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The tight rope between trust and fear

How professional slackliner and world record breaker Faith Dickey learned to trust herself enough to conquer the highline.

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It’s mid-November and an average Tuesday for Faith Dickey, who crouches on the edge of a burnt sienna canyon in Moab, Utah, 300 feet above the jagged rocks below. In front of her is a thin rope stretching 150 feet to the other side of the ravine. It sways gently in the wind. She rises to her feet, takes a deep breath, and steps out onto the line.

To an outsider, it might seem that Dickey — a professional slackliner, highliner, and longliner for over a decade — is impervious to obstacles like nerves, self doubt, and fear. After all, Dickey has walked lines around the globe, in terrains ranging from jungle magotes of Cuba, to mountains in Italy, to the desert canyons of Morocco. In 2014, she became the first woman to reach a highlining length of 100-meters. In 2010, she set her personal record for height in the Swiss Alps at 4,000 feet. But Dickey is the first to admit that despite her achievements, trusting her instincts, her body, and her ability to take on challenges isn’t easy.

Dickey first learned about slacklining in 2008, in her hometown of Austin, Texas. At the time, her life was headed in a very different direction. She had recently graduated high school and was working five jobs, including waitressing at an Irish pub and refereeing paintball matches. Her dream was to become a fashion designer, and she was desperately trying to save money for school in New York City. But Dickey felt increasingly run down, stuck, and at a loss as to whether she was pursuing the right goal.

And then, Dickey went to a park with a friend, where she saw a group of people taking turns walking on a rope a few feet off the ground, tied between two trees. “Slacklining wasn’t something I had seen before,” Dickey says. “I was never particularly daring or athletic, and I thought, ‘there’s no way I could do that. It looks insanely hard.’”

But each time Dickey returned to the park, the slackliners caught her eye. Eventually she decided to give it a shot. Dickey describes learning to slackline, and then eventually, to highline (slacklining, but higher off the ground), as initially frustrating. “I would step up to the line, and try to take a step, but my body wouldn’t move,” she says. “I realized there was a part of me that hadn’t built up enough trust to do it.”

That deep-rooted fear didn’t stop her from trying. She began by learning everything there was to know about slacklining and highlighting: how a line is engineered, how a rope is rigged to two anchors, and how the wind and placement of a line determines its degree of tautness. She studied the mechanics of her harness, carabiners, and knots, and observed the processes of her fellow slackliners. And then, Dickey started practicing. She practiced falling, she practiced standing on the line, and she practiced lifting one foot and then the other. Little by little, she began to build up that reserve of trust. “There are a lot of ingredients that go into trusting something,” Dickey says. “For me to trust myself to highline, I had to learn to trust the line and its rigging, to trust my equipment and my teammates, and then I had to learn to trust my body,” she says. “It was only once I had all of these ingredients under my belt, that I was able to do highline.”

Dickey remembers the rush of joy she felt after completing her first walk from one end of a highline to the other. “It was this unbelievable pride and sense of accomplishment,” she says. From there, she began working her way across longer and higher lines. “I don’t consider myself an adrenaline junkie,” Dickey says. “For me, highlining is methodical and it’s meditative. With every highline I walk, there is a ton of preparation. … And then once I’m up on the line, there’s a sense of calm; all outside pressures slip away. I’m in the moment, focused solely on my balance and what’s in front of me.”

As Dickey traveled the world, taking on greater highlining challenges, she noticed something about the slacklining community: its lack of women. “I was always the minority,” Dickey says. “And I wasn’t sure why. This is a sport about balance and focus, which are completely non-gendered skills.” In talking with other women, she began to realize that the lack of female representation in highlining also was rooted in the inherent doubts and fears women often carry. “I think it’s common for women to doubt their abilities,” Dickey says. “Men will just go for things, but for women, we question if we are smart enough, strong enough, capable enough. I wanted to combat that [lack of representation].”

In 2009, Dickey organized the first, women’s only slacklining festival. Held in the Czech Republic, it was designed to be a space for female slackliners to meet, collaborate, and practice their craft. The first year, only six women showed up. But since then, the festival has more than quadrupled in size. “Our community is growing,” she says. “Each year, there are more women who hear about slacklining and want to try it out. They trust that this is a sport and a community where they belong.”

Ten years into her highlining career, with world records and an annual festival under her belt, Dickey’s journey to trust herself is far from over. “When I was younger, I had to learn to trust myself and my body to get on the highline,” she says. “As I’m getting older, I am now learning to trust when my body tells me I need to take a break.” Highlining is particularly hard on one’s knees, and Dickey acknowledges she feels that strain. “An ingredient in trust is humility, and knowing that we can’t always do everything we want to because we change; our bodies change,” she says.

Today, while Dickey continues to highline regularly, she’s also pursuing other sports, like rock climbing. It’s another lesson in conquering the fear of something new. “I love it,” she says. “It’s a new kind of mental and physical exercise. I don’t know what the future holds for me in terms of highlining and rock climbing, but for now, I’m trusting my instincts.”

Story by Emma Gross

Illustrations by Brad Cuzen

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