Everest, Ecstasy, and Evangelism: the Latest from Story Untold

From left: Carla Funk, Paul Marlow, Greg Nolan, and Sharon Wood.

Things went quiet for a little while over here. I suppose that’s bound to happen in the midst of writing and completing an MFA degree. But there have been some new podcast guests in recent weeks, and their stories run the gamut: from death-defying alpine ascents, to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, to Mennonite life in small-town British Columbia. Below, you’ll find the latest episodes of Story Untold — available on your podcast provider of choice. Hope you enjoy them as much I did in recording them.

Carla Funk: “Small towns do something to the imagination”

Carla Funk grew up in a place of logging trucks and God, pellet guns and parables. Part ode to childhood, part love letter to rural life, Every Little Scrap and Wonder offers an original take on the memories, stories, and traditions we all carry within ourselves, whether we planned to or not.

‘Tall Paul’ Marlow: “I don’t want to just go in 95 percent”

Paul Marlow is used to standing out. At 6’7″, the personal trainer and one-time Toronto Blue Jays draft pick — perhaps better known as ‘Tall Paul’ — is hard to miss. What’s new is his growing comfort in using that attention to connect with others about mental health. Having dealt with his father’s death, along with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, these days Marlow is most focused on sharing his story — the ups, downs, and in-betweens — in hopes that others will be more comfortable in sharing their own.

Greg Nolan: “I was looking for adventure”

At nineteen, on Greg Nolan’s first day as a treeplanter, he was given a target of 1,000 trees a day. He managed 93. Such was the start of a 27-year career in treeplanting, during which the Vancouver Island-based Nolan braved grizzly bear encounters, hurricanes, landslides, and life-threatening situations of nearly every conceivable kind.

Sharon Wood: “I did it for the sheer passion”

In 1986, Sharon Wood became the first woman from the Americas to summit Mount Everest–and the first woman in the world to do so via the West Ridge from Tibet and without Sherpa support. Her first full-length memoir, Rising (Douglas & McIntyre, October 2019), details the personal motivation that drove her to reach further and further heights: from gale-force Everest winds to midnight tent explosions and oxygen-starved plateaus.



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That Sun op-ed, Bianca Andreescu, and Canada’s reckoning moment

It was a day of opposites.

First, the inflammatory Vancouver Sun op-ed by one Mark Hecht, a geography instructor at Mount Royal University. A not-so-subtle dog-whistle against the so-called “dogma of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion,” the piece pushed back against the merits of immigration and quoted from the anti-Muslim Gatestone Institute in arguing why Canada should strive towards homogeneity above all else.

It was ugly.

(“Instead of diversity being a blessing,” Hecht wrote, “many found that they’ve ended up with a lot of arrogant people living in their countries with no intention of letting go of their previous cultures, animosities, preferences, and pretensions.”)

The piece earned plaudits from white nationalists and neo-Nazis (surely the first sign that perhaps one is hanging with the wrong crowd) before it was roundly denounced by the reporters in the Sun‘s newsroom, the publication’s masthead, nearly all of Twitter, and scrapped from the paper’s website — though not before it went to press and ended up in the Saturday morning paper. And then there was that little mistake of leaving it on the website of The Province, the Sun‘s sister publication, until it, too, was later scrapped. Oops.

In any case, the Sun‘s editor-in-chief published an apology by Saturday afternoon, and promised a rebuttal piece would run in Monday’s edition of the paper. There are more faults to find with Hecht’s article, and plenty of fertile ground for other discussion — one thinker whom I admire, Robin Mazumder, has made the great case to strive for equity instead of inclusivity — but that is not what I am most interested in today.

What I am interested in is belonging. In what it means to be Canadian — perhaps, even, at times, a proud Canadian.


Too often in this past year, I have not been a proud Canadian.

