such a freak thing, we wouldn’t feel right about that,” she says. Davis continues to have goals. “I’d love to win another Gordon Bennett and bring it back to the United States,” she says. “After three wins I can retire a cup. I would like to do another altitude record. My previous record was beaten in the 1990’s. I’d like to regain that absolute title.” Her advice to women thinking of taking on new challenges: “Get a teacher, have goals, learn methodically. You can do it.”

An athlete’s passion for her sport Sherry Ray loved cars when she was a little girl on farms in Indiana. Her dad once asked her, an only child, what she was going to do with the farms when her parents were gone. She replied unsentimentally, “I’m going to sell them, buy a Corvette Sting Ray and move to Hawaii.” “When I was 16, my first car had big tires and mag wheels, a Chevy Nova six banger with air. It had no speed, but it looked great. I always loved cars. I
loved the sound, the power, the noise,” Ray says. Her first chance to be a race car driver came in Denver in 1991 when she was part of the pit crew for her husband, who raced a vintage 1965 Corvette. Other women came up to her and said, “You’re going to drive, too, aren’t you?”

“My husband says a monster was born at that moment. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever dreamed of. I always took chances in life, but not with my body. I was always frightened about the thing that could hurt me. You’re so excited and so scared, there’s just this edge that is so breathtaking. There’s this grin on your face and this terror in your stomach, and you’re having a ball. After my first race I was happy to be alive and in one piece,” she laughs. “You’re wearing fireproof underwear, socks, pants, fireproof gloves, a driver’s suit and a helmet,” Ray says. “The car has arm restraints so if you flip, your arms don’t end up outside the window. You’ve got a neck collar for protection and your visor down to protect your eyes. Everything is fireproof, and you’re snug in a five-way seat belt because you don’t want to move around once you get going,” she says with a knowing grin, acknowledging that this sport does have its serious risk factors. Ray says about overcoming her fear, “I would have this talk with myself before I went out, ‘The tires will stay on, the steering wheel’s going to stay on.’ When you’re comfortable with what the heck it is you’re doing, you feel totally in control, except for what’s going on around you. You can’t control what other people might do, and you can’t control mechanical problems. Your awareness of those around you keeps you safe for the most part. You’re thinking about winning, not crashing.” Sherry RayRay, like Ballengee and Downs, credits fitness and practice for a lot of her success. “Racing is all about seat time,” she says. “It’s about you becoming one with the car. You have to know how your car is going to respond. If you don’t have enough seat time, you’re not comfortable. You only overcome fear by practicing, by living it, by doing it, by knowing each time you got a little better, a little more comfortable.” She also lifts weights and does aerobics five days a week. Since some of the vintage cars have no power steering, she needs a lot of upper body strength.

Ray had a good teacher. “I was going too fast because I was trying to impress her and she told me, ‘You better settle down,’ and she was right. I was being dangerous. Racing is all about being smooth. The smoother you are, the faster you go. When you squeal the tires, you lose time. If your foot is not on the brake, it should be on the gas. There is no hesitation. And you learn to breathe,” she laughs. And like Ballengee, Ray accepts that things can happen that aren’t within your control, and you’d better be well trained and calm. “The steering wheel came off in my hands once when I was going 125 mph,” Ray says. “I was coming down the track in fourth gear, going full out toward the final turn when I pulled the steering wheel off in my hands. I thought, I’m going to stop this car right now because I don’t know where it’s going, so I locked up the brakes and went in the dirt, quite pleased not to have hit anybody.” Ray stopped racing to start her own business, Ray Consulting, where she coaches her clients to “go to that edge, and see what’s possible in their lives. It’s the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done.”

She tries to pass onto her clients what racing has taught her: “You always have a choice. You have a choice to pull off the road. You have a choice to go faster, you have a choice to try something new.” About tackling new challenges, she says, “What have you got to lose except looking stupid? Look at the pros and cons. Check it out. You can’t live in fear of what might happen.”

The inspirational athlete Marion, a renowned audiologist, is the head of the Marion Downs Hearing Center Foundation at the University of Colorado Medical Center and author of over 150 books, book chapters and articles on hearing-related issues as well as her most recent book, Shut Up and Live (you know how). “I truly credit exercise for everything,” she says. “The three most important factors in a good and long life are exercise, exercise, exercise. “Everyone hates to exercise. We’ve become a nation of sofa softies. I hate to exercise, I admit, but I make it a priority every day for half an hour to two hours. It gives me the feeling of being 20 years old, and that is worth the effort. It simply has to be the No. 1 priority every day,” she says. Downs learned to ski when she was 50 and says it was her scariest sport to learn: “I was afraid. The instructor said, ‘We won’t take you anymore in class unless you go down the fall line.’ So I did. I’m still a little apprehensive, but I do it. “I skied last week at Vail when I was up there with an audiologist group. We had classes from 7 to 9 a.m. and then from 4 to 6 p.m., so we could ski during the day. And I fell on my tailbone. Boy, does that hurt,” she laughs. She said she has skied three or four times this year.

Downs has won two silver balls in the USTA National Tennis Championships in the over-90 category, playing singles and doubles. “If there aren’t enough of us, then we have to play down in the 85-year-old age bracket,” she says with a smile. one of Downs’ most satisfying adventures was on her 90th birthday. She went sky diving. “I’ve wanted to jump out of an airplane all my life, but my family wouldn’t let me do it. But at 90, I thought, no one’s going to tell me what to do anymore. I researched it all, so I knew exactly what was going to happen. I was 9,000 feet in the air. The first 3,000 feet are free fall and you’re going 120 mph, so that was exciting. I must admit that’s a pretty fast trip. And then the parachute opens and you float down. I went tandem with a gorgeous hunk, so that was fun,” she says with a little laugh.

Downs advises women who are thinking about taking up a new challenge, “Take risks every day. I’ve fallen many times in different things. If you fall on your face, pick yourself up and get on with it.” Marion Downs was given the Inspiration Award at the Sportswomen of Colorado banquet in March. Before the awards dinner she said, “It’s going to be such fun.”

“For the glory of sport” as the Olympic pledge states, is one of the many reasons these athletes strive, suffer
and train the endless hours they do. Marion Downs, Danelle Ballengee, Sherry Ray and Dr. Carol Rymer Davis are champions who live their dreams and passions. And their examples are the torch that we can all follow.

Photography KIT WILLIAMS

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