This year I will have the honor of speaking at the 2016 Women’s Forum Global Meeting in Deauville, France. CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Hong Kong Su-Mei Thompson will interview me and present me as an “Amazing Woman.” When I heard the news that I had been invited, I was surprised. After all, I have felt rather ordinary lately. What makes my personal story extraordinary is the story of my survival.
Today, I am an endurance athlete who has taken part in a long series of expeditions to face the most dangerous and hostile environments around the world. A few years ago, that’s how most people knew me: As an athlete whose career was marked by tremendous exploits. I’m the fastest female to run an ultra-marathon race on all seven continents, and I hold the Guinness world record in the longest-ever completed triathlon, among other things. But these weren’t the circumstances under which my chances of survival were the lowest. For many years before then, I fell victim to sexual violence and human trafficking.
I was only 11 years-old when I was raped for the first time. Like many child victims of sexual assault, it was by someone I trusted. That event sent me into a long journey of violence where no matter what I did I seemed to come full circle.
"When it comes to sexual violence, victims generally don’t receive the help they need because they are judged or blamed for being attacked."
We used to watch movies where the hero soars to the rescue of the victim and punishes the evil character. But in reality, especially when it comes to sexual violence, victims generally don’t receive the help they need because they are judged or blamed for being attacked. For years, I was convinced that everything was my fault. It is often said that victims of sexual assault remain “voiceless,” which is not particularly true. As the author Arundhati Roy has explained: “Victims are deliberately silenced, or preferably unheard.” Faced with this indifference, at every attempt to escape my situation, I would sink into a more terrible abyss.
It is this same indifference that puts millions of people, mostly women and children, in danger of becoming victims of sex trafficking. That’s exactly what happened to me. After suffering for many years, having even survived a kidnapping in Mexico City, I accepted a job in Tokyo, Japan, at the age of 19, convinced that my country was the source of all my problems.
That job turned out to be working at a nightclub as a bar girl then to being forced into becoming the escort of a prominent club member, a mafia boss, just because they had taken my passport and I had to pay the debt I had incurred when the brought me to Japan from Mexico.
The worst moment of my life came a few years after I left the club, at a party I had gone to with friends. I woke up in a bloodbath, with a man on top of me, in a completely unfamiliar place. It was a stark reminder that while I had certainly paid off my debt, I was still someone’s property. This moment marked the most difficult time of my life, not because it was the worst attack I ever suffered through, but because I was exhausted from constantly trying to escape the same situation. I couldn’t find a single friend to take me home, because, in their own words, they were beginning to get tired of “my drama.”
I am often asked if I ever felt like giving up during a race, and I understand why. Yes, I have almost tripled the previous world record for the longest triathlon, but that idea never even crossed my mind, not once.
"It’s not the circumstances that determine whether or not we have a chance of succeeding, but rather our ability to keep hope alive."
When you’ve experienced what I have been through, it gets easy to understand the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is sometimes necessary to achieve excellence, but suffering is a type of pain that’s impossible to escape. It remains with you, no matter what you do. That day in Tokyo, sitting alone on the train, in a city so far from home, suffering so much I couldn’t even cry — because crying shows emotion and I didn’t want to feel anything — I understood the urge to give up on life. Today, my life no longer has any room for “drama.” Only for passion.
I guess you could say that there is indeed a hero in this story: The system and the people who gave me the opportunity to escape my vulnerable situation without sacrificing my dignity. This was the case when I emigrated to Canada and I suddenly became a single mother of a child with a disability. In Canada, I found the help I needed to successfully overcome this ordeal, so that my son and I could get back on our feet.
The difference between my life then, a life where I only knew violence, and now, where I only see opportunities, lies not in making better decisions, but in being given better opportunities. So yes, I’m a remarkable woman, but we all have the capacity to achieve excellence. It’s not the circumstances that determine whether or not we have a chance of succeeding, but rather our ability to keep hope alive— even if the journey seems endless, like a train journey in a foreign city in total solitude.