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Ready. Aim. Inspire.
Sergeant Theresa Vail sits on a rickety old school bus as it descends through tight switchbacks into West Virginia’s New River Gorge. Her whitewater rafting guide, Corbin Tonelli, quizzes her before she embarks on a trip down the rugged New River, one of the most famous—and dangerous—rivers for whitewater rafting in the Southeast. He will teach her to pilot the raft, and by the end of the day, she will guide it along a Class IV rapid—a fast, powerful and unpredictable stretch of roiling water and the highest rating for which a newcomer would be allowed to be in command. This is her first whitewater rafting trip, and Tonelli tries to gauge her comfort level.
“Did you watch any videos of this?” Tonelli asks.
“Nope,” Vail replies.
“So you have no idea what you’re doing?”
She starts laughing.
“You have got the biggest smile on your face,” Tonelli says. “You’re going to hit huge waves.”
“Awesome,” she says. “Awesome.”
Vail’s trip to Adventures on the Gorge, a resort along the New River, is part of the filming of “Limitless With Theresa Vail,” her hunting and adventure TV series on the Outdoor Channel, which debuts in July. While filming the first season of the show, she has hunted bear, pheasant, deer and turkey; carried a 45-pound rucksack over the length of the 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico; run a Warrior Dash in Missouri; and climbed the 1,267-foot Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Compared to all of that, she thinks a day on the river sounds like a piece of cake, which happens to be the name of one of the rapids.
But Piece of Cake will hardly be that. Neither will this day, which is just how Vail likes it. As a Citizen-Soldier in the Kansas Army National Guard, the 2013 winner of the Miss Kansas pageant, a top 10 finalist in the 2014 Miss America pageant and now a full-time thrill-seeker, Vail loves adventures like this because they enable her to send a powerful message: Life throws you into rapids, but paddling through them makes you stronger.
She learned that the hard way, as she nearly drowned in depression during her preteen years. But with the help of her father, Mark, an Army dentist, she swam through and eventually transformed herself into a boundary-busting, death-defying, stereotype-shattering Soldier intent on showing others they can do anything they want.
“Tackle challenges. Tackle your fears,” she says. “That’s what got me here.”
LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
It’s the day after the whitewater trip. Theresa and her dad, a retired colonel, stand and talk at the meeting place for a zip line trip. Tom Dooley, an executive producer at the Outdoor Channel, approaches. He admires Theresa, considering her strong, confident and smart—an overachiever of the highest order.
Dooley has been eager to meet Mark, because Theresa talks about him constantly. She makes it clear she is the way she is because her dad taught her to be that way.
To hear her talk about her father is to hear her talk about her hero, mentor, idol and biggest influence, all rolled into one. She has never had a relationship closer or more important than the one she has with him. So one of the first things Dooley says to Mark upon meeting him is this: “I expected you to be 7 feet tall, the way Theresa talks about you.”
Mark just smiles at that. So does Theresa.
Now the two of them stand high atop a zip lining platform with three guides, along with “Limitless” producer Arron Bleise and photographer Rich Schultz. For most members of this merry band of adventurers, the zip lining is excitement enough. In between is just enough time for their heart rates to drop. But not for the Vails. Their heart rates will drop when they’re dead.
With their tether lines secured to their harnesses, father and daughter walk to the far rim of the platform. They plant their toes on the outside edge, spin around and lean back, their bodies floating 35 feet above the ground.
It is fitting that while they teeter in that position, the strength of their connection becomes clear. Long before Theresa was a daredevil, her dad was one first. Mark describes riding motorcycles at 120 mph, bursting both eardrums while cliff diving, nearly crashing a plane, actually crashing a plane and how a hunting trip helped pull his daughter from the brink of tragedy.
When Theresa was young, she didn’t fit in. Other children knew she didn’t fit in, and they didn’t let her forget it. Constant bullying sent her into deep depression. She thought about suicide every day for two years when she was a preteen, she says.
Mark saw his daughter’s struggles and knew he needed to redirect her focus. He looked for a way to give her something positive to think about. He thought about the relationship he formed with his own father through hunting. Soon Mark and Theresa, then 10, found themselves hunting together near his base in Schweinfurt, Germany.
“It was just being out there, time to think about stuff, no pressure to do anything, just to sit and enjoy. It was just nice to be out there,” he says. “And I could do a little counseling, see how things are going. And of course, it worked out better than I expected.”
Theresa began to find peace as they continued hunting together after the family moved to Kansas. She clung to her father’s love and attention. He became her tether, stopping her from falling back into ruin.
MADE FOR THRILLS
Middle Keeney is a Class V rapid, the most dangerous level Vail will paddle through on the New River. Generated by water rushing by at 9,500 cubic feet per second, the waves create a “go big or go home” rodeo ride along Mother Nature’s unpredictable back that is so treacherous even Tonelli, the guide who has run this river 800 times, calls it nerve-wracking.
