Lisa LeAnn Dalton, 44
Fort Worth, Texas
"Nineteen years as a modern dancer prepared me for bucking broncs," says Dalton. "You dance against metal walls, on trampolines, in rock-climbing harnesses. So there may be women who are better riders than me, but few are better athletes."
The year Dalton turned 40, she decided it was time to reevaluate. "Ever since I was 5, I have been horse-crazy," she says. "So I told my family I was retiring from dancing and either taking up bronc riding or racing horses." Dalton moved back to her hometown of Fort Worth, where she landed a job managing a 25-horse stable. "I went to a lot of rodeos as a kid," she says, "and I always said that I’d someday ride bucking broncs." Female riders must stay on a bronc for six seconds to be scored, and her first year out, Dalton placed fifth in the world.
So what’s the appeal for someone who’s been knocked out twice, broken a finger in three places, and separated a shoulder? "I just love that adrenaline rush when you go to the edge and step off," says the one-handed rider (rare among women). She’s not shy about competing against men, either. "They don’t expect me to win, so when I do, they’re very surprised," she says. "I beat nine cowboys once."
Labar Farber, 55
"I was salivating as I watched my daughter, Sarah, take her first trapeze class," says Farber. "That was four years ago, and we’ve both been swinging ever since."
Farber trains with The Flying Gaonas, a seventh-generation traveling trapeze act that opened a school in Chicago upon Farber’s urging. Today, the graphic designer is on the trapeze several times a week, and her daughter is an assistant instructor. "I had contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion, so I was in a lot of pain when I started flying," she says. "Now, I hardly have any symptoms. I realized that if I could tackle the trapeze with my illness, I could overcome anything."
Of course, when it comes to her daughter, Farber turns into a traditional mom: "I’m insisting that she go to college, even though she’d be thrilled to run away with the circus. And I’ve told her that if she flies without a safety line, I’ll kill her myself." Farber has even coaxed two of her grandchildren onto the trapeze. "There are times when it feels almost Zen-like," she says. "If I’m in that state, and I throw a trick well, it’s happy and calming."
Judy Myers, 62
Myers started on a dare. She was on vacation with a group of friends when one of the women convinced the others to try waterskiing barefoot. "The first girl got banged around. The next one lost her bikini top," says Myers. "I said, ‘You have just one try with me, because I’m not going to kill myself.’" She shimmied out onto a training boom, dropped her feet into the water — and began skiing.
The retired associate college dean is now the oldest female in the U.S. to compete in tournaments. "I feel like one of the group," she says of skiing with women decades younger. "They say, ‘You’re an inspiration,’ but I just think what I do is normal."
Her sport has three events — jump, slalom, trick — and Myers is currently perfecting her toe-hold, which involves skiing with one foot in the handle. "I love challenges," she says. "I went over an 18-inch jump once that felt like 80 feet." There’s also the body it’s given her: "I had a test done recently, and my bone density is 96 percent of that of a young woman."
But though Myers has set records, her achievements have yet to inspire her husband. "Casey spent 22 years in the Navy," she says, "but he’s scared to death of the water."
June Mikels, 50
Mikels had been parachuting for 20 years when she made her first base jump (an acronym for the launch points Building, Antenna, Span, Earth), in which parachutists leap from perilously low heights. "I don’t want to say it got boring, but skydiving didn’t hold the same appeal anymore," she says.
"I did my first base jump from New River Gorge Bridge, in West Virginia, at 45, and I fell in love with the high it gave me," says the substance-abuse therapist. "It’s about nine seconds to impact." Mikels has since done New River again and made two jumps from Idaho’s Perrine Bridge, the second one with a broken leg. "I landed badly on my first jump, but I didn’t know it was broken," she says. "So I jumped again."
On the fear-factor scale, base ranks pretty high: In 25 years, more than 80 jumpers have died. Despite Mikels’ travails — she rebroke her leg skydiving six months later — she’s hooked. Though there is a limit even to what this daredevil will do: "Forget bungee jumping — trusting a rubber band scares me."
Cindy Butler, 49
"When I’m not at work, I’m caving," says Butler, a registered nurse who switched jobs and cities eight years ago just so she could spend more time excavating the pitch-black caverns surrounding Florida’s Swanee River.
Butler first got the urge to dive the year her stepsister died. Life was too short not to pursue her dreams, she decided — the only question was whether to take up flying or diving. She started with open-water diving, but when a friend introduced her to caving, she knew she’d found her calling. "I have been into rocks and fossils since I was a kid, so I formed a team with two friends and got permits to dive Swanee River Park," she says. "So far, we have discovered two cave systems."
Butler is at Swanee River three days a week, surveying, mapping, and photographing at depths that can plunge to 224 feet. Add to that the challenge of mastering a sport with gear that weighs almost as much as she does, and Butler’s achievement is all the more impressive. Next up: one of the largest networks of underwater caves in the world, near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. "It’s the only primary exploration left on the planet," she says, "the last freedom for adventurers."
Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2005.