Women Who Fly: Permission and privilege

Shirin-still

Shirin Gerami knows more than most that barriers are meant to be broken. As the first ever female triathlete to represent Iran, one of her first conversations with the Iranian Triathlon Federation was about the clothes that she’d be wearing. There were no clothes that would allow her to compete. So she worked with brands to make clothes that would.

“If not all, most barriers are within ourselves that need to be broken. Barriers of how we think and how much we dare to dream and how much we dare to chase those dreams and how much we dare to not give up,” says Shirin, a triathlete based in London who trains for part of the year in Boulder, CO. “Our fears prohibit us from discovering so much about ourselves.”

I first discovered Shirin as she spoke as part of a panel discussion at the IRONMAN® World Championship, first noticing as she crossed her feet that she was wearing brightly colored and hard-to-miss HOKA Challengers. But as she began to tell her story, with the world’s most soothing voice and calm collective presence, I began to understand the significance of what she had done to break barriers, not just for herself, but for women around the world.

In 2017, we shared Shirin’s story as well as the powerful stories of other female runners through our Women Who Fly film series. But their stories didn’t end there. Almost a year later, we reached out to follow up and discover how current events have impacted the latest chapters of their lives. This is an excerpt from Shirin’s blog, shortly after she competed in the 2016 IRONMAN® World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Her film is featured at the end of this story.

November 2016 | Shirin Gerami

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It was a spectacularly beautiful day – crispy cold, deep blue sky, and the sun set the yellow autumn leaves and orange berries on fire. The journalist was twenty minutes late and I was making use of the opportunity to go for a run and clear my head before she arrived.

She had sent me a list of questions the night before. As I ran, I thought about one of the questions she had asked: why did I choose to represent Iran?  There are so many reasons for it – and it’s always so hard to express them in words. But this morning, one scene kept playing itself over and over again in my mind.

It was 2003 when a huge earthquake shook the centre of Iran – completely destroying Bam, one of the most ancient cities of the country, killing at least 30,000 people. It was one the most devastating earthquakes the country had witnessed. Bam, a once vibrant, historic city had turned into a complete ghost town: the city turned into dust; and the people sitting on the rubbles, homeless, in shock, and mourning the loss of their loved ones. I joined a charity and started going to Bam in the hope of being of some use.

“The security they had always had, the world they had known, the people they had loved, sometimes their entire household … everything gone with the blink of an eye.”

One of my cousins, Salar, joined us on one of these trips. One day, we were going from tent to tent, talking to the children and hearing their stories. It had been a night, just like all other nights, children sleeping in their houses with their parents and siblings. They woke up to their world falling on their heads, literally. The security they had always had, the world they had known, the people they had loved, sometimes their entire household … everything gone with the blink of an eye.

At the end of the trip, my cousin told me: ‘this is so hard to digest. These kids, they are the same age as you and me. They are just like you and me. Yesterday, they had everything: shelter, security, food, family. Yet, everything changed so suddenly overnight. A change in their lives in a way they could have never imagined.’ Salar’s comment kept replaying in my head as I was running this morning, over and over again.

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On the surface, it’s hard to relate this to why I was thinking of this story as one of the reasons for why I represent Iran in triathlons. Something which I hope would eventually lead to the ability to share sports with those who currently can’t access it. It’s even harder to explain when you have a camera and microphone recording your every umm and err.

But experiences such as Bam are reminders that I have so many blessings in my life, and that I’m no different in any way or form to those who don’t have the same privileges. I just happened to be born under a lucky star. It’s a reminder that everything that I take for granted today, can change completely in the blink of an eye. It is a reminder to make the most I can from the blessings I have today, and share them now, whilst I am still under that lucky star… for who knows what tomorrow may bring. It is the very very least I can do to show my gratitude.

“Sharing the ability to access sports is only a droplet of an entire ocean of blessings I am privileged to have.”

I am by no means equating sports with basic necessities of life such as security, love and food – but it is a powerful tool that can bring joy and peace of mind (even if momentarily) in the direst circumstances of life. It is a celebration and/or creation of the mind and body that allows us to achieve our dreams and enables us to pull through difficult circumstances. Sharing the ability to access sports is only a droplet of an entire ocean of blessings I am privileged to have.

And then, tonight, I heard news of Salar. He had slipped and fallen down the fourth story of an apartment. His face smashed up, both of his arms and his rib cages crushed, and his lung punctured. Salar, who is always up for a good adventure and full of life no matter the circumstance. Salar, my cousin, my friend, someone so close to my heart.

“It’s so easy to forget that I am not in a special, invincible bubble. That these sudden change of circumstances can happen to anyone, including me.”