At the end of Middle Keeney, another rapid called Meat Grinder swirls and churns, and when viewed up close, it is even more daunting than its name suggests. If Vail is thrown from the boat and washed into it, the crushing power of the water could pin her below the surface, and she would have to pray that someone would pull her out before the Meat Grinder swallowed her. Even if she avoids it, there are any number of rocks against which she could crack her skull, break a bone or snag her foot, rendering her immobile as the force of the water bends her body in half, planting her face deep into the river.
All of which Tonelli somberly explains.
None of which fazes Vail.
“Forward!” Tonelli yells. He steers the boat headlong into a giant wave, and the right side disappears under shimmering white fireworks, only instead of getting hot and burned, the rafters get wet and cold. Vail and Tonelli absorb the brunt of it, the kind of face-first hit that sometimes sends people overboard.
But in the midst of this teeth-grinding, paddle-squeezing, heart-stopping moment, the most unlikely sound comes from Vail: laughter. Deep, delirious, hysterical laughter. It’s so loud that people in all four corners of the boat hear it over the thunderous crashing of the waves.
For Vail, the ride is not scary, it’s fun, and understanding the difference is key to understanding her. It’s not that she faces her fears in these crazy adventures. It’s that she sees nothing to be afraid of. “Whatever factor people have that makes them scared of doing these things, I don’t have that. I was born without it,” she says. “I just want to feel that close-to-death, dangerous moment. That’s what gets my blood going and my heart rate pumping.”
The bond Vail and her father formed started her healing process. But it took years to complete. Two things happened close together that helped. She and her dad moved ahead of the family to Fort Leavenworth, KS, and their two weeks alone together further strengthened their bond. Around the same time, her father gave her prosthodontics, which improved her smile, stopped some teasing and helped her confidence. Still, she often ate lunch alone in the library, more comfortable in the company of books than in the company of her classmates. Even today, she considers herself a recluse.
Vail found happiness in the same hunting and shooting that enthralled her father. And she is good at it; she schooled the boys in the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) and in her high school rifle club and is now an expert marksman with her M16A2.
She became a sure shot firing alongside her dad. They used to have shooting competitions inside their house. They’d set up a toy—sometimes a G.I. Joe doll, sometimes a Lego figure—and try to ping it with BBs. If her mom, Joy, or one of her eight brothers and sisters approached, Mark and Theresa would shout, “Fire lanes hot!”
Vail could never beat her dad. “Theresa succumbed to the pressure,” Mark says. “I’ll never be able to beat him,” she says. But she talks junk to him anyway, telling him, “You’re losing it, old man.”
Perhaps because he clearly isn’t losing it, his daughter’s teasing brings a smile to his face. As it turns out, they are more evenly matched in archery.
As she grew older, Vail added more extravagant athletic pursuits. She remembers vividly the first time she parachuted. She was 17, and in the few seconds before her static line ripped open her chute, she thought,This is the feeling I need. “I like to feel alive,” she says. “And I only feel alive when I’m close to death.”
SENDING A MESSAGE
Vail joined the National Guard at age 17 in 2007 and quickly found her footing. She became a distinguished honor graduate at ordnance school as a mechanic in 2008 and a distinguished honor graduate at health science school in 2011. Now she’s attached to the Joint Force Headquarters Public Affairs Office.
One of her superior officers, Major Jeff Yonke, talked to Vail several times about his belief that she would make a great role model for young girls. “She has the power to do whatever she wants to do,” Yonke says. “She has all this drive and all this energy. She could really put it to good use.”
The idea terrified her. Vail spent her life as an outsider; now she’s supposed to draw attention to herself? She was worried about being judged. She wondered if she would revert right back to the miserable 10-year-old. But she also saw truth in Yonke’s advice. To help others would redeem the pain she endured. She started looking for ways to get her story out to other people.
In 2012, Vail entered the Miss Leavenworth County pageant. Her expectations were so low that she didn’t invite family or friends to attend. She planned to display her archery skills in the talent portion, but at the last minute was told she couldn’t. So, she sang opera instead, even though she had as much experience with that as she had with whitewater rafting—zero. She was shocked when she won.
The experience gave her confidence. Vail heard the cheers and thought, Wow, people actually like me.
In 2013, Vail entered and won the Miss Kansas competition. Next came the Miss America contest (pictured at left). Her top-10 finish included being selected “America’s Choice” by fan votes. Her military, hunting and adventure background made her unique among the competitors. Her all-in attitude—as evidenced by her blunt answers to questions and refusal to cover up her tattoos during the swimsuit competition, which was a first for the Miss America organization—drew mass media attention. That led to conversations with the Outdoor Channel, and the idea for the “Limitless” TV series was born.
All of this affirmed what Yonke had told her. The former self-proclaimed outcast now signs countless autographs—for boys and girls aspiring to be just like her. “I have to keep putting on this extroverted face, because my message is helping: Be unapologetically yourself. Be fearless.”