The incidents seemed to resurface every few months, like a stubborn rash that wouldn’t clear. A white woman in my hometown of Waterloo who thought it appropriate to stop and question a group of young Muslim women on their choice of clothing. The Coalition of Muslim Women of KW’s executive director — one of my hometown’s most dedicated community-builders — being told “we do not want you and your people here.” Another teacher being told “go back to your own country.” Far too many other stories of racism in my adopted home of Victoria.

There is a myth of what Canada purports itself to be — diverse, tolerant, inclusive — and then there are these ugly realities. Canada: #NoFilter, if you will. The unfortunate truth is that for many people in this country, the experience of living in Canada is not always a welcoming one — that is, not unless you are white, straight, and middle-class or wealthier. (It helps to be a man, too.)

There is a myth of what Canada purports itself to be — diverse, tolerant, inclusive — and then there are these ugly realities. Canada: #NoFilter, if you will.

I would like to mention here that not all Canadians hold the same views as Hecht, nor the white woman in my hometown of Waterloo, nor the hateful phone-caller, the drive-by stranger, nor the far too many other perpetrators of aggressions large and small. Intolerance is an uncomfortable thing to be associated with. But I suspect hand-washing is not the proper response.

As much as I might like to let myself and others off the hook, claim to be one of the “good ones,” and pat myself on the back for such a distinction, it is also true that we Canadians — and in this, I mean we privileged Canadians, we who are not subject to death threats and harassment and told to return to some other country — have let intolerance fester far too easily. No need to worry oneself when the vitriol is directed elsewhere.

Perhaps, instead, the proper response is to sit with that discomfort for a while. Perhaps the proper response is to listen to those whose experience of Canada has not been so kind and welcoming. Perhaps the proper response is to speak out when the silence is deafening.

There is a passage in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where the Jamaican-American poet and essayist is talking with a fellow writer about the 2011 police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan:

“Will you write about Duggan?” the man asks.

“Why don’t you?” she replies. “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?”


There are things for which I am proud to be Canadian. Saturday delivered one such moment, on the opposite end of Hecht’s diatribe.

You might have seen it — watched, as I did, as 19-year-old tennis supernova Bianca Andreescu, unseeded mere months ago, toppled 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in the US Open final to become the first-ever Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title.

It was gripping. Not only the tennis, played on centre court at Arthur Ashe Stadium — a name itself steeped in civil rights history — but the storyline. Andreescu’s parents, reporters were quick to point out, had moved to Canada from Romania 25 years prior with nothing but two suitcases. Before the winning streak began, her main goal from tennis was to earn enough money for her parents to join her on tour.

Andreescu’s was the quintessential Canadian story: a child of immigrants made good. As a 16-year-old, she had written her name on a mock cheque for winning the US Open. Ranked 178th at the start of 2019, the teen’s wish had finally come true.

It was the perfect story for those looking to project Canada’s image as a diverse, tolerant, and inclusive nation. Behold, proof that our system works.

It is a tidy image to present, and a handy counter-point to the mess that emerged from the Sun. But I don’t think it tells the whole story, either.

One shouldn’t have to win the US Open to earn their Canadian citizenship. (In fairness to Savio, I am certain he would agree on this point and much else.) I should like to think there is room in Canada for all who have come from elsewhere.

Too often, there are those in Canada who are asked to earn their Canadian-ness by way of extraordinary effort, while a privileged few — those of us who were born here, or already spoke the language, or because of the colour of our skin, managed to skirt by without somebody asking, “where are you from, originally?” — treat our ability to belong as something to be taken for granted.

We celebrate the success stories of those like Donovan Bailey, who immigrated to Canada at 13 and later became the world’s fastest man; or Michaëlle Jean, who went from Haitian refugee to Governor General of Canada; or Nav Bhatia, who fled anti-Sikh violence in India and became one of Canada’s most successful car dealers, the Toronto Raptors’ second-most famous fan; and yet our largest newspapers and broadcasters are raising alarms about a growing Canadian opposition to immigration.

