15 minutes with Di Westaway

By Caroline Pemberton 27 April 2016
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We speak to Di Westaway, founder of Wild Women on Top, about transforming women’s lives through adventure.

DI WESTAWAY IS s a down-to-earth entrepreneur, mother of three, author, fitness coach, motivational speaker and world record setter. Her incredible passion for women’s health and fitness was the impetus behind her founding Wild Women on Top, a female focussed adventure community that creates life changing travel and adventure events, such as the renowned Coastrek, a 30-60km team trekking challenge that takes place on the coastlines of Sydney and Melbourne each year.

Through her training, trips and events, Di and her team have helped thousands of everyday women transform their lives both physically and mentally while raising more than $9 million dollars for the Fred Hollows Foundation to restore sight to nearly 250,000 people.

Sitting down with Di for just 15 minutes and hearing about her and her passion for sharing the outdoors is about as inspiring as it gets.

“My mission is to share adventure boldly,” says Di Westaway. “I love inspiring women to transform their lives, face their fears, live their dreams and achieve their goals. Julie McCrossin calls me “indefatigable” and my kids tell me to “stop being so happy in the morning”, but I can’t. I burst out of bed to inspire others to believe they can fly. Then I help them work out how.”

How did Wild Women on Top come to be?

In 2002 I was invited to climb the highest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere, Mt Aconcagua (6980m). I failed to summit but, as a young mother, the experience was transformational. I agreed to climb Aconcagua because I was feeling down in the dumps and I needed to escape. At the time I was stuck at home with two kids and a “missing in action” husband. I was lacking motivation to exercise and had lost confidence in my body. I couldn’t work out how to prioritise my own health and fitness until I discovered that a really scary goal of climbing the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere was the motivation and excuse I needed to get fit again. And I did. I got fit, strong and had the most incredibly exhilarating adventure in the wilderness. It was following that life-changing experience that I decided to found Wild Women on Top.

Tell us about your daily routine/training

I am mad about moving and exercising daily. I use cross training to stay injury free. I do something everyday. It might be riding my bike to work, jogging on the soft sand, indoor climbing, yoga or an ocean swim. Then, on the weekends, I go wild. I’ll often do a three to eight hour trek, or go outdoor climbing, skiing or mountain biking. I try to get my kids involved in being active in nature, and I am constantly planning another microadventure to keep myself moving and grooving. I also ensure I have a massage at least once a month and stretch every day.

How do you manage being a mum, adventurer and entrepreneur?

It’s a juggle and sometimes the balance swings out of control. I love cooking but I am not a domestic goddess. Sometimes I forget to pay bills, do my tax, feed the kids/cats and brush my hair, but somehow it all works. I love that I get to choose my staff so I love them like friends. That means I combine my work and social life, and I combine my exercise and social life.

I’m not one for long lunches and wild drinking/eating nights. I’d much rather have a glass of bubbles watching the sunset or moon rise, and then be up for the sunrise the next morning and go trekking with the girls.

What personal legacy would you like to leave?

I’d like to leave the world a healthier, happier place so that future generations have the physical and mental strength and capacity to pass this knowledge onto others. I’d like to be known for inspiring and empowering women, and therefore families, to take responsibility for their health, to know how to get and stay healthy. Your health is your wealth.

What’s your most memorable adventure moment?

I have heaps. But probably doing the world’s highest handstand on a stunning mountain in the Everest region of Nepal. Mt Ama Dablam. It took five weeks to acclimatise and many years of training and preparation, and I came so close to giving up. But when I look back on the photos and reflect on that moment, it sure stands out as amazing. What a privilege to be up there, in perfect weather, and go upside down in 4kg of boots and crampons.

But the enjoyment of that kind of adventure comes on reflection. At the time, it’s hard work and suffering; the more suffering, the greater the exhilaration.

What have you learnt through your expeditions?

