Gripping Documentaries About Extreme Athletes

Marc-André Leclerc in The Alpinist (2021)

From scaling the Himalayas to diving the Blue Hole in the Red Sea, extreme athletes take on many calculated risks — and occasionally, they don't make it back.

Who takes up these challenges, and why do they do it? The subject has proven fascinating for filmmakers; luckily, there is no shortage of documentaries on these people who risk dying to make a living. Here is a guide to the best documentaries about extreme athletes. 

1. Free Solo (2018)

Free Solo Alex Honnold
Image Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films.

Rock climber Alex Honnold attempts the impossible in Free Solo: to climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, without ropes or safety gear. The documentary delves not only into the psyche of Honnold but also into his brain — exploring what drives someone to take on such an insane challenge. Hint: It might involve an irregular amygdala.

Director Jimmy Chin openly wrestles with what it means to film Honnold on climbs where he may die on camera. One gets the sense these people take nothing lightly, and it's hard not to come away inspired by both Honnold and the filmmakers.

2. The Alpinist (2021)

Marc-André Leclerc in The Alpinist (2021)
Image Credit: Roadside Attractions and Universal Studios.

Marc-André Leclerc, an enigmatic young alpinist known for his solo ascents of some of the world's most treacherous peaks, shies away from the spotlight even when he has agreed to enter it. Unlike many of his contemporaries who document their climbs on social media, Leclerc seeks zero external validation. As the film builds towards its harrowing climax, the filmmakers behind The Alpinist struggle to reach their subject as he disappears for months.

While breathtaking shots of Leclerc's wintry ascents will get the heart racing, the insights from his close circle ground the documentary. This extraordinary athlete and seeker will stay remembered long after most people. Read nothing else about the movie before watching.

3. Icarus (2017)

Icarus Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov
Image Credit: Netflix.

Bryan Fogel's accidental investigation into the Russian Olympic doping scandal marks one of the best documentaries in recent years. Setting out only to prove holes in the testing regime for athletes in a general sense, Fogel gets involved with Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, who runs Russia's anti-doping lab.

As the two get to know each other better, Rodchenkov reveals that Russian athletes systematically use proscribed performance enhancers on a staggering scale. For anyone looking to understand the Putin government and how its criminality extends to matters big and small, look no further than Icarus.

4. The Deepest Breath (2023)

The Deepest Breath
Image Credit: Netflix.

Laura McGann's documentary The Deepest Breath follows freediver Alessia Zecchini as she attempts to break a world record. Her boyfriend, Steve Keenan, a safety diver, helps Alessia in her quest as she pushes further and even past the 100-meter mark. The sport feels viscerally terrifying in a way that even BASE jumping does not; the divers disappear into the blackness below and sometimes reemerge disconcertingly late — or even not at all. This movie may make many people want to stick to the shallow end of the pool for a while.

5. The River Runner (2021)

Kayaker Scott Lindgren in The River Runner
Image Credit: Netflix.

Scott Lindgren won't stop until he's conquered the world's most intimidating rivers in his kayak. The adrenaline junkie's pursuits take him to Central Asia, where he seeks to become the first kayaker to tackle a series of rivers emanating from Tibet. Then, a more prosaic problem catches up with him: cancer.

Directed by Rush Sturges, the documentary pivots from man vs. nature to an inward conflict after Lindgren gets diagnosed with a brain tumor. Soon enough, the film pivots back outward as he faces life down the only way he knows: with his kayak. The River Runner serves up a shot of action with a splash of introspection.

6. Sunshine Superman (2014)

base jumping in Sunshine Superman (2014)
Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures, CNN Films, and Universal Pictures.

“Jumping out of an airplane gets tedious after a while,” must have thought Carl Boenish, the coiner of the term BASE jumping. The acronym stands for buildings, antennae, spans, and earth: the features from which some people choose to leap with parachutes.

Sunshine Superman, director Marah Strauch's film about Boenish and his relationship with his wife Jean, offers up the dizzying highs and tragic lows of the daredevil's life with a side of 16mm vintage eye candy. Watch Alex Honnold climb El Capitan in Free Solo, then watch Carl Boenish jump off it in this movie.

7. Senna (2010)

Ayrton Senna in Senna (2010)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures and Océan Films.

