Ep#24 Holley Gardel on adjusting your attitude and altitude in flying and in life

In this episode, helicopter air ambulance pilot, Holley Gardel, shares strategies for transforming negative feelings into powerful cues that propel you to perform at your best. 

We talk about the power of mental performance training, how it unlocks potential in every aspect of life, and how it’s not just for elite athletes. Holley champions thorough preparation, seeking support, and celebrating even the smallest victories on the path to your success.

Holley shares candid insights into her career as a female pilot in a male-dominated industry, addresses common misconceptions about aviation and the critical role of mentorship for women in the field.

Through her stories, Holley emphasizes the importance of resilience, shares wisdom she has gained from her mentors and coaches, and the joy of fulfillment that comes from committing to your passions. 

If you want to learn how to adjust your attitude and altitude (I didn’t realize that there is actually something called an attitude adjuster in a helicopter cockpit) to navigate your discomfort zone with more confidence and joy, then you’ll want to listen to this conversation!

About Holley

Holley Gardel spent several years in academia studying restoration ecology, which eventually led her to Antarctica for a season of field work. Her team was flown to their field sites by helicopter and the first time it lifted into a hover, she became fascinated by vertical flight. It wasn’t long after that she started the long journey toward a career in aviation and now works as a Helicopter Air Ambulance and Search and Rescue pilot in the mountains of Colorado. When she’s not flying, she is playing outside or gardening, and living life to the fullest in Steamboat Springs with her husband Brian.

How to connect with Holley:

Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/holleygardel/

Anna
My guest today, Holley Gardel, spent several years in academia studying restoration ecology, which eventually led her to Antarctica for a season of field work. Her team was flown to their field sites by helicopter, and after that first hover, everything changed. Upon returning to the States, she started the long journey toward a career in aviation and now works as a helicopter air ambulance pilot, performing medical and search and rescue missions in the mountains of Colorado. When she’s not flying, she is playing outside or gardening and generally loving life in Steamboat Springs with her husband, Brian. Thanks for being here, Holly. I’m excited to talk with you.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, thanks for having me. This is pretty great.

Anna
Yeah, awesome. So my first question, I always kind of dive right in, is what does your discomfort zone feel like to you? Or another way of putting that is when I say discomfort zone, what comes up for you?

Holley Gardel
For me, I get sort of tightness in chest, shallow breathing. I get butterflies and nerves. That’s what it feels like to me.

Anna
Mm. And when you start feeling that, what is your strategy for navigating, navigating your discomfort zone?

Holley Gardel
Uh, I rely a lot on the breath. I do a lot of breathing and, um, I’ve recently learned to look at the butterflies in a little bit of a different way where I used to feel the butterflies and feel, uh, that was a cue to be nervous. Now I’m shifting that toward, uh, I feel the butterflies and that’s my cue to switch on. This is go time this is what we need to do. And rather than sort of feeling that as almost a negative physical feeling, having that be my motivation to switch on. But certainly the breath, I spend, that is probably my most grounding element that I use when I’m in my discomfort zone.

Anna
Yeah, I would say, and I’ve said this before on different episodes, that the breath is one of the threads through everyone. Folks see the discomfort zone differently, they feel it differently, and the breath always seems to come up as a strategy, which is really cool because I was telling someone that…

When I first started studying yoga, when I was first in the outdoor industry kayaking a lot, it was considered a little woo-woo, like the whole breath thing. And now it’s, I mean, I think it’s a strategy that is very well accepted and widely used. So I think that’s cool.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, in fact, I mean, the opposite of Woo Woo, I think, is a fighter pilot, right? And a retired fighter pilot that has been a mentor to me, she took it even a step further and, you know, kind of added a visualization step into the breath as well that was directly related to what I’m…

doing in an aircraft. And there have been many times when I’ve used that technique. And, you know, like I said, I definitely don’t see what she was doing up there as woo-woo, but it’s certainly kind of a common, it’s something that’s accessible. Everybody has access to that at any moment, right?

Anna
Yeah, could you tell us more about that visualization technique?