I’ve learned that I’m capable of far more than I ever imagined. You don’t conquer mountains, you stand with them. If you are well prepared and lucky and you can overcome your fear, you will have the privilege of enjoying the incredible views and the life changing experience of a remote wilderness expedition.

Were you always adventurous? Is it ever too late to learn or get involved?

I spent my childhood going upside down in my backyard in Canberra, climbing trees and playing under the sprinkler, but I didn’t get in a tent till I was 40, so I guess not. And no, it’s never too late. I have a client who discovered adventure in her 60s, she’s now 72 and last year she did the Sydney Coastrek with her hubby. She’s trekked the Jatbula Trail, and the Bungle Bungles with Wild Women On Top. She’s super inspiring, fit and fabulous, so no, it’s never too late.

Wild Women on Top is all about transforming women’s lives through adventure. Why does adventure have the capacity to transform?

I think challenging physical adventures in the wilderness push you out of your comfort zone, and when you step outside your comfort zone, magic happens. Being active in nature has incredible scientifically verifiable benefits. When you chase moments that take your breath away, you grow in confidence and resilience. You get stronger, fitter, healthier and more powerful.

What have you witnessed in other women who have discovered adventure and the outdoors?

I see a complete transformation. On a daily basis, our clients are increasing their confidence, but the transformation is most visible at the finish line of our Wild Women On Top Coastrek events. Our treks cover 30-60km of stunning coastal tracks and beaches. Teams of four hikers, including 50 per cent women, train for three to six months, then walk for seven to 18 hours to complete the challenge. When they cross the finish line, cheered on by kids, grandkids, friends and family, they are heroes.

Why does having a community around you help?

We are social beings. By choosing a healthy community, our healthy behaviours are reinforced by those around us. As Fred Hollows said, “The basic attribute of mankind is to look after each other.”

I know that my family and friends influence my behaviour so I want to be part of an adventurous, fit, healthy, happy community.

What are the transformative stories that have stuck with you?

This year a mother of four and teacher went from being an overweight, miserable working mum to a fit, strong, lean success story when she finished the 55km Sydney Coastrek. She wrote a beautiful blog called “Fat Girl Can” to share her story and inspire others. Seeing the trickle down effect is very gratifying.

Another favourite is a grandmother who had been hospitalised for depression and had been taking anti-depressants for years. She signed up for Coastrek and throughout the process was so empowered that she was able to cut back the drugs almost completely and now, instead of texting “What’s for dinner?” her husband texts her “You are my hero.”

What are the health benefits of being outside?

Your health is your wealth. Without a healthy body and mind, you can’t find happiness. The research on the health benefits of being active in nature is irrefutable. Nature is one big health pill; being outside has been shown to improve mental health, reduce depression and make us happy. It’s in our DNA.

When you see someone undergoing positive change like that as a result of your initiatives, how does that feel for you?

It’s awesome, but I don’t do this alone. We have a team of passionate women working tirelessly to help other women discover the magical health benefits of walking in nature and taking on challenging goals to find true health, fitness and happiness. And it’s fun helping others and fun doing the adventures together.

How would you like to see your movement grow?

We’d like to have 50,000 women trekking by 2020. This will require us to run multiple Coastrek events across Australia. From there, who knows, but we’d love to go global.

What tips would you give women who want to get into the outdoors?

JFDI! Just F****** DO IT!

Start by signing up for a challenging walk, trek or event that requires you to get fit with your friends. Choose one with a charity element to it if you’re a mum. Most mums feel guilty when they go walking or training with their friends because it’s time away from the family, but if you’re raising funds for a charity, it makes the goal more compelling, as well as more socially acceptable. I tell mums you’ll be a better mum if you “put your own oxygen mask on first”, meaning you need to prioritise your health and fitness so you’re better able to nurture others. Find a big challenging outdoor adventure to train for so that you can prioritise your health and fitness ahead of all those other tasks that try to prevent you from being active.