Most impactful? What does that even mean? Did these athletes impact their particular sports? Society? The way we live? The style in which we do things? Well, yes. To everything. These are, in my opinion, the most impactful athletes of 2016. The ones that might have influenced how we think, what we think about, and maybe even how we look at things. They probably inspired us. But they could have pissed us off. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But for better or worse, these six souls (from where I sit) made our world a lot more interesting in 2016.
Paige Alms definitely has had an impact within the surfing world this year with her performances at Jaws. But Keala Kennelly has taken her game to the masses, and for my money, she has been one of the most impactful surfers over the last decade, pushing the level of women’s surfing—not to mention the respect—to new heights. And she’s left her skin on the reef doing it. Her performance at Teahupoʻo last year where she won the WSL’s Big Wave Award for Best Barrel (competing in a category with the men), in my mind, was one of the most underrated achievements in surfing’s modern era. And she was straight robbed at the ESPYs in the women’s action sports athlete category. But Kennelly has earned reverence within her sport and lead the way for surfers like Alms. “Who I really want to thank is everyone who told me, ‘you can’t do that because you’re a woman,’” she said at the XXL banquet. “That drove me to dedicate my life to proving you wrong and it’s been so damn fun.”
Mountain biking is dangerously segmented for a real-world audience to grasp: freeride, downhill, cross-country, cross bike, cross my eyes. But Danny MacAskill, more than any other character in the sport, has united the game and presented it to pop culture. His trials antics (ironically, a segment of its own) mixed with skillful trail ability and a seemingly likeable personality, have pretty much united a larger audience under a collective understanding, even if it might not be factually correct: this is mountain biking. And Danny MacAskill makes it look awesome.
I know what you’re thinking. Whitewater kayaking? How is that impactful? It’s nearly invisible. Let me talk you through this. As a practitioner myself, I can appreciate the nuanced body control required to run waterfalls, gigantic rapids or surf stupidly-fast river waves. But my mom doesn’t get it. And isn’t that one of the great litmus tests of outdoor pursuit and whether or not people actually understand? Has grandma ever heard of a kayaker? But maybe kayaking just doesn’t fit into that box. So call this a sentimental pick (and I’m betting you’ve never heard his name) but I have to believe a guy like Ben Marr at least left a digital earmark this year. Footage of Marr surfing an enormous river wave in Manitoba certainly went viral on this site as he navigated a ferocious lip, controlling himself in perhaps the only craft that could be used to surf a wave like that. And it wasn’t even close to the toughest thing Marr did this year. In a stretch of 11 days, he and Spanish kayaker Aniol Serrasolses ran Canada’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine, easily one of the world’s toughest whitewater expeditions, seven times. Because it was there.
He might not have been a household name to people like my mom, or yours, but every skater in the world knew who Dylan Rieder was. And when he passed away this year at the age of 28 following complications from leukemia, people from nearly every board sport paid homage to the stylish skateboarder who made the things he did on four wheels look like he’d done it in his sleep the night before: casually. Rieder was the influence that most great stylists referenced, like Arlo Guthrie or Leonard Cohen to musicians. His was an ease of movement that will truly be missed.
Some might feel like this is too easy of a pick. But give credit where it’s due: I’ve heard The Fourth Phase, Travis Rice’s four-year epic of a film project, was a highly-stressful 48 months that surely aged the snowboarding icon—one who has now achieved “Godfather” status within the sport. Would the conditions line up? Would the riding be progressive enough? Would Brain Farm and Red Bull actually be able to fit their collective egos into the same production for a second time? Well it went off. The riding proved progressive enough (especially for larger audiences) the powder was certainly relateable (the Japan segy bordered on insanity) and anyone who doesn’t think watching Rice groan in pain after being flung down a terrain trap by an avalanche isn’t impactful doesn’t deserve to ride snow. Bravo Rice.
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Yeah, Kelly Slater is usually an obvious pick for a lot of these kinds of lists. But good god, who else could win a word tour event at 44 (not to mention finish 7th in the rankings) other than Slater? But for my money, the dude’s impact has gone way beyond surfing. And as much as Slater loves to seemingly insert himself into any conversation he deems worthy (or that will garner him attention), his statements on Instagram have become important fodder for the masses. I was particularly impressed with his high-mindedness regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline project, helping drum up awareness for a serious injustice. “There’s a sick irony here with clean water being sprayed on #WaterProtectors in freezing cold weather,” he wrote. “I’d consider that mild torture on some level. When a grassroots movement of people with noble intentions for their country, resources, and friends comes together in solidarity against a corporate movement and the government backs the business over people thru militants means, business and govt are simply out of control.” And whether it’s airline fees or GMOs, when Slater talks, people listen. And that is a very impactful thing.