Athlete or ambassador: Who do you want me to be?

Today’s outdoor pro athletes are conservationists, brand ambassadors and top performers all in one.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

As the world of professional outdoor athletes and the companies that support them reach the ponderous milestones of middle age, a younger generation is redefining “pro.”

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It’s as if those elite adventurers whose lofty goals long have lingered in the clouds and the companies striving to grow ever larger suddenly have woken up and wondered: “Wait a second. What’s really important here?” Is it about being the fastest, reaching the farthest, going the highest? Is it about units sold and EBITDA?

While remarkable accomplishments and growth are certainly hallmarks of success, today’s professional climbers, kayakers, skiers and alpinists — some reaching their 40s as the first generation of professional outdoor athletes — are joining companies (many of which also are reaching their 40s) in a sort of navel-gazing midlife crisis.

But it’s good crisis. Suddenly things like stewardship, community, awareness and philanthropy are emerging alongside athletic achievement and bottom lines as primary goals. Sure, those mega-lunged, steel-thighed athletes will climb amazing peaks, but first they’ll support doctors who restore sight to the blind along the way or raise funds for local communities.

The definition of “going huge” is changing. Today, it can mean building schools in war-torn countries, advocating for environmental causes or raising awareness of global crises just as much as it relates to ticking off 5.14s, paddling over waterfalls or summiting 8,000-meter peaks.

“As we get older, we realize perhaps there is more significance if we share the milk and provide sustenance to others. At some point, after a life of taking, it becomes time to give back,” said the indefatigable Timmy O’Neill, whose professional, Patagonia-sponsored climbing career has evolved from urban bouldering monkey to ophthalmic technician helping doctors restore sight in Nepal and Nigeria to cultivating possibilities for physically challenged athletes as executive director of Boulder, Colo.-based Paradox Sports.

This suddenly ubiquitous exploration into altruism in no way discounts what today’s toughest outdoor athletes are accomplishing. Climbers Dean Potter, Steph Davis and Alex Honnold have dropped millions of jaws in countless cubicles across the world, inspiring viewers to get up, get out and get ’er done. What outdoor athletes do in many ways is what we all want to do, or at least aspire to do. They set the upper bar for dreamers, goals that likely never will be reached, but still fuel a determined push.

The insight of today’s increasingly audacious and adventurous athletes stir innovation and designs, adding yet another professional responsibility to a job once anchored in résumés boasting peaks scaled and challenges overcome.

Backcountry.com’s growing vault of athletes — like climbers Cedar Wright and Renan Ozturk and skiers Sage Cattabriga Alosa, Kim Havell and Seth Morrison — helps connect the website’s users with those often elusive goals, said Backcountry.com sports marketing manager Jonny Atencio. All the athletes pen reviews for the website. They answer customer questions and upload videos and photos.

“It’s pretty cool when someone asks on a product detail page where the mounting point is on a certain ski and Seth Morrison answers their question,” Atencio said. “Stoke level grows, you know.”

Landing logos and selling gear with pictures of near-unattainable feats is a fading marketing ploy in today’s outdoor world. It’s still done, but it’s just one aspect in a widely cast net. Similarly, the traditional bravado and athleticism of outdoor athletes is only one perspective of today’s multi-dimensional 21st century athlete. The shop-worn narrative of athletes going out and doing something spectacular retains an important role, but alone, it’s no longer enough.

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“It’s not just about athletic talent anymore. It’s about a greater, larger story,” said professional alpinist and Marmot spokesman Jordan Campbell.

Campbell enlisted Marmot to help support the making of his first film, the award-winning “Duk County,” which documents the work of Dr. Geoff Tabin as he performs hundreds of eye surgeries in South Sudan. The film won awards at its debut at the Telluride Film Festival this spring.

Marmot employs a roster of brand ambassadors that includes social entrepreneurs, doctors, outdoor educators, philanthropists and a two-time cancer survivor. These aren’t the people who summit and ski the world’s highest mountains, but they inspire nonetheless.

“I think it’s something our industry needs more and more of, just celebrating these global stewards,” Campbell said.

Athletes continually establish themselves as the core of most every outdoor brand with increasing responsibility. Beyond research, development and design, today’s athletes often speak at public events, take their own photographs and videos and develop their own stories. They remain the passionate guardians of authenticity as companies filter into the mainstream realms of fashion and recreation.

“All athletes on our team are very talented at what they do, but it’s equally important that they are respected by their community and operate as team players. Our team is evaluated on a number of criteria that go well beyond podium wins and Facebook ‘likes,’” said Katie Ramage, sports marketing manager at The North Face, which counts alpinist Conrad Anker and endurance runner Dean Karnazes among its top athletes.

This modern-day cadre of outdoor athletes is made up of multi-tasking masters.

“We want our athletes to be perceived as part of the overall community,” said Dan Nordstrom, chief executive of Outdoor Research, whose roster includes alpine climbers Kyle Dempster and Chad Kellogg as well as skiers Molly Baker and Zack Giffin, all of whom create their own stories. “They are still out there pushing their limits, but that’s not the most important point for us. It’s being out there as part of the larger outdoor community and contributing.”

Brands like Outdoor Research increasingly are presenting their athletes as real people — approachable, relatable and aware of their surroundings — rather than some sort of elite superhuman that wins all.

That human connection bolsters a company’s ability to effect change. In real time, athletes from afar can reveal abject poverty or oppression or abuse and start a chain reaction. If a phone video can trigger revolutions that sweep through several countries in a matter of months, it’s not inconceivable that a climbing mission in Nepal can raise money for new schools, roads, electrical systems and sewage plants.

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The changing roles of outdoor athletes are evidenced in the younger generation of 20-something professionals, like kayaker Bryan Kirk and climbers Sasha DiGiulian and Emily Harrington. They are emerging as well-rounded superstars, able to achieve greatness but aiming their talents at more than personal conquests.

Two of Marmot’s rock climbers — 23-year-old Paige Claassen and Jon Glassberg, 29 — departed the U.S. in June for a 12-month tour through 12 countries that will see the pair taking on 12 top-tier climbs, including big-wall routes. Every month of the pair’s “Lead Now” tour will raise awareness and fund-raise for one of a dozen nonprofit organizations that support women and children. Glassberg, a filmmaker, will produce monthly webcasts of their tour and eventually a documentary.

“My goal is not to improve people’s lives through climbing, but to use climbing as a vehicle to reach, visit and learn about parts of the world I might not otherwise see, and document my experiences to raise awareness,” Claassen said from South Africa, where she is raising money for the literacy program Room to Read.

Steve Fisher, one of the world’s top whitewater kayakers and a veteran on the extreme paddling scene, has expanded his résumé beyond paddling.

“I’ve quite quickly found out that just being a good kayaker is not enough,” said the South African, who recently unveiled his creative filmmaking talents with “The Grand Inga Project” detailing his team’s descent of the Inga Rapids on the Congo River in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Having diverse skills isn’t essential for the modern-day outdoor athlete, but a willingness to step into many roles is, Fisher said. Bringing new ideas — and not necessarily outdoor achievements — is an important characteristic for today’s successful athletes, said the Red Bull–sponsored paddler.

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