Holley Gardel
Yeah, so in an aircraft on the instrument panel is an instrument called the Attitude Indicator. And it’s funny because actually, you know, adjusting your attitude, there’s a couple different levels to that, right? It’s not just the name of the instrument for me, but…

Anna
That’s so funny. Can I just say I thought for a second, I was like, oh, maybe she meant altitude adjuster. Like totally. So that’s awesome.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, so it’s a it basically is a little it’s almost like a you know, it’s an image of a of airplane wings that you can see sort of your orientation of the your wings to the horizon, right? So if you’re wonky like this, then you’re in a bank, you’re not you’re not wings level. And there is a little knob next to this instrument that you can pull and you’re caging the gyro. So then now if you’re all wonky, you’re leveling the little mini aircraft relative to the horizon. And so a few years ago, I had a base manager at one of the operations I was working at and he could just tell, I had a day, I got out of the aircraft and I was all fired up and frustrated. And he just looks at me and he goes, re-cage, Gardell, re-cage. And I was like,

Well, that’s cool, you know? So I started to think about that when I needed to. And then I did some work with this woman, Tammy Barlett. She’s a retired fighter pilot. And she actually put the breathing in with recaging the gyro. And so, and has you practice this when you’re on the ground, you know, when you’re doing just regular meditation practice or whatever. So it’s something that you’re…

is very familiar to you when you actually need it. You know, you’ll be in the aircraft and you might have a moment where you’re frustrated or your task’s saturated, there’s a lot going on and it can be a stressful moment. And you can sort of visualize recaging the gyro and getting your attitude level and taking a couple breaths. And it’s pretty, it’s very effective. It’s pretty incredible how well that works for me when I need it.

I definitely rely on that.

Anna
Thanks for sharing. That’s really cool. Yeah, a readjusting attitude and altitude. All of it. The other thing I wanted to touch on, which I thought was really powerful when you mentioned that when you feel the butterflies, that you essentially reframed the butterflies for yourself. And I was just talking about this with someone very recently that, I think it was one of my coaching clients actually, about how that reframe is so important and how when you are feeling that discomfort, changing the story of it, like you said, like now it’s your go time and…

it’s really about the story that we’re telling ourselves. So that’s a mental agility practice. I talk about mental agility as the ability to move quickly and easily from feeling disempowered to feeling empowered. And by looking, reframing the butterflies, that’s essentially being able to move from, oh, the butterflies make me nervous. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. Maybe I’m not good enough or whatever’s going on. Maybe I should stop. To, I’m feeling the butterflies. Fear is helping me maybe do the best job that I can, for example. And now I’m switched on and I’m looking and all of my attention is on the path in front of me. So does that resonate with you? Question number one. And then question number two is how did you do that? Like what was your way of reframing that for yourself?

Holley Gardel
Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

So this is another technique I learned from the same woman. And it is, you know, you have this learned response, I guess, from your body about a certain feeling. You get the butterflies and then you automatically go, oh, I’m supposed to be nervous. And it is just a change in mindset, right? I’m not 100% there yet. I’m still in that learning process, but it’s getting easier all the time.

To feel that and then go, no, this is go time. This is the time I get to switch on. This is the time when I know I get to draw from all this stuff that I have available to me and my techniques and experience and determination. And this is what we do. And I think it’s really just a matter of practice because for the rest of my life, when I felt butterflies, that was my cue to be nervous. So you know, it’s relatively new for me and I don’t get it all the time, but it’s something I’m practicing and with anything, you know, you just need to keep, you need to keep practicing the new thing until that becomes familiar. So, so that’s where I am with that.

Anna
Right. Yeah. Thanks for sharing. Is there anything like that you say to yourself now that’s different? Like when you feel the butterflies, is there a word or a mantra or a saying that you say to yourself to switch it to on?

Holley Gardel
Maybe not consistently, you know, it’s my cue to take a few breaths and get centered and then just, you know, kind of get excited. Like, this is what we’re doing. We’re going, you know, instead of, oh no, we got to go. So it’s, I think it may be a little bit situationally dependent. So I don’t have a certain mantra or something. It’s more just a feeling and, um,

Yeah, just kind of getting in the zone.

Anna
Yeah. Yeah, that feeling is really important, I think. You just said the word feeling and some of my kayaking students are surprised when I have them do ferries with their eyes closed to be able to feel the water. Because sometimes I think we intellectualize, like the river, for example, and you’ve kayaked and you do kayak, so that’s how we met.