Bianca’s win deserves to be celebrated far and wide, just as we celebrate Bailey, Bhatia, Jean and the like. But we should also celebrate the stories of ordinary immigrants — no matter how they arrived, where they came from, or how many US Open titles they’ve won. Moreover, we should make them feel welcome. Treat them like neighbours. Look out for them, as others once did for many of our own families.

We should also celebrate the stories of ordinary immigrants — no matter how they arrived, where they came from, or how many US Open titles they’ve won.

In this, I am reminded of my Opa’s story. I don’t know that he ever held a tennis racket, and I doubt he could run the 100-metre dash in anything under 15 seconds. Certainly not in his later years. But he, too, was once new to Canada — a boat arrival in the years after the Second World War.

“At first, we did not know where we were headed to,” my Opa told us. “Hastily, they made arrangements in Ontario and BC.”

He arrived in St. Catharines by train on December 24, 1951.

“We looked out the windows at the colourful wooden houses, covered by equally colourful shingles, and toward the evening, we saw all the many Christmas decorations,” my Opa said. “The next day, Christmas Day, I was introduced to the Niagara United Mennonite Church in Virgil.”

He would remain a part of that community for the rest of his life.

What I wish for new Canadians is to find the same type of welcome my Opa found — be that in a church, or a mosque, or a synagogue; or perhaps in a community centre, or — yes, even a tennis court.

What I wish for new Canadians — what I wish for all Canadians — is to feel that they belong, regardless of the language they speak, or the way they dress, or the people they love, or the faith they practice.

That would be a Canada to be proud of.


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Story Untold: “Everybody’s Fighting a Hard Battle”

Story Untold with TOBi.

TOBi’s debut release, STILL, is out now. Photo credit: Nilly.

TOBi is having his moment. In the last four months alone, the Nigerian-Canadian singer-songwriter has been name-checked by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jamie Foxx, and invited to Los Angeles to work on music with The Game. (“My fans are now your fans,” the Los Angeles-raised emcee posted on Instagram.) Add to that the release of STILL earlier this month — his debut full-length project under Same Plate Entertainment/Sony Music — and 2019 has shaped up to be quite the year.

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“I’m where I’ve wanted to be for so long,” says the 25-year-old artist, born Oluwatobi Feyisara Ajibolade. “The last four months has been a period of exponential growth.”

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria before he moved to Canada at the age of nine, TOBi’s earliest works found a home in a notepad his mother gifted him.

“I used to write everything. I’d write stories, fictional tales, songs, poems,” he says. “My mom gave [it to me] before I left Nigeria. So I had that with me. And I would just write everything in there.”

Early on, his musical influences ranged from DMX to Lil Romeo. His older cousin introduced him to the former’s music; he played the latter in a school production at the age of six or seven.

“My mom gave me a notepad before I left Nigeria. So I had that with me. And I would just write everything in there.” – TOBi

“I had the whole attire down and everything,” says TOBi. “The durag and the oversize t-shirts.”

At nine, he left Nigeria with his father — arriving in Canada before the rest of his family could join them. He was chosen to go first, he figures, because he was the “low-maintenance” one of his siblings. At first, they stayed in Ottawa, then moved to Toronto and eventually Brampton. All the while, TOBi waited for the rest of his family to arrive.

“[My Dad] was working so much. He had like two jobs, so I rarely saw him for that first year,” says TOBi. “I didn’t want to be here, so I spent a lot of time with myself writing.”

There were the early struggles. Body language, and unfamiliar expressions, and the isolation that comes with being separated from home.

“The little social nuances, I didn’t understand any of that,” he says. “I would argue until this day, I still grapple with certain things.”

In high school, TOBi wrestled with anxiety and what he describes as “different mental health issues.”

The first year and a bit was very difficult. I didn’t want to be here, so I spent a lot of time with myself writing. At the time I didn’t know, but it was me coping, self-soothing.” – TOBi

“I couldn’t even contextualize it, because I didn’t know the language,” he says. “Part of that was going through counselling, therapy, getting some work and understanding what was going on. And a lot of that was self-directed until I found somebody who was able to guide me through it.”