And again, I hear his voice repeat in my head. ‘They had everything that you and I currently have…. Yet, everything changed so suddenly overnight.’ It’s such a hard way to remind me of that lesson, Salar. The lesson that today, I can do the things I can do, but tomorrow I may not have any of the ‘privileges’. ‘Privileges’ in brackets, because, frankly, I’m probably taking most of them for granted right now, failing to see them as a privilege – until one day, I lose them. It’s so easy to forget that I am not in a special, invincible bubble. That these sudden change of circumstances can happen to anyone, including me.

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To run, to swim, to cycle, to play, to dance, to fly, to laugh, to hug, to love, to give, to breathe… whilst we still can. Privileges come and go, they are here for us to make the most out of them whilst they last. To share and multiply what we have so others can also access it, whilst we can. Who knows what we’ll wake up to tomorrow.

Salar azizam, we were planning so many adventures together this year… another Bradley adventure, backcountry skiing this winter? Get well soon. Karet daram. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

More on our Women Who Fly film series

Running is much more than just the physical mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a test of mental strength and willpower, and for many, it’s also a form of meditation and healing. Watch as three women — each moved by a life-changing experience — share how running has led these inspiring women to overcome their challenges and be stronger for it. These are the Women Who Fly.

Featuring Shirin Gerami in the Clifton 4. 

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Women Who Fly: When courage creates change

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It takes courage to speak up. The #metoo movement was born from the courage of, at first, a few female voices. What followed was an outpouring of stories from women who realized they were not alone.

“Being sexually abused is not the story of my life. It’s not necessarily what made me strong, I was strong before that. And because of that strength I was able to survive that,” says HOKA Athlete Devon Yanko, a Northern California-based ultrarunner. “I had to fight really hard to be who I am today.”

For Devon, sharing her story was a powerful way to enact change. And it was running that was part of healing. Time on the trails enabled her to eventually open up about her experience being sexually abused as a young athlete, and ultimately, take action to help others. “When I didn’t have the ability to say anything or talk about what was going on in my life, I could literally just go exhaust myself by running as hard as possible,” says Devon. “It helped me separate from everything else that was going on in my life — and it just gave me … a break.”

Years later, as a sponsored athlete, running has continued to support her, both personally and professionally. “Running is a perfect metaphor for life. My life and the way I run. It’s complex and it’s intense. It’s emotional. You’ll see me crying and being like, ‘I don’t think I can keep going,’ and then you know, 30 miles later, I’m like ‘happy go lucky, going to crush it.’ And that’s what I love about it. I love that all of these things can exist together.”

In 2017, we shared Devon’s story as well as the powerful stories of other female runners through our Women Who Fly film series. But their stories didn’t end there. Almost a year later, we reached out to follow up and discover how current events have impacted the latest chapters of their lives. This is an excerpt from Devon’s blog, shortly after the #metoo movement began last fall. Her film is featured at the end of this story.

October 2017 | Devon Yanko

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I have been ruminating a lot over the last few weeks about the #metoo campaign. I have gone through a great spectrum of emotions about it, everything from pride to anger. These emotions have swirled about under the specter of the massive wildfires affecting so many nearby, the thoughts marinate through long sleepless post surgery nights.

“I stood up, I took action, I fought so hard. And yet, sometimes the changes I was able to make made me feel like I threw a pebble into the ocean.”

My mind has just been heavy, my heart too. There has been something that has gnawed at me. I have grappled with whether I even wanted to write something about this because honestly there is a part of me that feels I worked so hard 17 years ago against this very type of thing. I stood up, I took action, I fought so hard. And yet, sometimes the changes I was able to make made me feel like I threw a pebble into the ocean. But maybe that is what is keeping me up at night, knowing that despite the fact that this is a chapter long since closed for me, that I still have the power to take action.

Most people who know me know that I was sexually abused as a teenager by the select/AAU basketball coach. It started when I was 15 and continued for three years. If you have seen Billy Yang’s movie Life in a Day or the HOKA Women Who Fly video, you have a snapshot of that time of my life. But over the last few weeks, I have realized that very few people who know me now, know how the story really ends. There is awareness of the existence of the abuse and that I survived, I healed and I thrived. But that is not the whole story. I don’t share this for myself or so that people will think I am brave or that I did a good thing, I already own that. My actions during that time saved me and helped make me who I am today. I share it because I think it is important to understand our own power and our own ability to produce change. Awareness is a step, but really meaningful change to such an entrenched paradigm takes action.

I never was a cool kid. I never have a lot of friends. That is why finally finding friendship in my teammates of Players Only, my select basketball team, meant everything to me. I had found my tribe. We were thick as thieves. They meant everything to me. When I stood up against my coach, I lost all of them as friends. Not a single one of them stood by me. Some of them were victims and not ready to face the complicated emotions associated with saying ‘me too,’ some of them were not victims and felt torn apart by the situation, the loss of innocence associated with the complete annihilation of our seemingly idyllic little world. Those are the same reasons, in part, that I stayed silent for three years.