In April, Vail stood at the bottom of Devils Tower and looked up. She had never rock climbed, yet there she was, about to scale a 1,267-foot monster. After she ascended 300 feet, she thought she should stop. She thought she couldn’t do it. “I have never, never heard that in my mind before,” she says.
The lifelong overachiever faced failure. She felt trapped, with nowhere to go, much like she felt as a 10-year-old. She looked below and saw a group of men. They gave up, far below her. She briefly thought about doing the same thing and warming herself by a fire.
But then her competitive drive took over. She thought about beating the mountain to which those men had succumbed. She looked up, and suddenly rocks to grab and crevices to shimmy through appeared above her. The path to the top had revealed itself.
She laughs as she tells this story. But that masks how difficult it is for her to confess her doubts. Sharing them and thus opening herself to judgment scares her far more than any mountain or rapid or any other physical challenge she has faced.
Vail endures constant vitriol from anti-hunters and “people hating you just to hate you.” But she keeps climbing, overcoming that fear like she overcame Devils Tower, looking for the next foothold, inching higher, because she knows the judgers aren’t the only ones watching. There are people who follow her and look up to her. If they hear her story and see what she has made of herself, maybe they will replace their despair with hope, like she once did. “That’s why I’m doing this,” she says.
RIDING THE WAVE
Truth be told, Vail doesn’t really want to steer the raft, at least not at the beginning. Guides need hundreds of hours to master it. She doesn’t even have hundreds of minutes. Plus, she prefers being in the front of the raft. That’s where the action is. But the point of “Limitless” is that she push herself. So on the last run of the day, she climbs to the back for a Class IV rapid called Fayette Station.
This is unusual, to say the least. “Most people come several times before they’re even comfortable being in the back of the raft,” says Tonelli, her guide. He instructs Vail to take the raft to the right of a rock that juts out just above the water’s surface. He tells her that once she passes the rock, she needs to keep the raft pointed at 11 o’clock. Pointing to 10 or 12 could be “catastrophic,” he says.
Vail borrows Tonelli’s wooden oar and jams it into the water. Tonelli sits in front and to her right. From there, using a plastic paddle, he can correct the raft’s course if he needs to. But she doesn’t need his help. She keeps the nose right at 11 even as the rapids do everything in their power to throw her off course. Soon the chaos is over, and the raft floats peacefully down the New River.
The raft now coasts along, generally headed in the right direction. The passengers put their paddles at their sides. The river generates the raft’s speed and decides where it goes. After a long day, her crew eagerly anticipates its arrival on shore, where a cooler full of ice-cold beer awaits.
“Forward!” Vail shouts, and everybody on the boat starts paddling.
EXERCISE ON THE GO
Her constant travel makes maintaining a workout regimen difficult, but Sergeant Theresa Vail has found a way to stay in shape, relying on resistance bands and running. She works out with the bands right before bed, as it’s the only time she knows she will always have available. In addition to hunting, whitewater rafting and rock climbing for her TV series, she follows this exercise regimen.
Front squats: Stand on the band, holding one end in each hand.
Lateral walk: Stand on the band, legs wide enough that the band is pulled tight across the ankles, squat down and walk to the right. Repeat for left side.
Bend-over row: Stand on the band, holding each end with palms facing in. Bend over slightly and pull back until your elbows are at 90 degrees.
Chest press: Loop the band through a bed frame; stand with your back facing the band. Grab each end with palms facing down and elbows parallel to the shoulders. Press forward until your hands touch.
Overhead press: Stand on the band, holding each end with palms facing out and in line with your shoulders. Press up with a straight arm.
Bicep curl: Stand on the band, holding each end with palms facing up and resting at your side. Curl up slowly. Complete three sets of each exercise, to failure.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday: Sprints (one minute sprinting, two minutes rest, for an hour)
Tuesday and Thursday: Jog for one hour
Sunday: Run for 6 to 12 miles
“When I’m on the road, it isn’t possible to stick to my normal diet,” Vail says. “We may only get one or two opportunities to eat a day, and with as much energy as I’m expending when filming, I don’t worry about calories.”
But when she’s home, Vail follows a more regimented diet. She eats seven times a day—three meals of whey protein shakes, and four meals following a paleo diet comprising all-natural foods. The perks of being a hunter: She has multiple freezers full of meat, so the protein comes from venison, turkey or pheasant, which she pairs with a vegetable. Her typical daily diet looks like this:
MEAL 1: Four egg whites, two whole eggs scrambled and 1/2 cup of oatmeal
MEAL 2: Venison steak with 1/4 cup of low-sodium kidney beans
MEAL 3: Protein shake with two rice cakes
MEAL 4: One cup of baked pheasant with green beans
MEAL 5: Postworkout: protein shake
MEAL 6: Salmon with asparagus
MEAL 7: Protein shake