His first time performing music, it was in front of his tenth-grade classmates. For a civics project — the Youth Philanthropy Initiative — he had to profile a non-profit organization.

“I did one for Victim Services of Peel. But my presentation was a song,” he says. “And that was the first time I ever performed music for a group of people. And I won the whole [contest]. It was lit.”

After high school, TOBi studied biology and psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. For his family — as is the case with many first-generation Canadians — post-secondary education was expected.

“It’s been instilled in me since I was a fetus,” he says.

He completed his degree, but struggled with doubt throughout his time at Laurier.

“I just kept picturing myself as an older version of me,” says TOBi, of his studies. “Like, am I going to enjoy what I’m doing?”

“I just kept picturing myself as an older version of me. Like, am I going to enjoy what I’m doing? That picture wouldn’t leave my head. And that happened the whole undergrad. Literally the whole undergrad. It was cemented in my mind.” – TOBi

His first big musical break came in 2017. A song he wrote as a demo — one he wasn’t sure if he would even release — landed on HBO’s Insecure. In the meantime, TOBi worked in mental health, both as a youth engagement coordinator and on a crisis line for those in distress.

“Man, the crisis line changed my life,” he says. “I learned that everybody has their own worlds and paths that they need to traverse.”

It was also 2017 when TOBi started crafting STILL. Over the next two years, the project would grow into thirteen songs, with production from the likes of !llmind (Kanye West, J. Cole, Ariana Grande) and Arthur McArthur (Drake, Rick Ross, Big Sean).

“It almost felt like I had all these stories and ideas in my head that I had no choice but to get out,” he says.

Now that the album is out, complete with a billboard at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square, TOBi can enjoy the fruits of his labour — including the shout-outs from Foxx and Snoop.

“All those mixtapes that I was doing, all those writings, all those songs that I made for 20 people to hear,” he says, “it wasn’t in vain. It was a set-up for bigger and better things.”

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Travel Bites

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I chipped my tooth on a soft shell taco in Mexico.

It was my eleventh night of tacos in two weeks, and my second helping of tacos that night—something of a celebration after the Raptors had won Game 7 and Kawhi had won Toronto’s heart and the ball had bounced around on the rim for at least ten seconds after the buzzer went, or so it seemed as I watched on a corner TV in a restaurant near the Caribbean coast.

It was the fourth restaurant my friend and I had pleaded with to show the game that evening, perhaps because in my attempt at Spanish I had dumbly asked if they could please put on the basketball juice instead of the basketball game. (Such errors are, mercifully, overlooked by kind waiters.) The beer was good, which is to say it was cold and cheap, and the first round of tacos proved excellent. We ate Baja fish and shrimp tacos garnished with cabbage slaw and tartar sauce, a wedge of lime on each plate. It was wonderful. Divine, even.

Baja tacos

Baja tacos in Tulum, Mexico. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

The second round of tacos is where I ran into trouble.

We went to a street vendor on Tulum’s Calle Osiris Sur, down the block from Parque Dos Aguas where a late-night game of basketball unfolded in the late spring heat, and I imagined myself stepping on the court and hitting my own version of The Bounce, the ball suspended in air like a city’s collective hopes and dreams, imaginary clock hitting zero as the ball left my fingertips and went skyward.

I had a good buzz going from the first two beers, but mostly from the endless replay in my mind of a shot I’d spent twenty years of Toronto sports fandom learning to expect would never fall. Which is, of course, why I went for the second round of tacos in the first place.

We’d been to the same street vendor the night before.

It was the most popular one among the dozen-odd food stands that lined the street and served tacos for less than a buck apiece—or 10 pesos, if we’re getting specific. The prices weren’t always easy to pin down. The night before, I’d bought six tacos for 80 pesos while my friend paid 40 for four of the same. Such is the deal one strikes, I suppose, for tacos bought on a street corner where the meals are served on plates wrapped in clear plastic bags. Better not to question such things.

