Before I left for a three-month stint on a BMW S1000RR, the fastest production bike on the planet, I defined myself by the words on my business card. My working life defined me. Completely. My whole identity—my purpose, my reason for being, my value to the world—was inextricably tied to my job.
On the inside, I felt like a fraud, but on the outside, my business card told a different story. My title was my validation. It opened doors, gave me credibility, enabled me to be measured and to be recognised. It told a powerful story of success and achievement—of who I desperately needed the world to see me as. I was my business card, and without it, I was nothing. It didn't take many days of being alone on the road for that identity to start unravelling.
By day four, I was heading home from an early morning run when I passed two RVs parked in a pullout, where their owners had enjoyed a spectacular view of the lake overnight. By the time I arrived, they were sitting peacefully in fold-out chairs, breathing in the view and the morning, their hands wrapped around huge steaming mugs of coffee. Sucker that I am for coffee first thing in the morning, I slowed down to a trot on the off chance they had a fresh pot brewing.
The plan worked. Within minutes, they'd pulled up a chair, and I was sitting—coffee in hand—sharing the world with three beautiful fellow gypsies.
For nearly two hours, we sat in the sun together—trading stories, trading lives, trading dreams. I was stunned by their openness and their willingness to let a complete stranger into their world. They didn't know anything about me. We didn't talk about my “history." I wasn't my achievements, I was just me—at that point in time, a wild, smelly Aussie out running on the banks of Kootenay Lake who happened to drop in for coffee and a chat. I didn't need to be anything or anyone else. Just me. And it was perfect.
Some Stories Are Harder to Let Go of Than Others
The beauty of being on a bike for hours is that it gives you time to reflect. To work things through. But when there's just you inside your helmet, it's easy to play the same tape over and over in your head—a conversation that you've had or you wished you'd had, a cutting remark that keeps biting you, a smack you wish you'd given. That thought or emotion keeps looping back again and again and again.
The trouble with looping is that it keeps pulling you backwards. On day twenty-five, that's where I was—continually kicking myself for dropping my emotional bundle so spectacularly the day before, when I had almost made the decision at Mt Baker to give up and go home.
My internal dialogue was relentless. The only thing that stopped it was taking a corner. Loop, loop, loop—oh, tight right-hander—loop, loop—hold on, sharp left. Man, how did you let yourself spiral so completely out of control? What the hell is wrong with you?
But it served no purpose.
I remembered an untested technique one of my teachers, Ross, had taught me to short-circuit looping: stop, disengage, remove the emotional commitment. Brilliant! I gave it a shot. Every time I found myself looping, I physically put my hand up to say “stop" (I had to be careful it wasn't in the middle of a corner at the time), and then I mentally saw myself pulling a plug out of the wall so that I was physically disengaging myself from the thought and emotion.
As I did so, I made a conscious decision to let go of the story. It took a while—OK, nearly three hours—but every time it resurfaced, I went back to stop, disengage, remove the emotional commitment. Slowly, slowly, I emerged out of the rabbit hole. And I remembered, in stopping the story, to be kind to myself. I'd gotten myself into a black place, and sure I was still a little battered and bruised, but continually beating myself up wasn't going to help.
So I chose to let it go. And somewhere between Snohomish and Skykomish (yep, they're real places!), I felt the weight of judgement fall off my shoulders and bounce onto the road behind me.
Letting Judgement Go
Naturally, I didn't completely learn to let go of judgement—of myself or others—in one day. On day forty-six, as I loaded my bike, Voodoo, a young guy in his late thirties packed his Harley beside us. Not your typical Harley rider for once—a cool, sharply dressed guy with a buzz cut and not an ounce of leather, tattoos, or bandannas in sight. It's funny (or it's sad) how we (OK, I) jump to make quick judgements. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him and instantly thought, “Yep, accountant pretending
to be a wild boy, riding his Harley to escape actuarial boredom."
When am I ever going to learn?
We shared stories as we loaded, and within ten minutes, we'd stopped talking and had moved to hugging as he cried. Six months ago, his best friend had contracted cancer, and my new friend had nursed him until he'd died in his arms. Just a few weeks ago. He was out riding his Harley, trying to clear his head and to pull himself together.
I wept with him. There was nothing I could say or do to take the pain away. All I could do was hold space for him in his anguish. As if to reinforce the power of time on a bike to change our stories, a few days later I met Dennis—an older guy from the UK who'd shipped his bike out from England and had been riding for seven months. There I was, all smug from having ridden from British Columbia, while he'd ridden in from Alaska and had camped the whole way.
He had a courageous story. His only son had been killed in Afghanistan five years ago, and he was riding to reconcile with his loss. Despite this, Dennis radiated such excitement and exhilaration, continually looking for the next adventure in life. His bike was painted in camouflage and was completely covered with photos and small mementoes from his son's life. It was a celebration of the beautiful son he'd lost, and of life—a constant reminder that life was precious and he needed to live it.
Dennis was such a powerful example of consciously changing your story. I'm not sure how I could you ever turn the raw loss of a child into something positive and empowering. But Dennis did. After spending years in grief and in blackness, he'd decided to change his story into something meaningful and compelling.
You Are Not Your Story
Ultimately, the connections I made with people as I rode reminded me again and again that there was so much more to me than my professional identity. None of the people I'd met on the road had known my history. None of them were aware of what I'd achieved or accumulated. None of them cared about my business card, my title, my role.
On the road, that meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was who I was—right then and there, in that moment of time.
What mattered was how I engaged with the world—how I connected with these inspiring, captivating people. How I chose to show up. People who didn't know the warrior or the superhero in me liked me anyway. How's that for a surprise? They liked me for just being me. It was one of the most profound lessons I received from my epic journey on Voodoo; that I could be comfortable in my own skin, show up as I was, and still be appreciated for who I am..and that I am perfect—just as I am.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.