Taking the highline: Slackliner Sonya Iverson crosses cultural borders

Sonya Iverson talks slacklining, Crossing Lines Initiative, and cultural boundaries
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Sonya Iverson, slacklining extraordinaire, has crossed cultural and physical borders with the Crossing Lines Initiative. Here, she talks slacklining, Iran's first-ever highline festival, and her future plans as president of the national association Slackline U.S.

Sonya Iverson crosses a slackline in Turkey with Iranian highliner Mohammad Reza Abaee. // Photo: Mohammad Reza Abaee

Sonya Iverson crosses a slackline in Turkey with Iranian highliner Mohammad Reza Abaee. // Photo: Mohammad Reza Abaee

For Sonya Iverson, slacklining is much more than a sport. For the past four years, the recent molecular biology PhD graduate and current ambassador for Mountain Hardwear has been turning it into a tool for cultural exchange and understanding. She and several partners formed the Crossing Lines Initiative in 2013, a collaboration between American and Iranian highliners dedicated to connecting the two cultures. In 2014, Iverson and her two American partners traveled to Iran for the country’s first-ever highline festival, and the group plans to use its slacklines to cross still more international borders. Iverson is also the president of the national association Slackline U.S.

1. How did you get into slacklining?

In 2008, a friend convinced me to try it. I got into highlining, or slacklining up high, a couple of years later. Then I moved to Boston for grad school. I didn’t know anyone there, so I started setting up my slackline in a park along the Charles River every Sunday. Each weekend, I’d meet somebody, and they would come back. Over the course of the year, it turned into one of the largest slacklining groups in the country. Through that, I got into the community side of slacklining.

2. How did the Crossing Lines Initiative come to be?

I started seeing pictures on Facebook posted by an Iranian highliner, Mohammad Reza Abaee. It sparked a new passion in me. I messaged him out of the blue to say, hey, what’s the possibility of an American coming to Iran to highline?

The more I thought about it, I realized it could be a pretty interesting exchange—a cultural project to get a group of Americans to travel to Iran, and a group of Iranians to travel to the U.S. We had the trip planned for October 2014, and in August, Mohammad told me he’d been contacted by the Iranian Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Federation. They had their own event, and they wanted him to host a highlining festival alongside it. The idea of a festival was our dream, and it just fell into our laps.

3. What was it like traveling as an American in Iran?

Our reception was overwhelmingly positive. The first day at the festival was the only time we ran into a problem. There’s a picture of Mohammad and me from when we walked a highline together in Turkey. That picture went a little bit viral in the slackline world. Someone [in Iran] had seen it, and wasn’t very happy about the partnership between the American and Iranian teams. The Islamic culture is that you treat guests really well, so they were very welcoming to us, but some people tried to kick our Iranian counterparts out of the festival. The first day was a little bit tense, but our primary contact with the federation cleared everything up.

4. What’s next for the project?

We’d hoped to bring our Iranian partners to the U.S. in 2015, but the three primary people were all young men. Only one of them had completed his mandatory two-year military training. Getting them visas would have been incredibly difficult because they were considered high flight risk. Now, one is married, and two are starting a highlining gym, so we have a much better chance of getting them to the U.S. in the next year or so.

In the long run, we want to expand the project and continue traveling to places where people don’t think to travel for political and historical reasons. We’ve talked about Ukraine or Cuba. We’d travel there and organize a festival to draw in as many international highliners, BASE jumpers, and climbers as possible. It’s about making international connections and talking about the world as a whole.

5. Why is slacklining such a good avenue for promoting cultural exchange?

It’s a visual art and it’s metaphorical—we’re literally crossing lines. You can’t have a conversation about Iran with somebody who already has his mind made up. But maybe you can draw attention with one of these photos. If you can start a conversation about the image, that changes things.

Sports diplomacy is something I’m very interested in. When you travel as an athlete, you get to sneak around some boundaries and see the location in a different way. The industry in general will greatly benefit from embracing this international world of sport. Sports break down barriers. It’s not political, it’s not cultural. It’s a way for people to connect.

—Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

 This article was originally published in Outdoor Retailer Daily.

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