Austin Desi rock climbing

Are extreme sports really that risky? – Car Accident

In May, 2016, Liam Cunningham and his close friend Austin Desi hiked up the side of a mountain to perform a routine Saturday ritual, a jump off the peak.
The pair were bonded over adventure and adrenaline and were experienced BASE jumpers and skydivers, who had a newfound love of paragliding.
That morning, Austin had mentioned to his heavily pregnant wife Janette that he’d take the car in case she entered labour and he had to race over to the hospital after his glide.
“I better go now while I have a chance before the baby’s born. I’ll be back by 10 o’clock,” Austin told Janette before he left.

But he never returned home.

During their flight, at Mt Archer, north of Brisbane, Austin’s glider clipped a tree and he was thrown to the ground.
Liam, who was trailing behind him, raced to Austin’s aid and put him into a recovery position, but quickly realised there was little he could do for his friend.
“I started really realising, okay, this is much more serious,” Liam said.
“He may not be waking up right now.”
Liam nursed Austin for hours until emergency services arrived.
“He was breathing until after the helicopter paramedics arrived,” Liam said.
The Queensland Coroner reported that Austin died from multiple fractures and internal injuries sustained in the accident. He was aged 35.
Janette and Austin had always talked about the possibility of something going wrong, to the point of signing their wills 10 days before Austin’s death.
“He was going out BASE jumping again and I said ‘the rule is we have to have our wills signed before you’re allowed to even invest in more parachutes,” Janette said.
Austin and Janette leaning on each other and laughing.

Janette and Austin

Extreme sports such as BMX racing and sport climbing have become more familiar thanks to a number of popular Netflix documentaries and their inclusion in the Olympics. So too has a spotlight on the risk they carry.

Cases like Austin’s death illustrate the devastating toll some of these pursuits can have on individuals and their families when things go wrong. They also paint these activities as some of the riskiest on the planet – but is this actually the case?
According to Eric Brymer, a psychologist and researcher from Southern Cross University who has been researching extreme sports athletes and their behaviours for decades, not necessarily.
“What we’ve found in the research is that people [athletes] have a really high understanding of their own capacities and capabilities. But also, a deep knowledge of the activity itself,” Brymer said.
“It’s not something that you can do without commitment and training.”
He argues that while some may characterise people who pursue extreme sports as risk takers with a death wish, they ignore the fact that people are more at risk of damaging themselves through everyday health behaviours such as eating poorly and smoking.
Liam Cunningham skydiving.

Liam Cunningham skydiving.

Eric Brymer’s theory is echoed by Professor Carsten Murawski from the University of Melbourne – a researcher who has spent years studying the science of human risk-taking behaviour – who said that people tend to overestimate relatively small risks, while underestimating large risks.

“One classical example might be that a lot of people are incredibly afraid of being attacked by a shark when swimming in the ocean. The objective risk of that happening is actually relatively very low,” Professor Murawski said.
“Whereas a lot of people completely underestimate very severe risks they are exposed to. For example, health risk that they could actually do something about.”
Amber floating in the ocean with a boat in the background.

Amber floating in the ocean in her freediving gear.

For champion Australian free-diver Amber Bourke, she feels less at risk 70 metres underwater without an oxygen tank than she does in her day job as an electrician.

Freediving is a sport which involves diving as deep as possible on a single breath hold. Amber can hold her breath for over five minutes, and swim four laps of an Olympic swimming pool underwater.
She says despite extensive safety measures being in place for divers, she often faces criticism online for her passion for the sport.
“I think it really comes down to a lack of understanding about the sport and about the risks involved,” Amber said.
“I have lost friends to freediving accidents, and I’ve lost friends to accidents unrelated to freediving also.

“To me, it’s as natural as walking.”

Austin standing on a mountain, looking at the view above the clouds. The image was taken on the morning he died.

Austin looking at the view on the morning he died.

Janette says that Austin often hit back if she questioned him about his extreme sports pursuits.

“He would always justify it and say, ‘Look, I’m not hurting myself,’” Janette said.
“I’m more likely to die in a car accident than anything else.”
Janette children often ask why they don’t have a father.
“He made a mistake and he did something dangerous and it didn’t end well.”
She says that some around her were angry at Austin when he died, but it was always a risk she took on by being with him.
“I married him. I knew what he was,” she said.
Liam Cunningham has since stopped pursuing many of his extreme sports passions after he too had a child of his own. He says that Austin’s death was a wake-up call and that he and Austin had become ‘complacent’ to the risks involved.
“Anytime somebody spoke to me about wanting to get into BASE jumping, I told them, ‘first thing you need to do is watch this video, you can find it on YouTube,’” he explained.
“You watch a lot of people die.”

Watch this week’s Insight episode “Risk and Reward” from 8.30pm Tuesday on SBS TV and also on SBS On Demand.