I was barely out of my teens over twenty years ago when I went to the New and Gauley Rivers in West Virginia to train to be a whitewater rafting guide. Women were really just breaking into the scene so the entire area was heavily dominated by men. This in itself wasn’t the least bit concerning since my desire to guide had nothing at all to do with the male to female ratio. What was concerning, as I soon came to find out, was the blatant sexism displayed by some male guides, trainers, and company owners. I selected one company out of a dozen to train with and throughout most of a year with them I endured being talked down to, sardonic attitudes, and never-ending attempts to make me fail. I was repeatedly put into situations to deliberately push me past my physical and psychological limits in the hopes that I would just give up; many trainees did, after all. This kind of adversity is what I faced spring, summer, and fall while training with “Company A”. But let me tell you the outcome.
Right before I left for winter, frustrated and pissed off, I met one of the owners of a different rafting company at a local bar. After telling him my story, he told me to come to his company the next season, because if he could have his way he would have all female guides. His reasoning was that while many male guides may be physically stronger and able to use brute force to get down the river, the female guides who were unable to use brute force actually had to learn the water, currents, rocks, and subtleties of the river and use those things to their advantage. We would finesse our way down and he felt that was superior.
The following year, I found this second company a place that not only welcomed, but nourished female guides. Alongside a group of other strong and independent women, we crashed through the artificial and arbitrary barriers and proved our skills and abilities were matched with the men. Gender was determined not to be an issue at all; rather skill, ability, endurance, and of course adventurous spirits and fun-loving attitudes were paramount.
Despite the support and guidance of the second company, or maybe because of it, I discovered that the experiences with Company A left me with a confidence and determination I might not have otherwise had. Without their outdated attitudes and ridicule spurring me to prove them wrong, I’m not sure I would have had the will to stick with it. Even without the added difficulties I had, the training was long and arduous, difficult and demanding. It took a certain level of endurance and control over one’s fears to stick with it; two things I’m not sure I would have had without the inadvertent help from a bunch of sexist men. After all, it was the hell they put me through that probably made me as good a guide as I was, and I know for certain that their determination to make me fail was the very reason I succeeded.
Just in case anyone mistakes my gratitude toward them as crediting them for my success, let me make something clear. I am responsible for my own successes and failures, but everyone gets a little help along the way. The second company I worked for helped me by being supportive, and that’s normal and expected. But ‘Company A’ helped me in an unexpected way. Their adversity presented a challenge to me and lacking that challenge, I’m not sure I would have pressed on and continued the training. They turned on my “I’ll show you!” switch and I think I may have needed that at the time to stick with something that was so physically and psychologically demanding for me. I do not credit them with my success, but I credit them for providing the catalyst that my success eventually bubbled out of. In the end, I was left as a much more confident and strong person. I had conquered a number of my fears (an intense fear of drowning for one) and my own insecurities. It just really seemed that there was nothing I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. Along with those who supported me, I credit them for helping me to get to that point. Getting to that point was my choice and by my own actions, physical and emotional. They just provided something I needed along the way. Good or bad, what’s happened to me has led me to where I am today and the person I am today. And for that I have to thank not only the people who willingly tried to help me, but also the ones who tried so hard to stop me.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should have walls and hurdles thrown in front of them because it’ll make them stronger. But if you find yourself being given a difficult time by someone, realize that it can make you stronger if you let it. Decide what it is you really want, what succeeding is worth to you, and then don’t let anyone stop you. That adversity you’re facing could be used to spur you forward, stronger and more determined. It could help you decide what it is you really want to do. It’s all in how you view things: roadblocks or stepping stones? Or maybe even a detour to something better. I could look back and be angry with a chip on my shoulder, or I can look back and wonder if I would have made it as a guide at all if they hadn’t tried so hard to stop me? Even if I had become a guide sans the difficulty, would I have been as good and as confident a guide?
I think I know the answer to those questions, so in a way I have to accept that the hurdles they put in front of me actually kept me stubbornly on a path that led to a decade I will never forget. Two decades really, since I do still run whitewater, I just do it for fun instead of money now. They actually helped me immensely, even though that was not their intention at all, and the irony in that makes me smile. I thank them for their brutal treatment of me, because without it I wouldn’t be who I am today.