The year ahead in extreme sports

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Published: January 25, 2015 12:09:58 AM

Where to see niche athletes compete with one another—and the elements

THIS IS the year of the niche athlete, the retroactive sport, the shirtless uniform. It’s an opportunity to travel to remote destinations to watch those who believe that competing with the elements, as well as with one another, makes for a neat challenge.

Since its public outing as a demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, competitive ice climbing has hit new highs with spectators, which the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) hopes to parlay into a bona fide slot at the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Ice climbing is a test of speed and agility, during which climbers scale ice structures with 70-degree overhangs using nothing but crampons, ice axes and their own strength. You can catch the UIAA Ice Climbing World Championships live in two destinations: first, in Rabenstein, Italy (January 30 to February 1) and later in Kirov, Russia (March 6 to 8). And in between, there’s the French World Cup in Champagny (February 5 to 7).

Though most know it as a misfit fusion sport for millennials, stand-up paddle boarding has been doggy-paddling towards legitimacy as a competitive sporting event for the last three years at the International Surfing Association’s annual World StandUp Paddle and Paddleboard Championship. The fourth annual (May 10 to 17) moves from Nicaragua to Sayulita, Mexico, an easy-to-reach destination. The true test of legitimacy? If Hawaii, which competes separately from the US and is considered one of the best teams in the world, joins in to give the reigning Australian champs a run for their money.

Scotland’s Cowal Highland Gathering on Bute island in the Firth of Clyde (August 27 to 29), on the other hand, does not want for crowds. After more than a hundred years, it has established itself as the biggest display of traditional Highland Games in the world. Sturdy kilt-wrapped men and women tossing trees and lead balls are at the heart of it all, but, in recent years, the simultaneous World Highland Dancing Championship has begun to overshadow the games with hundreds of dancers from all over the world competing for titles each day.

Relay horse-racing considers itself the oldest extreme sport in North America, as per the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association. The races, during which riders jump from one horse to another while galloping at high speeds, are believed to date back more than 400 years to when American Indians honed their relay skills for war, to hunt buffalo or to capture wild horses.

They’ve continued since, though mostly in small numbers on reservations in the northern Plains or at rodeos, but a recent boost in interest inspired the association to sponsor the first All Nations Indian Relay Championships in 2013. The next, in Sheridan, Wyoming (September 11 to 13) will feature 30 teams from at least 12 nations.

Speaking of powerful animals, it shouldn’t be surprising that Red Bull, the energy drink maker, has become the de facto sponsor of almost every sporting event designed to make a viewer’s heart stop. Luckily, most are set in relaxing environments like Bilbao, Spain, where the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series will have divers dropping from the La Salve Bridge to fall 80 ft against the backdrop of the Guggenheim Museum and into the Nervion River.

For something a bit closer to the ground, Red Bull also sponsors the Art of Motion, a free-running and parkour showcase of athletes who bounce, tuck, roll and leap over the rooftops of Santorini, Greece (October 3).

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