At times, intuition offers up a much-needed note of caution about an endeavor, and a gut sense about a situation that steers away from disaster. It can mean abandoning hope of summiting a peak in the face of mostly immaterial clouds, and the happy ending of finding yourself back at the trailhead by the time the hail hits. Then there are the moments, particularly in extreme sports, when there's a voice that screams "No, don't go"—but its sole cause is a fear that has little bearing on physical abilities or conditions. There's a faint line between the two.
That line is where Faith Dickey spends her time.
"I tend to really try to understand if my fear is a head fear—if it's a mental fear that I'm creating—or if I feel it in my whole body," Dickey says. That requires checking in with her heart rate and her gut, and whether it's just her mind second-guessing.
Dickey is the rare professional female slackliner. Her job requires rigging flat ropes between points sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet from the ground, and stepping out into what looks and feels a lot like thin air. She holds the female world record for the longest such walk free solo, completed without backup safety rigging in place, at 28 meters (91.9 feet). She also set records for distance on highlines and longlines, 105 meters (344.5 feet) and 222 meters (728.3 feet), respectively. Length adds difficulty: Where a tightrope remains taut, a slackline undulates with wind and the motion of the person who steps atop it. She's walked highlines between points in the Alps, above Rio de Janeiro and, in California, 2,900 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor.
For a while, the records she set kept pace with those set by men. There's a point made in a short film about her, "Wild Women: Faith Dickey," that because success in this sport hinges not on physical strength, but on balance and mental fortitude, women have a chance to keep pace with men.
"It's much more about how you move your body than how strong your muscles are," Dickey tells SFR during a recent trip to Utah for the filming of a virtual reality project.
Burgeoning research in sports psychology shows that in some areas, women may outstrip men when it comes to shouldering competitive pressure. Researchers at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, analyzed 8,200 Grand Slam tennis matches and found the performance of male athletes deteriorated more than female athletes when the stakes were high, and that even if a female's performance did drop, it was about half the decline of that of male athletes.
A previous study shows that cortisol levels increase more rapidly in men than in women, and that higher levels can affect performance, and that while men may outperform women in the first round of mathematics competitions, their edge doesn't last.
Physically, the first decade after Title IX passed in 1972 saw female record holders' times improving at a rate that had researchers predicting they'd soon exceed male records. That hasn't come to pass, except for a few outliers, but the research and conversation continues. Female athletes' performance could spill over to changing long-held views that question women's presence in the workplace and in leadership roles.
When Dickey started slacklining a decade ago, there weren't a lot of other women participating in the sport, so it was easy to spring to the front of a small pack, she says. But that's the opposite of what she wants for the next generation. Seeing other women out there doing this sport, she says, is a key to unlocking the female potential here.
"I think the greatest factor in women not reaching or surpassing men is simply not believing that they can," she says. What it'll take to round that corner is to see more women involved in the sport: "When you approach any activity and you only see people different from you doing it, it's hard to visualize yourself doing it."
To that end, she organizes the Girls Only Slackline Festival in the Czech Republic, her personal "base camp," each fall. And she highlines in dresses and high heels, just to poke fun at ideals by mixing those feminine flagship pieces with an extreme sport.
"It's a such a powerful feeling for me, to get past my self-doubt, get past the fear, and be able to do something I didn't initially think I was capable of," she says. "That planted this seed in me of realizing how much our minds stop us from doing things we want to do."
The key, then, lies in bringing your brain into balance.