And so I know you understand the river because effective paddlers are not just intellectualizing by looking and reading the water, they’re also feeling what the water’s doing to the boat. And so to me, yeah, different people will process differently. Some people like a word or a mantra like in their head, and then other people, and I do both actually, I go to a feeling in my body, and it is hard to explain and put into words.

And then other times I use a word to get me to the feeling. So different people have different strategies, which I think, which is one of the reasons why I’m doing this podcast is to explore the different strategies that different folks have.

Yeah. So when it sounds like, it sounds like you decided that you wanted to get some coaching from this retired fighter pilot. Is that true? What brought you to your, in your life to decide, it’s time to invest in coaching or it’s time to hire someone or get some one-on-one kind of accountability and training.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, I’ve recently been introduced to the concept of mental performance training and something that I thought previously was only really a tool that was accessible or available to elite athletes. And the more I learned about it, the more interested I became in it. And I sort of stumbled upon her stuff on LinkedIn, and learned a little bit more about it. And at the same time was reading a book by Dr. Nate Zinsser called The Confident Mind. And he was a sports psychologist for elite athletes at West Point. Incredible book. And it really changed the way I thought about a lot of things and myself really. And so…

I was very interested in what this could do and what sort of potential could be realized in myself if I started applying these practices toward what I do in aviation. And that’s exactly what she does. So yeah, I mean, I’ve had actually in the last six months or so this pretty incredible period of personal growth. And you know, I’ve spent so much time training my craft, I guess, because it takes a lot of time and to get anywhere in this profession, you have to put a ton of time into it. But I never really realized the power of training your mind alongside of that. So your mind, your body and your craft, those are the three things you can train, right? And once I started digging into that stuff, it really became evident to me that there’s so much more potential than I ever realized I might be able to access, I guess.

Anna
Yeah, that’s great. I appreciate you talking about your journey because I think, again, my wheelhouse and careers in kayaking, and I’ve found the same. So many folks talk about hard moves and easy water from the skills perspective. And so few people up until recently talked about mindset strategy, hard moves and easy water, right? So you have to practice.

If what I’d always say if people were asking me, well, how do you calm yourself down at the top or in the middle of a big rapid? And I would say, well, I have to look at how I calm myself down in any situation. And then what practices do I have for calming myself down in any situation? Meditation, breath work, things that you’ve already mentioned. And I think that

Unless you are an elite athlete and obviously they are introduced to it all, I think that in general in other fields, a lot of times everyone does start with the body piece and the skills piece. There’s this belief that, oh, well, if you get better skills, then the mindset will follow. There is some truth to that. I do think the more competent you get in skills and if you have a strong skills foundation in whatever your…craft is, then your confidence does build. And at the same time, that will only go so far.

Holley Gardel
Exactly. Yeah, you just put it perfectly into words. I feel like that’s exactly how it’s exactly how I felt. Yeah, you know, the better the more you do the thing that you’ve been working so hard at, the more you practice and get better, you get you gain some confidence, but to a level because you still have to really, you know, there’s a mental piece of it as well

needs to come along and it doesn’t, I mean, maybe it comes naturally to some people, didn’t come naturally to me. I had to actually train that and learn about it in order to try to fine tune that a little bit. And I feel like it’s going to be a lifelong journey, you know, something I’ve only recently been digging into.

Anna
Yeah, yeah. And I think well said, it’s a lifelong journey. Because also those, the mental aspect only goes so far alongside your skills because we all develop coping mechanisms as kids to deal with uncomfortable situations, challenges, things that go on. And those, that wiring in our brain is strong and those coping mechanisms helped us out for a long time. And then we start realizing, Oh, maybe they’re not the most effective in all situations. And so then to your point, like rewiring, like you said, turning the butterflies from, oh, I should be nervous to, oh, it’s on. That takes some time and work. Yeah, it’s cool. I love it. Thanks for sharing about all of that. I think it’s so important. I think it’s such an important topic to explore and to shed more light on. Like, oh yeah, pilots use mindset training. Athletes use mindset training. I’ve heard of doctors who have mindset coaches. It’s something that’s, I think, becoming more and more accepted. So I think that’s cool.