“To this day, the words ‘difficult’ and ‘selfish’ are weaponized to my psyche and have the power to wound me deeply if used as a means of control. I am in fact not those things …”

I was afraid of losing everything. That fear is something that my abuser used against me ruthlessly. I had an intense fear of being socially ostracized, of being considered ‘difficult’ or ‘selfish.’ After all, I had just found these amazing friends, I would do anything to keep them and my abuser knew it after carefully grooming me for months to find my most deep and tender spots. He would use these fears against me anytime I would fight back, anytime I would show signs of rising up, anytime I exerted my will or revealed myself as not totally under his control. He could easily reduce me back to nothing by calling me ‘difficult’ or ‘selfish’ or telling me the other girls were not going to be my friends anymore. To this day, the words ‘difficult’ and ‘selfish’ are weaponized to my psyche and have the power to wound me deeply if used as a means of control. I am in fact not those things and have actually had to work very hard in life to actually not put others first over myself at all times no matter what the cost to myself. I have worked hard to have healthy boundaries and have learned to ask for things I need. I know I am not those things, but even the suggestion I might be, has the ability to shake me deeply to my core and hurt me in a way few things can.

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Those friends meant everything to me. I thought I would never have friends like them ever again in my life. Thankfully, in my adult life, I have found running and through running, I have found an amazing community and incredible friends. But that team, at the time, they were everything to me. Even though our friendships ultimately involved the huge unspoken shared lie of the abuse by our coach, we would do anything for each other. Ultimately, I had to choose whether I truly cared about my friends or if I just cared about having them in my life.

“I was not his first victim, but it was then I decided, I would be his last.’”

I can’t say it was easy to be brave or stand up against my abuser. As an 18 year old, I thought I could simply run away and put it all behind me. I ran away to a different state on a basketball scholarship, but it was then that I realized no matter how far I ran, the pain, the lies, everything I had been through ran right along with me. I dropped out of school three months after I started and returned home to Washington. It was then that something happened that finally moved me to action: I started to suspect that my best friend on the team, who was younger than me, was being groomed by my abuser. I could do nothing to protect myself, but when I realized she was in danger, I realized that my silence meant more girls would inevitably become his victims. I was not his first victim, but it was then I decided, I would be his last. I do not know if I saved my best friend from the pain that I suffered, because I lost her too when I stood up. I still remember receiving an email from her after I had gone to the police and reported my abuser, in which she told me she never wanted to speak to me again. I said, ‘I will be here whenever you need me and I will always be your friend.’

“I did not want to be complicit in his actions by doing nothing. And by standing up, I found that I transitioned from victim to survivor.”

Standing up was not easy. As I said, I lost all of my friends. And worse, I was called a liar in the Eastside Journal, in an extensive article in praise of Tony and how he produced good basketball players. My coach had made sure he had the daughters of some very rich white men (from the Eastside) whom he’d never touch on his team to vouch for him, effusively praise him and denounce me. But I was not deterred. Even though I gave a list of names of his victims and potential victims to the prosecutor, initially, I had to stand alone. I had to stand alone, be called a liar, lose all of my friends and even some family, lose my love of the game I had sacrificed so much for, lose everything I knew about myself and the world. When victims share with me that they are afraid of losing everything by coming forward, I tell them, you are right, you may lose ‘everything’ but the reality is everything was already lost to you the moment you suffered the abuse, the rape, the trauma. You cannot protect ‘everything’ with silence because the trauma you experience will be an undercurrent to all you do, it will never lose its power until you speak truth to it. I stood up not to save myself, I didn’t feel I had anything left to save, I stood up to stop him from every doing it again. I did not want to be complicit in his actions by doing nothing. And by standing up, I found that I transitioned from victim to survivor.

“I think it is important to realize that one voice is not just a pebble in the ocean. One voice can produce change. Your voice, your story can produce change.”

Ultimately, the article written by the Eastside Journal turned out to be the downfall of my abuser. One of his victims from a few years before me had read the article and all of the lies it contained. It infuriated her. She was able to produce the physical evidence that ultimately forced our abuser to take a plea bargain. Due to appalling statute of limitations, he was only charged with what he’d done to me as the other women’s statutes had passed. When he stood up in court and admitted what he had done, there were 11 women who had come forward against him from a span of time that almost encompassed my entire lifetime. 11 women and that is only a small percent of the women who actually suffered at his hands before me. One of the most powerful things in my own self work around those years was the simple fact that I stood up. I owned my story. And frankly, I also gave many other women the opportunity to finally close that chapter in their own story. It was terrifying to stand up against him, but by doing so I realized how much power I have to truly make things change.

