Women Who Fly: When courage creates change
Posted on January 16 2018
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
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.
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.
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.