Before I tell you about Kami Williams I have to be honest with you guys, my Sensi Swim Girls Who Rip fam, this one is really personal to me. To explain why, let’s go back about a decade. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and had gotten a job as whitewater rafting guide in Colorado for the summer. I had no experience. None. That didn’t matter, they assured me, they’d train me with everything I needed to know.
That’s how I met Kami Williams.
In 2012 Kami was one the head boatwoman of Noah’s Ark Whitewater Rafting and Adventure Company, which means a large part of her job each year was taking a brand-new group of mostly college students in their early 20s and teaching them how to navigate a 10-mile stretch of Class III+ whitewater with customers from all backgrounds and experience levels. My guide class of 20+ people had just six women in it that first summer. We were far outnumbered by guys who were bigger and stronger than us, something the competitive athlete in me doesn’t like admitting, but it was true.
I met Kami within the first few days of being in Buena Vista, which would be my home for the summer while training and guiding. She’s about 5’4” and a wiry ball of muscle, sass and acceptance. Compared to our male trainers, including her husband, Rob, Kami stacked up about how the girls in my class did to our male counterparts, which is to say, smaller. But very quickly I realized how little that mattered when we saw Kami row down the canyon. Her moves were grace, her knowledge of the river, intimate, and the passion with which she taught and empowered, unmatched.
Kami says her style as a guide, and a teacher, go back to her own early days at Noah’s, when she was a first-year guide.
“I'm not a powerhouse, like some of those big old boys,” Kami remembered of her guide class. “So, I had to figure out how to learn how to read the water and figure out like, ‘oh this is going to pull me here,’ ‘this part is going to move like this’. It made it more like this mental fun thing, too.”
It’s a lesson she passed on to me and the women in my class – reading the water and understanding how dipping your oar here, or sticking your raft’s nose there, would manipulate and pull your boat would always serve you better than trying to muscle your way through a section.
While she was learning rafting, she was also being taught a lesson in her own spiritual journey.
“I had to figure out how to not fall into comparison,” said Williams. “And to really fight through it, to remember it’s between me and Jesus, I'm not trying to prove something.”
“It really was the most humbling thing,” said Kami of learning how to raft. “I saw my need for Him more than I've ever in my life. And then it felt like I just loved it because I had to fight so hard through it to learn how to do it and then I loved it.”
Every guide has their version of two stories: the moment they questioned if they’d ever get the hang of it, and the moment they knew they’d gotten it.
In my first moment, it was Kami’s empathy and sharing of her own that got me through it. I had wrapped my boat around a rock in the middle of the river and could not have been more stuck. I was on the edge of my boat, which was now perpendicular to the river rushing beneath it, in tears as I set up the rope system that would enable my classmates on shore to pull my raft off the rock. What felt like eons later, my boat was right side up and I was on the shore, head in my hands, wondering what on earth I was doing here because I was now certain I would never be good raft guide, much less one who should be trusted with customers.
Kami came over and wrapped me in a bear hug so tight the straps of my life jacket dug into my chest in an almost painful embrace. She told me of her own lowest training moment, when she’d gotten her boat stuck in a very similar way and that this moment wouldn’t define who I was as a person, or as a guide, I was better than this moment.
She was right.
The moment I “got it,” came not long after that, just as Kami’s did years before.
She was navigating a rapid called Big Drop, named, as you might guess because you’re navigating a big drop at this bend of the river. With the way the current is pushing and the location of the drop, you’re working against your raft’s seemingly natural tendency to go over the drop sideways. At this point, Kami remembers her trainers, including her older brother, looking at her with a bit of trepidation.
“Even my trainers were like, ‘oh, I don’t know if she can make it.’ My brother was really hard on me.” But one guide, she remembers just continually encouraging her, and that day, she made it through Big Drop with ease, ‘styling it,’ as it’s known among guides when you run the river perfectly.
“That was amazing. It was huge!”
It was far from the last time Kami would style a rapid, but it did mark a moment for her that gave her confidence. And her confidence, not just in herself, but what she instills in others, is how one raft guide, in a small Colorado town, has managed to affect so many lives around the world.
The first instance she remembers realizing how much her voice did matter to the women who came after her was just a few years later. She was living in a house with many of the younger guides that summer and they were sharing the same doubts she remembered having when she was in their shoes.
“We would sit around, late at night, and they would feel so discouraged,” Kami remembers. “It was so fun to be like, ‘I’ve been there, you are not alone.’ And to remind them we do believe in them.”
At the end of the summer, the girls presented Kami with a present she still smiles thinking about.
“It was this little toy raft from Walmart. They wrote all these things on it like, ‘thank you for believing in us.’ I think that’s my favorite part of training is watching when it clicks for people. That’s when they get so excited, and I get to say, ‘yes, I knew you would.’”
For me personally, that first summer spent with Kami and the rest of the women in my class, changed my life. It changed the way I viewed myself, my strength and my own grit. It’s the reason I go by AJ, because Kami gave me that nickname, and I wanted to carry this strength she helped me find in myself, wherever life took me.
Kami and her husband Rob now own that same rafting company where she’s given so much of herself to empowering the next generation of guides. And what a gift that is to anyone who makes their way through Buena Vista, Colorado and down the Arkansas with them.
When I asked Kami to reflect on what she’s gained through guiding her answer was simple;
“I always dreamed of sisters, and now I’ve got a whole lot of sweet sister relationships.”
“And I pray they would feel very loved and believed in [because of that sisterhood] and they didn't have to prove anything. I do feel like comparison robs all joy, and I want them to take that love and belief out into the world beyond the river.”
This guide, definitely has.