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After he went to prison, I worked with the Seattle Times on an investigation into the problem of abuse by teachers/coaches statewide (can be read here). This series of articles was not only nominated for a Pulitzer Prize but also helped get state laws changed. There was national attention with 20/20 and Good Morning America. I say this because I think it is important to realize that one voice is not just a pebble in the ocean. One voice can produce change. Your voice, your story can produce change.

“I believe that we have a collective power that we are not tapping into. I believe we want the paradigm to change but don’t know how to do it.”

And here we are 17 years later. I don’t think about that time in my life a great deal, I did the healing work I need to. I put that part of my life behind me. I actually was surprised to have such a reaction to the #metoo campaign, but I did. And so here I am. The thing that is important for me to share is that we do have power to change things. We do have power to fight back and stand up. Don’t think you can stand up for yourself? Can you stand up for your best friend? Your sister? Your daughter? Your brother? Your son? Can you stand up to protect them? Think about it, if it happened to you, chances are that person will do it again; whether that is abuse, rape, harassment, anything. I believe that we have a collective power that we are not tapping into. I believe we want the paradigm to change but don’t know how to do it. I believe we could start by protecting one another; by standing up and saying, this ends with me. We can protect one another, we can believe one another, we can stand for one another.

More on our Women Who Fly film series

Running is much more than just the physical mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a test of mental strength and willpower, and for many, it’s also a form of meditation and healing. Watch as three women — each moved by a life-changing experience — share how running has led these inspiring women to overcome their challenges and be stronger for it. These are the Women Who Fly.

Featuring HOKA Athlete Devon Yanko in the Clifton 4. 

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Women Who Fly: The road to recovery isn’t always paved

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“Sitting in a jail cell made me realize this is my bottom, and I need to stop,” says Northern California-based ultrarunner Catra Corbett, reflecting on the day she decided to conquer her drug addiction. “I had to change my life.”

Catra does not look like a “typical” runner. With pink pigtails, tattoos, piercings, bright colors from head to toe and unmistakably large running shoes — she’s hard to miss. But beyond her vibrant exterior is a story of drug addiction and recovery that led her on a path she never expected for herself.

“I never thought in a million years that I would ever become a runner after what I went through,” she says.

Running by the punk shows and nightclubs she used to hangout in during her first marathon was a surreal experience for her. She realized in that moment that she was no longer an addict — she was an athlete.

Now an accomplished ultrarunner, she has raced over 250 ultramarathons and is a prominent member of the ultra community. She lives in Fremont, California with her dachshund, Truman, who accompanies her on the trail for as long as his tiny legs can handle. Since her transition to the world of ultrarunning, Catra has built a strong social media following of people who look to her for advice, positivity and inspiration.

“I used drugs and alcohol to keep from loving myself,” she says. “You first have to love yourself before you can love others. Once that happened, life got better.”

When Catra was contacted by a literary agent last year, she had been wanting to share her story for over a decade, but knew nothing about the process writing a book or actually going about doing it. So she did something only Catra would, she wrote it while running. “I hired a writer to help me. I knew I would never be able to sit still and write it, so I recorded my stories while running for each chapter and sent them to my writer. We would finish a chapter and I would go through and correct things and that’s how I did it.”

An unconventional approach for an unconventional runner. “It was very hard going back into my past. I thought it would be easy but it stirred up emotions,” she says. “I would get sad, have a cry and then think, ‘Wow, look what you’ve gone through and how much you’ve grown.’ I know my story is meant to help others and that’s why I’m telling it.”

In 2017, we shared Catra’s story as well as the powerful stories of other female runners through our Women Who Fly film series. But their stories didn’t end there. Almost a year later, we reached out to follow up and discover how current events have impacted the latest chapters of their lives. This is an excerpt from Catra’s soon-to-be-released autobiography, Reborn on the Run: My Journey from Addiction to Ultramarathons. Her film is featured at the end of this story.

May 2018 | Catra Corbett

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Like many people, I started running to get healthy. I switched hanging out and dancing all night in goth clubs for early morning runs. While I missed the rush of dancing till dawn, I found putting my sneakers away was not an option. I started like many do — I ran around the block and almost died. But, then I tried it again the next day and found out I could go a little farther before I almost died again. A couple years after I became a runner, I stumbled across ultramarathons. These impossibly long races called to me. They seemed to be the answer I needed to change my life. 

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More on our Women Who Fly film series

Running is much more than just the physical mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a test of mental strength and willpower, and for many, it’s also a form of meditation and healing. Watch as three women — each moved by a life-changing experience — share how running has led these inspiring women to overcome their challenges and be stronger for it. These are the Women Who Fly.

Featuring Catra Corbett in the Clifton 4. 

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