I went for another order of six tacos this time. Partly because of the whole Kawhi afterglow, and partly because of the way the pork sizzled in front of an open flame, and partly to see whether the price would change from the night before. (It was 60 pesos this time.) That, and I derived no small pleasure from ordering more food than the rest of my friends, if for no other reason than to prove that I could eat it all.

They were served al pastor, a style developed in Central Mexico and influenced by the Lebanese immigrants who came in the 19th and 20th centuries. The pork was spiced with chilies and sliced thin, topped with pineapple and cilantro and chopped onions. It was heavenly. The best tacos I’d ever had, when I’d eaten them the first time around. Nothing that ought to chip a tooth.

Who chips a tooth on a taco?

Pastor tacos

The delicious culprits. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

I’d been on a mission to find the best tacos since arriving in Mexico two weeks prior.

It started in Isla Mujeres, then spread to Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, where each night—and sometimes each morning and afternoon, depending how the mood struck—I’d track down another spot that seemed promising. The rule, as always, was to go where the locals ate, no matter if it was a noisy restaurant or a vendor selling food out of a plastic bin. Often the plastic bin tacos tasted better than the restaurant ones, anyway. At the very least, they were cheaper.

I made it through the first five tacos no problem, and even through most of the sixth, before it happened. I felt it instantly. Like something had wedged itself in between my front bottom teeth. A bit of pork, perhaps. I poked and prodded with my tongue until something came loose. And then I really noticed it. A gap. An absence. A chunk missing from the back of one of my teeth.

Maybe the front, too?

Shit. I couldn’t tell. It was dark; I needed a mirror.

I ran my tongue over it again and again, fretting over the possibility that my dating prospects had further dwindled. It wasn’t the tooth that bothered me as much as what it implied: if a soft shell taco could chip my tooth, how soft did that make me?

Burrito soft?

Baby formula soft?

What did it say about me that a flour tortilla could claim checkmate over the hardest part of my body?

Barbacoa tacos

Late-night Barbacoa tacos. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

I’d been questioning my travel-hardiness from the start of the trip—wondering whether I still had it in me after thirty-some countries.

Perhaps I’d burnt out. Used up all the magic. Perhaps it dwindled the last time I ran out of toilet paper in a bus station bathroom, or slept in a room with seven strangers who either snored or shagged loud enough to keep the rest of the room awake until dawn. Maybe I’d become more of the “rented car and Airbnb” type, to be replaced one day by the “hotel with a Jacuzzi” type, and later the “cruise ship with bingo and line-dancing” type. The whole progression-of-life kind of thing.

My one friend—one who would gladly sleep in a room with seven strangers, and probably seventeen, if it meant a cheap enough bed for the night—teased me about this when I tried to book a room for our first night together in Mexico. It was a week before we were to arrive in Playa del Carmen, and the reservation was just for a night.

Too soon, was the message I got.

Real travel meant showing up in a place without a reservation. It meant finding a hostel by asking the locals. It meant giving up your pillow. I thought of my last trip to Ecuador and Peru—one I’d booked over a month in advance—and felt a flush of embarrassment.

This couldn’t stand, of course.

What had happened to the guy who spent three months cycling across a country? Who braved murderous lapwings and never found an airport terminal he couldn’t sleep in?

I needed to make a change. Prove to myself that I still had it. That I wasn’t afraid.

I went back to that same taco strip the next night. Steely-eyed. Determined.

I found the first stand selling tacos.

And this time… I ordered four.


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Story Untold: “It Always Feels Like We’re Writing Some Kind of Fiction”


If a writer’s greatest asset is life experience, then Yasuko Thanh has no shortage of material. The winner of 2009’s Journey Prize and 2016’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Vancouver Island-based Thanh left home at the age of 15 and lived on the streets of Victoria and Vancouver, where her most prized possession was a curling iron. Her latest book, the memoir Mistakes to Run With, tells the story of Thanh’s experience with homelessness, drugs and jail, and her teen years as a sex worker.