Racing driver Ayrton Senna, who strongly resembles the rock climber Alex Honnold, started with go-karts and went on to win the Formula One Championship. Asif Kapadia's film Senna chronicles the charismatic champ's rivalry with driver Alain Prost and his struggles with sports officialdom. With an unnerving score by Antonio Pinto (also from Senna's native Brazil), this tightly paced documentary makes one wonder whether pushing the limits to the max is ultimately worth it.

8. McConkey (2013)

extreme skier Shane McConkey in McConkey (2013)
Image Credit: Red Bull Media House.

Shane McConkey leaps off cliffs on skis in a wingsuit, which makes others break out in a sweat even contemplating. The documentary McConkey covers his unusual life, from his origins as the son of a pioneering extreme skier through his development of reverse sidecut skis and onto his fateful BASE jumping adventures. Not many people live in the way McConkey does. After watching this documentary, prepare to ache with dissatisfaction about contemporary life.

9. 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible (2021)

Nirmal Purja in 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible (2021)
Image Credit: Netflix.

Throughout the history of mountaineering, laurels have tended to fall on a largely Eurocentric roster of athletes, while the local guides they rely on get ignored. In the documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, Nepalese mountaineer Nirmal “Nims” Purja sets out to correct this injustice, though cheerfully and without a trace of ill will. Purja aims to ascend the 14 mountains on Earth over 8,000 meters to break the seven-year record in seven months.

The former British Army special forces soldier — he served in the famed Brigade of Gurkhas — has an otherworldly endurance we see demonstrated again and again; however, his irrepressible optimism plays an equal part in his success.

10. Touching The Void (2003)

Touching the Void (2003)
Image Credit: Pathé Distribution.

This one combines interviews with reenactments to create a docudrama of classic status. Touching the Void has as much an eerie as inspirational feel, with an actual void buried somewhere. The film tells the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two men who went on a mountaineering spree in the mid-1980s. After they made a pioneering ascent of the West Face of Siula Grande in Peru, everything went horribly wrong on the way down, and the pair had the kind of experience The Guardian has described as the “most successful British documentary of all time.” 

11. Man on Wire (2008)

Man on Wire (2008)
Image Credit: Icon Film Distribution.

Anyone who grew up in New York City has heard of the legend of Philippe Petit, the man who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. The documentary Man on Wire frames the achievement with the tropes of a heist movie, showing us how Petit and his accomplices planned to execute their very much illegal feat. The film's title refers to how the police referred to the incident in their report. Based on Petit's book published the year after 9/11, Man on Wire has a particular poignancy. Petit's peculiar spectacle lingers in the mind long after the closing credits.

12. Pumping Iron (1977)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron (1977)
Image Credit: Cinema 5.

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie star, came Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilder. Pumping Iron gets into the former California governor's 1975 Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition with a focus on his rivalry with fellow strongman Lou Ferrigno. This classic sports documentary helped propel bodybuilding from the circus tents to the mainstream.

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Tim Rinaldi is a journalist who spent his youth inside a video game console, occasionally emerging to read novels and watch films. After earning his degree in Literature from Fordham University, he moved to China over a decade ago to teach English and learn the language, eventually migrating to Taiwan. There, he served as an editor at the nation’s primary English-language daily, Taiwan News, contributing to coverage spanning the arts, business, finance, Chinese politics, and cross-strait relations. Today, Tim is a freelance writer reporting on entertainment, personal finance, and other topics. He also edits the digital arts newsletter 1/1 Interviews. In his spare time, he tinkers with 3D software like Blender and aspires to craft animated short films.

Tim Rinaldi

Author: Tim Rinaldi

Bio:

Tim Rinaldi is a journalist who spent his youth inside a video game console, occasionally emerging to read novels and watch films. After earning his degree in Literature from Fordham University, he moved to China over a decade ago to teach English and learn the language, eventually migrating to Taiwan. There, he served as an editor at the nation’s primary English-language daily, Taiwan News, contributing to coverage spanning the arts, business, finance, Chinese politics, and cross-strait relations. Today, Tim is a freelance writer reporting on entertainment, personal finance, and other topics. In his spare time, he tinkers with 3D software like Blender and aspires to craft animated short films.