Holley Gardel
Well, and I think maybe it’s, like I said, I mean, I thought it was really only for athletes. I didn’t know that those same principles could be applied throughout other facets of life. So it may just be that, you know, people are discovering now that it can be, those techniques can be used across the board no matter what it is that you do in your life, you know? It’s pretty neat.

Anna
Yeah, for sure. For sure. So as you mentioned, it takes a lot of time, you know, in aviation to learn your craft and you put a lot of hours in and I’m sure that it’s, well, I don’t know that I’m sure. I guess the question is, or I imagine that it’s uncomfortable, you know, pretty much helicopter. So my question is why do you keep, and you love a lot of outdoor sports as well, so why do you keep stepping into your discomfort zone over and over and over?

Holley Gardel
Well, okay, first let me just clarify, at least for me, I’m not uncomfortable in the aircraft. There are things sometimes that happen that put me in my discomfort zone, but I’m usually, that’s where I’m happiest is when I’m flying. So, but I understand what you mean by, you know, yeah, there’s a lot that goes along with that and all the training along the way. And I guess, you know.

For me, nothing remarkable has ever happened in my comfort zone. I feel like that’s where I get to see my best self is when I’ve come through something really challenging or difficult or maybe even something that at the beginning I didn’t think was possible for me. That’s when the real work happens and that’s when you get to see what you’re made of. So that…

You know, I don’t like necessarily being in the discomfort zone, but a lot of great things have come from being in that space in my life.

Anna
Yeah, I really liked what you said. I think it’s quotable for sure. Nothing remarkable happens in your comfort zone. I just wanted to repeat that for everyone because I think that is so true. And it’s important to keep coming back to that when we’re like, why do I do this to myself? Right? Because… We like remarkable things.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, and I mean, of course, you know, beautiful things, lovely things, wonderful things do happen in your comfort zone, right? I mean, but I feel like all the big stuff, at least for me in my life, has come from getting in there and doing the hard part, for sure.

Anna
Of course.

Is there a lesson that you’ve learned about yourself that really stands out from being in your discomfort zone or going through something challenging?

Holley Gardel
Yeah, for me, I feel like a lot of times I’ve discovered that whatever it is, this process that I’m going through, once I start working through it and putting the pieces together to get from where I am to where I need to be.

At the onset, the way I think about it, I’ve made it seem like it’s gonna be so much harder than it is. I can overthink things and I can almost talk myself out of it sometimes. And then once I get in there, for me the hardest part is jumping in. It’s like, okay, this is what we’re gonna do, we’re doing it. There’s an Amelia Earhart quot that says the most effective way to do it is to do it. And I’ve had to remind myself of that quite a lot over the years because you can think a little too much or you can just get started. And once I get started, then I find my flow and I find my process and I put together the stepping stones that get me to where I need to be. But yeah, so I think, you know.

Oftentimes the reality of it is not as bad as I might initially make it out to seem. Certainly that way with kayaking, right? I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the side of the river and just scared and nervous, and I don’t know if I should do this. And then you get in and you start doing it and it’s amazing and so much more fun than you thought it was gonna be. And then by the time you get to the takeout, you’re a completely different person because you’re stoked. You just had all this, you know, so much fun and you’ve just showed yourself that you could do it. So I feel like in kayaking that happens over and over again.

Anna
Yeah, definitely. I definitely experienced that for sure. So what would you say to someone who’s like on the edge or like questioning like, should I do this? Or I don’t really wanna do this or I wanna do it but I’m so nervous, I don’t know how to get started. Like what advice would you give someone on how to get started? Like how to step into it?

Holley Gardel
Well, first be prepared. Do everything that you can to put the time in that you need to really understand the process, to find the place to start, to maybe look for the people that can be resources for you and use them. You don’t have to do it all alone. There are…

There are books, there are podcasts, there are coaches, there are friends. You know, a couple of my good friends and I, we sort of joke about having our life board of directors. You know, the people that know you best that you can bounce things off of and in times when things are challenging, that becomes a huge resource, right? Your partner, your good friends, your family members. But…