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“Though I’ve never been ashamed of my past, it’s also not something that I’ve talked about with even my closest friends,” says Thanh, who teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria.

“I sort of saw myself as some kind of Siddhartha-esque figure, moving through different walks of life, trying to learn the lessons I needed to,” she added. “I was a weird kid … there was this one side of me that was deeply religious, and there was this other side of me that drank and smoked and shoplifted and got into all sorts of trouble.”

Born to a German mother and Vietnamese father, Thanh slept on the streets of Victoria as a teenager, scrounging up money with other homeless friends to pay for the occasional motel room. To earn money, she turned tricks and asked for food outside of shopping malls.

“I sort of saw myself as some kind of Siddhartha-esque figure, moving through different walks of life, trying to learn the lessons I needed to.” – Yasuko Thanh

“The main thing that I noticed was how either invisible or how hated you became by most of the people that were just walking past,” she says. “But as a result of that, the community which I became part of was very strong. I mean, that’s an intense bonding factor when the rest of the world is looking down their nose at you.”

Still in her teens, she met Jay — her first pimp — at a party and fell for him.

“He had this pink suit,” she recalls. “It was the eighties, but he looked all Miami Vice. He had Jheri curled hair … and he knew how to dance.”

Along with Jay, Thanh moved to Vancouver and earned money for him out of motels on the East end.

“I was just trying to maintain this illusion that what I had with this person was love, and therefore, that made everything worthwhile,” she says. “Which was, you know, in my 15 or 16-year-old brain, ‘If I just give him enough money, then he’ll really, really love me.’”

“I was just trying to maintain this illusion that what I had with this person was love, and therefore, that made everything worthwhile … ‘If I just give him enough money, then he’ll really, really love me.’” – Yasuko Thanh

Thanh’s next pimp, Avery, promised that all they needed was to raise $500,000 and they could retire, start another business.

“I think even at the time, I knew that was a fiction that was never going to come true,” she says.

Always a writer, Thanh came across a story one day at 21 years old. Caroline Adderson’s “Oil and Dread” was in Quarry magazine.

“I saw at once that these words were different from any I’d read before,” she writes in Mistakes to Run With. Inspired, she spent more and more time writing, submitting stories to literary magazines. Her first book, Floating Like the Dead, was named a Best Book of the Year by Quill & Quire and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. In 2013, CBC named Thanh one of ten writers to watch.

“[Writing] was a place to go where you always feel at home. Where you always belong … It was that place to go when things weren’t going well.” – Yasuko Thanh

“[Writing] was a place to go where you always feel at home. Where you always belong,” says Thanh. “If I had a frustrating day, or someone had hurt me, I would go, ‘Fine, f— them. I’m going to go write.’ … It was that place to go when things weren’t going well.”

Asked to make meaning of her turbulent years, Thanh is reluctant to seek pity or pass judgment where others might.

“Whenever I need to speculate,” she says, “it always feels like we’re writing some kind of fiction, right? Because at the time, I didn’t know what was drawing me to certain kinds of behaviour, and even now, the things that I come up with are just ways that we invent to explain behaviour that still puzzles us.”

“It’s interesting, because we waited until I had a couple books under my belt before we came out with the memoir,” says Thanh, “because [my agent and publisher] didn’t want people to be prejudiced against me, but of course, that’s exactly what the book is trying to fight against, is just that type of prejudice.

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Story Untold: “I Can Still Love This Community and Want It To Be Better”

Story Untold with Danielle Williams

Photo from melaninbasecamp.com

Danielle Williams has no quit. An army veteran and Harvard graduate, she has been an advocate for diversity in outdoor adventure sports since 2014, when she co-founded Team Blackstar Skydivers. An African-American skydiver living with a disability, Williams has over 600 jumps under her belt, and has also launched Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.

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Born in New York, a fourth-generation army veteran, Williams spent her childhood across the United States — “all up and down the Southeast,” she says. Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee.

