Award Winning Water Sports Instructor on Challenging Sexist Preconceptions
This week’s episode of Our Voices tells a story of females triumphing against the odds. Nicola is 22 years old and is a senior water sports instructor with the RYA – the UK’s Royal Yachting Association.
She talks about growing up in a single-parent family and about how her mother has been a life-long inspiration. She also reflects on the times in which she has been underestimated by males. And how she has quite spectacularly forced them to reevaluate their assumptions.
A single-parent family
Nicola’s mother gave birth to her at the tender age of 17. Nicola was part of a single-parent family for the first two years of her life before her mother met her stepdad. It wasn’t until Nicola was 7 that her little sister, Alice, was born.
This meant that she had a long stretch during her childhood of being an only child. “I think single children always have a certain personality to them, it makes them a little bit headstrong… I could just make my own path and make my own rules in a way.”
A tragic loss
Nicola describes her childhood upbringing as a happy time. But she would tragically lose her stepfather to cancer at the age of 14. This meant that Nicola was once again a part of a single-parent family.
“She’s really not had it easy, she’s always had people against her and I think that has shaped her as a person and that has then shaped me and Alice as people as well.” The loss of Nicola’s stepfather was a particularly traumatic time for all the family. “It did affect me, and it affected my schoolwork, and it affected my personal life.” It also meant that Nicola had to assume a role of responsibility in the household at a young age. She would become involved in the cooking and cleaning and help her mum as much as she could.
Nicola’s help would’ve been especially appreciated as her mum decided to take on the challenge of a university degree. Balancing this around raising two young girls while also working as an inspirational feat. “She graduated just when I started uni, which is incredible. She really is an inspiration for me. Superwoman.”
Nicola’s mum also had educational ambitions for her daughter. She wanted her to go to Manchester High School for Girls, the most prestigious private school in her area. The first step was to pass the entrance exams, which, at the age of 11, Nicola successfully achieved.
The next obstacle was to pay the extremely high fees that are associated with private education. This was made particularly difficult due to Nicola growing up in a single-parent home. Fortunately, she was able to get a bursary and a scholarship so that financial concerns were not an issue.
A new passion
One of the benefits of going to private school was that Nicola was introduced to activities that had not previously been available. She found that she had a particular fondness for water sports. It wouldn’t be long before she made the school’s water polo team. One of the matches she has particularly strong memories of was when her team played an all-boys team from another school.
This would see her come up against attitudes of sexism in sport. “I remember feeling like there was a bit of a point to prove for this game, because I knew even before meeting them that there would be a certain attitude towards us.”
Challenging sexism in sport
Initially, the girls decided to lure the boys in by playing into gender stereotypes and pretending to be nervous and overwhelmed by the occasion. They allowed the boys to assert their advantage at the beginning until they decided it was time to show what they were really about.
“We all looked at each other and we kicked it into gear and went on the offence.” Once the girls were on the offence, there was no looking back. “I can’t quite remember the score, but I remember it didn’t look great for them… They walked away very quietly after the game.” Reflecting on being able to challenge sexism in sport, Nicola says
“I went home feeling very, very happy and very, very powerful that day. I felt I was on top of the world.”
Becoming a water sports instructor
There would be other occasions when Nicola would come up against sexist perceptions. This occurred when she was working as a water sports instructor at the RYA. She had got into sailing after going on a school trip during which an instructor had encouraged her to take advantage of the affordable sessions.
Very quickly she realised that she had discovered a passion. “I think what I loved most about going on the water is how isolating it is… you get cut off from the outside world. And you become much more aware of what’s going on… it’s really freeing.”
Being underestimated once more
Nicola was 16 when she first started working as a water sports instructor. One of her most challenging experiences came when two men in their 30s showed up to do a weekend sailing course. They had a certain swagger about them and they gave off the vibe that they weren’t there to take either her or sailing particularly seriously.
When they found out Nicola was going to be their instructor “they kind of looked at me and you could see this look in their eyes of: are you sure? Is this who’s meant to be teaching?… they probably had their own suspicions about me and I was young, I was female, probably not what they were expecting”.
The first warning
Nevertheless, Nicola provided the safety instructions before preparing to take them out onto the water. When she could see that they were laughing with each other and not paying attention Nicola wasn’t slow to call them out on it.
She told them that they would need her help at some stage and so they had better pay attention. The men listened more carefully after that but it wasn’t until they got out onto the boat that they would realise the truth of her words.
Having to ask for help
The first day was particularly windy and it shocked the men how challenging sailing actually was. But, on the second day, the sun was out and the cockiness returned. “I let them have that attitude a little bit because I knew it would come back to get them. And I knew that they wouldn’t listen to me say that to them, they had to find out for themselves.”
The men began OK, performing the manoeuvres they’d been taught. However, the wind began to pick up and the men struggled to keep the boat under control. After initially resisting asking for help, the men finally asked Nicola to restabilise the boat
“They knew that if they didn’t get my help they were going to end up going for a swim and nobody wanted that.”
Once the course was completed, the men personally thanked Nicola for helping them. “It did take me back a little bit … but it felt great. Because I felt like I’d made a difference to their attitudes potentially towards other female sailors in the future that they would come across.”
Nicola won the Manchester Active Young Volunteer of the Year Award for her dedication to sailing and volunteering at the outdoor centre. Her role in the RYA helps to establish that gender stereotyping in sports is completely inappropriate. “I think the more that we start to value women and lift them up, and really help them see the potential that they can reach, society will be improved as a whole.”