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Debbie Lawler

The Woman Who Bested Evel Knievel

Nicknamed the Flying Angel thanks to her good looks and her ability to, well, fly, Debbie Lawler was America’s stunt sweetheart in the 1970s. This extreme sports maven paved the way for other women wanting to ride with the big boys, once quipping, “When people say something can’t be done, I go out and do it.” Often ranked alongside the stunt supermen of the era, Evel Knievel and Super Joe Einhorn, she possessed an uncanny ability to shatter both stereotypes and world records. And despite a penchant for donning her lucky orange bra when she jumped, nothing could slow Lawler’s meteoric rise, not even her gender.

After breaking Knievel’s long jump record by launching herself and her motorcycle over 16 trucks at the Houston Astrodome, the stuntman (rather misogynistically) was quoted as saying, “I can spit farther than she can jump.” He ultimately reclaimed the record (albeit by only one truck), leaving Lawler to live in infamy as the lesser Evel.

Harry Houdini

The Father of All Escape Artists

The king of escape and grand master of all things (seemingly) impossible, Harry Houdini became a household name in the late 19th century as the world’s first celebrity illusionist. Known for maneuvering himself out of constraints and situations that would have landed a lesser man squarely in the afterworld, he handily released himself from the belly of a whale, a jail cell within Murderers’ Row, a shipping carton tossed into the East River, and what was billed as his Chinese Water Torture Cell — not to mention various leg irons, suspended straitjackets and the like. 

In the end, it was science (sans fiction) that killed the great Houdini. Testing the illusionist’s claim that he could withstand any blow to the abdomen, a college student by the name of Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead slugged him four times. Not expecting the punches, Houdini doubled over in pain but went on to perform that evening. He was diagnosed with appendicitis shortly thereafter, subsequently developed peritonitis and ultimately died in 1926.

Bessie Coleman

The High-Flying Glass Ceiling Breaker

In the early days of aviation when just getting on a plane (even without TSA checkpoints) was an act of bravado, Bessie Coleman already had her head in the clouds. Dissatisfied with her job as a manicurist at a Chicago barbershop, she vowed to find a way to turn her dream of becoming the first female African American pilot into reality. Despite (or perhaps because of) being denied acceptance into every U.S. flight school, she taught herself French, moved to Europe and attended the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation.

Specializing in stunts, acrobatic flying and parachute jumping, Coleman earned a lucrative income — not to mention a place of honor in aviation history — by barnstorming and performing death-defying aerial tricks. She soared above the glass ceiling again in 1922, becoming the first African American woman to make a public flight in the United States. Sadly, her life was cut short in 1926 when her plane crashed during rehearsals for an aerial show performance.

Jackie Chan

The Stuntman by Which All Others are Judged

According to Hollywood heavy hitter Quentin Tarantino, the 1992 flick Police Story 3: Supercop features the “greatest stunts ever filmed in any movie.” We can’t disagree. After all, in one memorable scene, Jackie Chan tries to stop a fleeing helicopter while suspended from a speeding train. 

The feat made for great footage but ended poorly when a malfunction sent the chopper colliding violently into the actor. For most of us, getting hit by a helicopter would be reason enough to hit the retirement button, but it takes more than an errant whirlybird to ground Chan, whose decades-long career includes such stunts as leaping atop a moving hot-air balloon in Armour of God, falling six stories in Project A and crawling across hot coals in The Legend of Drunken Master. The actor ultimately announced his retirement in 2012 at the Cannes Film Festival. To the best of our knowledge, he didn’t make the announcement while riding a breaching narwhal (though we bet he could have).

Photography provided by Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude Ederle

The Swimming Sensation

Decades before Michael Phelps was so much as a glimmer in his parents’ eyes, Gertrude Ederle was one of swimming’s most illustrious icons. Known for the incredible speed of her eight-beat crawl (eight kicks for each full arm stroke), she held 29 national and world records and in 1924 was a member of the U.S. Olympic Team that brought home gold from the Paris games.

In 1925, she made her first (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to swim the English Channel. She returned the following year, and as it turns out, the second time was the charm for Ederle. She completed the swim to Kent, England, in 14 hours, 31 minutes —  soundly smashing the men’s record by 1 hour, 59 minutes (we think she might have frittered away that extra minute so as not to embarrass the boys). While a back injury in 1933 ended her competitive career, Ederle continued to swim publicly, most notably in the Billy Rose Aquacade at the New York World’s Fair.

Jordan Romero

The Rock Jock Extraordinaire

While most kids have goals surrounding video-game high scores, Jordan Romero’s list of dream accomplishments is a bit loftier: 29,029 feet loftier, to be exact. In 2011, the mountaineering California teen made history by summiting Everest at the ripe old age of 13. Having already conquered Kilimanjaro in 2006, Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko in 2007 and Denali in 2008 (to name just a few), he naturally set his sights on Everest, his seventh major summit — and the one that catapulted him into fame for successfully summiting the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. All this before he was old enough to legally drive.

Following his remarkable success, the Chinese government implemented restrictions mandating climbers be at least 18 years of age. In doing so, the country ensured the safety of its impressionable youth while guaranteeing Romero’s record as the world’s most successful teenage summiteer could never be broken.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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