You know, once you do the preparation, then don’t stay in the preparation. Just take the first step because you’re probably going to have to, you know, regroup along the way, maybe pivot, change directions. A lot of these hard tasks are not linear. And, uh, for me, that’s been very much true. You know, I’ve, I have this idea in my head of, okay, it’s going to be like this. I’m going to have to do all these steps. And going to lead to this thing. And then once you get in there, it’s not exactly like that, you know? And so you have to sort of just go with the flow and then, okay, this is where I am now. What’s my next step? Also, something that I feel like has been helpful for me is you can’t just always, you can’t just look at the big picture. You know, if you are here and you have a goal that’s here and this is what you have your eye on. I mean, I’m an eyes on the prize kind of girl. Don’t get me wrong. I am, I’m always striving for that thing, but there’s a lot of stuff that happens between here and here, right? So if you come up with these kind of mini goals along the way, and then you get to celebrate each one of those, and then you get to look back at some point and go, and keep track of those things, because then you can turn around and look and go, these are all the things that I’ve done toward this goal. It’s still way out there. I still have all these other things to do, but if you’re only allowing yourself to celebrate when you get the big thing, then you’re gonna miss out on a lot of the stuff in between.

Anna
Yeah, what you just said is huge. And I think, you know, especially, you know, I work with a lot of women in kayaking and myself included, sometimes we forget to celebrate the wins, you know, especially if it doesn’t look exactly like we thought or, you know, I mean, I hear people like, oh, yeah, today, oh, I rolled today. Like, how was your day on the river? Oh, I rolled.

It’s like, okay, maybe we should celebrate that you had a combat role, because that’s pretty awesome. Or even like, I had to get rescued or I took a swim. And recently I’ve been having this conversation, okay, well, was it a bad day or was it a bad five minutes or like a 10 minutes or a scary five minutes or 10 minutes? And like you’re letting that, you know, what there are always wins, I feel like, in a day of kayaking.

I haven’t seen anyone have like zero wins on a run. You know what I mean? But then we kind of start focusing on what didn’t go well instead of focus. So now what I try to do for myself too, and I notice my mind going into like everything that’s wrong and I can catch myself, then I make myself do a list of everything that’s going right. Right, you know, everything that’s going well in life. And that strategy has worked recently well for me.

Holley Gardel
Well, isn’t it incredible how much energy you can place into the five minutes? You know, like the rest of the day or the rest of whatever it was that you were doing was pretty awesome. Those five minutes definitely sucked. But then you walk away and that’s the only thing you think about. It’s incredible how the mind can go there.

Anna
Right? Yeah.

Right. Yeah. Or even I’m thinking about our theme of reframing in this conversation. To one person, getting a combat role would be like the biggest success ever because they’ve been working on it. And to another person who has the mindset of, oh, I shouldn’t flip over, it’s like a failure. And that just goes to show right there that

Like rolling is not inherently good or bad. It’s just what happened. It really all depends on how you’re viewing it.

Holley Gardel
Yeah.

Holley Gardel
Definitely.

Holley Gardel
So I can give you an example of what that looks like in my work life and how I practice that. For me, my discomfort zone at work lives in the night shift. We operate 24 hours. So after dark, things are definitely more challenging. I mean, not to mention the fact that not sleeping regularly and…

you know, sometimes very little rest, sleeping during the day, that’s tough for me. So that changes things quite a lot. But then also making a go, no -go decision when it comes to weather at night is tougher. We have pretty limited weather resources in the mountains. There are pretty few and far between. And what we do have are usually on the ground in smaller towns and…

not really related to what’s going on over the Continental Divide. So, you know, we’re traveling over terrain and pretty remote areas and at altitude and the weather reporting that we get kind of gives us a picture of what’s happening here and there, but not exactly along our route. So right away, that’s, you know, adds an element of discomfort for me. When I’m at work, I’ll stay at the hangar till about 10 pm

And then if nothing’s going on, I’ll go to the crew house and go lay down and try to get a little extra rest, thinking that maybe the phone’s gonna ring at two in the morning and I might get a little nap in or something. And usually about the time that I doze off is when the tone goes off. And it’s the most obnoxious, loudest sound you’ve ever heard. It’s, you know, imagine being on a ship under attack or something and.

jolts me out of my sleep. So, you know, talk about supercharging the sympathetic nervous system right off the bat, you know, turn the light on, look at the request, the flight request, and pretty quickly have to decide, you know, do I have the fuel I need to make it to the destination or do we have to top off? Can we take a patient with this weight and the crew configuration I have right now?