“I loved the idea that you could just pick up and move and start over,” says Williams. “It was always kind of this underlying assumption that we would join the military, because that’s what my dad did, and that’s what his dad did, and that’s what great-grandad did … I never really considered doing anything else.”

Williams found skydiving in 2011, after she’d returned from a deployment in Iraq. At the time, she’d been building roads and repairing culverts. She wanted something to ease the transition to civilian life.

“I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.” – Danielle Williams

“While you’re in a war zone, you have this sort of feeling, and when you get back to the States, a lot of people look for it in different avenues,” she says. “I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.”

She went to a drop zone in Kentucky and signed up for a tandem dive.

“They had a little Cessna 182, which is like a small four-seater plane,” she says.

On the plane with her, another diver was going up alone.

“That just blew my mind,” says Williams. “I didn’t know you could skydive without being attached to somebody.”

Soon enough, she was logging jumps at every opportunity — enjoying the hospitality of a culture that seemed to open its arms so readily. Dinner invitations. Offers of guest beds in camper vans.

“I remember jumping at this one drop zone in Mississippi, and I had just gotten there … and this eight-year-old girl approaches me. She’s like, ‘Hey, you’re new here! We have an extra bed in our camper. Do you want to stay with us?’” she laughs. “That’s just, like, how the culture is.”

“It’s really motivating to see people — especially women, especially women of colour — to see them just killing it and performing really well at professional levels.” – Danielle Williams

Still, Williams didn’t know many skydivers that looked like her. When she found a group one St. Patrick’s Day Weekend in Georgia, they decided to go for a record: how many African-American skydivers could they get together in one jump? They were six friends and one videographer in total.

“We just kind of ran with it,” she says. They called themselves Team Blackstar. “It’s been five years, and we’ve grown from that original group of seven people … to over 270 people in six different countries.”

Things seemed promising. Exciting. That first record-setting jump, says Williams, “was right before my life fell apart.”

In 2015, Williams was deployed to the Philippines for her next army stint. She got sick.

I didn’t think it was much of a big deal,” she says. “I came back to the U.S., and maybe two months later, really weird things started happening. And it took about a year to get diagnosed.”

Doctors told Williams she had rheumatic fever — a disease that can involve chest pain, joint pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Muscle movement can become involuntary.

“I was still trying to stay pretty active, but I was really sick,” she says. “I went from, like, trail-runner, skydiver, super athletic, overnight to [being] on a walker. And I was on that walker for three years.”

As she adjusted to her new circumstances, Williams found herself with time in front of a computer. She put it to use and started Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.

“People like to say that nature’s colourblind. I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.” – Danielle Williams

“When I started out [in skydiving],” she says, “I just wanted to fit in … I didn’t want to talk about [race].”

But what started with Team Blackstar lit a fire. Soon, Williams wanted to find more people of colour in outdoor adventure sports, and find a way to amplify their voices. In 2016, she started @melaninbasecamp on Instagram and launched a blog the next year.

“People like to say that nature’s colourblind,” she says. “I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.”

With Diversify Outdoors, Williams and other athletes and activists formed a coalition to promote diversity and equity in the outdoor space — not just for African-Americans, but for any groups that have been historically underrepresented.

“I can still love this community and talk about ways that we need to improve,” she says. “I can still love this community and want it to be better.

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Story Untold: “You Never Know When Your Chance is There”

Story Untold with Issey Nakajima-Farran

Issey Nakajima-Farran has more than a few stories to tell. Such things tend to happen when one spends a career chasing a soccer ball around the globe. From the time he was three, the 34-year-old winger for Pacific FC has moved to Japan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Denmark, Australia, Cyprus, Spain, and Malaysia. To hear Nakajima-Farran tell it, he’s ready to make Vancouver Island a longer stay.

“I really want to make this my last stop,” the Calgary-born Japanese-Canadian says. “I fell in love with this island — I’ve been telling everyone that asks me.”

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Born to a Japanese mother and English-Zimbabwean father, Nakajima-Farran moved with his family to Tokyo at the age of three, where he fell in love with soccer watching Verdy Kawasaki and his favourite player, Kazuyoshi “Kazu” Miura.

“I really want to make this my last stop. I fell in love with this island — I’ve been telling everyone that asks me.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

“Back then, it was the biggest club in J.League. All the national players were playing at that team,” says Nakajima-Farran.

The first Japanese player to earn the Asian Footballer of the Year award, Kazu became the sport’s biggest star in Japan, winning four consecutive league titles.

“He’s still playing, which is incredible,” says Nakajima-Farran. “The guy’s like fifty-something in J.League. He only plays like fifteen minutes, but he does a couple stepovers, and basically all of Japan just loves it.”

At ten, Nakajima-Farran and his family moved to England. His parents sold the move as an opportunity to develop as a soccer player, and the Calgary native joined Crystal Palace’s youth team.

“The training at Crystal Palace took us an hour and twenty minutes, hour and a half, just to get to training, and [my dad] would be the one driving me three, four times a week,” says Nakajima-Farran.

At 16, he was faced with a choice: stay on at Crystal Palace and drop out of school to train in hopes of making the pro team, or return to Japan to play and further his studies. He left for Tokyo, where the reception from his new coach was frosty.

“He always said to me, ‘Foreigner, go home.’It always got to me, because it was such a racist comment, and they never saw me as a true Japanese,” says Nakajima-Farran. “It gave me all the motivation I needed to play now … because it was all about me proving him wrong. It’s always been because of that.”

“He always said to me, ‘Foreigner, go home.’ … It gave me all the motivation I needed to play now … because it was all about me proving him wrong.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

In 2004, he debuted for Albirex Niigata’s Singaporean club and scored 26 goals in 45 appearances. The next year, he earned a spot on Singapore’s Under-23 national team, where he scored twice against Japan. The performances were good enough to land Nakajima-Farran in Denmark for his next stint, where he helped Vejle BK to a championship and promotion to the Superliga.

At 22, Nakajima-Farran made his debut for Team Canada against Hungary.

“[My parents] took my bedsheets, spray-painted a Canadian flag, and I think they were the only Canadian fans in Hungary,” he laughs.

Since then, the Calgary native has earned 40 caps for Canada, playing against the likes of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. (“I remember James [Rodriguez] was standing in front of me, so I tugged his shirt, and he gave me a look,” Nakajima-Farran laughs.) Along the way, Nakajima-Farran played alongside current Pacific FC teammate Marcel de Jong, as well as co-owners Josh Simpson and Rob Friend.

After Denmark, Nakajima-Farran left for Australia, where he helped Brisbane Roar FC to a record-setting 36-game unbeaten streak and the A-League Championship. He also survived a close call or two with a kangaroo.

“[My parents] took my bedsheets, spray-painted a Canadian flag, and I think they were the only Canadian fans in Hungary.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

“I didn’t realize how dangerous they were, so I stopped and got out of the car — literally two metres away, trying to take a photo,” says Nakajima-Farran. “This kangaroo was bigger than me … [My teammates] were like, ‘You’re an idiot. These things will slice you open.’”

Later, he played in Cyprus, before brief runs with Toronto FC and Montreal Impact. It was Friend, says Nakajima-Farran, who approached him about the idea of joining Pacific FC after his latest stint in Malaysia.

“Rob reached out to me last year … and I thought it was a great concept of having our own league,” he says. “That’s what we’ve always wanted as Canadian players.”

At 34, Nakajima-Farran is the oldest player on a Canadian Premier League roster, but he’s excited for the season ahead — and for the game he’s still got left in him.

“Any five-percent tip that I can give [younger players], if I can help them just a sliver to be a better player, it’s nice to be appreciated in that tiny way,” he says. “I still feel too good to quit. I love the game too much to say goodbye to it … I want to keep that going for a few more years.

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