And what does the weather look like along the route? So, you know, from a sleep, you have to get up and make a really quick decision. And then if I decide I’m going, then head out of the crew house and drive up the hill back to the airport. And those few minutes I get in the car, that’s usually, because when I first wake up, it’s pretty, you know, I feel a little bit.

Maybe not frantic is the word, but a lot’s happening really fast. I get in the car I’ve already made the decision and now is my chance to breathe and Just think about okay. It’s time to turn those butterflies into go time We’re doing this, you know get stoked about it. It’s my reminder when I first started doing this I Didn’t know how to do that, you know when I first started doing air medical and I would have a lot of nerves going into a night flight and it’s not sustainable. It doesn’t work. So learning this skill actually has helped me quite a lot. And so I’ll do some breathing. I’ll do my recage technique on the way up the hill. And then I get there and our hanger door is a manual button. So I have to keep my finger on the button for almost a whole minute, which gives me another few breaths. I visualize what do I need to do to get.

you know, what do I need to put in the aircraft? All the things I have to do to get ready to pull it out. Get the aircraft out. My crew arrives. We do our walk around and blast off. And I have taken those few minutes to get to prepare myself, you know, better than I ever could have previously. And, you know, now we’re en route. And once we kind of get straight and leveled after we have the patient on board.

there’s a chance to sort of settle into the flight a little bit because, you know, while you still have to be really alert, a lot of different things can happen. Sometimes, you know, unexpected things come up, have to sort of do the breathing and recaging and route. Sometimes things are really chaotic in the back with the patient, if it’s a very serious patient. And I’m hearing all of it on the radio or I mean, on the intercom. And I have to just tune that out and pay attention to my job.

Once I get in the zone, it’s pretty amazing because we’re flying with night vision goggles and you know, the stars that we see with the naked eye are just a fraction of what you see under goggles. And there’s a bazillion shooting stars and it’s, you know, over this incredible terrain and craggy peaks. And and it’s really pretty awesome. But, you know, it took some time to get to that point where I can.

enjoy it and be relaxed about it. You still have to be of course on your toes, but then you get toward the city that we’re delivering the patient to. Now I can see the city lights. That’s another kind of comforting feeling and a good indicator. I can get my bearings. Where’s the hospital? And then when we land on that hospital helipad with the patient and deliver the patient, you get to take this deep breath and you know,

relax a little bit and it’s a lot like being on the river, right? The weather check comes in, that’s your scout, all the things you have to think about and look at. The en route is running the rapid and then landing at the helipad at the hospital, that’s the takeout when you’re stoked because things went right and you learn some stuff and now you get to celebrate a little bit, you know? And then we get back.

we fly back to base, we do a debrief as a crew, what went well, what could we have worked on, you know, things for next time. And then after the crew leaves, I do a personal debrief myself on my portion of the flight and write it down. So I know next time if there are things I want to improve upon, I can do that. But that that reframing and turning the butterflies into some stoke.

has been a huge tool for me in that regard.

Anna (06:47.045)
Yeah, thanks for sharing all that. It sounds really exciting and adventurous and stressful. And all the strategies you’ve shared and resources that you’ve used sounds like they come in really, really handy. And that it’s a, yeah, that focus sounds like you need a lot of, or have trained yourself to have a lot of focus on like next step and what’s the goal. And cause there could be, it sounds like there’s a lot of distraction, you know.

Anna
I love this conversation. I love it. That’s why I do in this podcast. I get jazz. It’s like, so many gems. What is your first memory of stepping into your discomfort zone? Do you have one? Do you have a first memory?

Holley Gardel
Me too. I love it too.

I do. Oh, I was such a dork as a kid. I was definitely like, you know, band geek, you know, but not good at it. So music is my first memory of my discomfort zone. I played the trumpet and the piano. I was in chorus. The singing always came pretty easy to me, but the instruments did not and I just couldn’t learn music.

I had a really good memory for stuff, so I would cheat and I would write the fingerings in with pencil and then memorize the thing from beginning to end and then erase it when I figured it out. But then when I had to like play it for either a chair, you know, in band or for like getting ready for a recital and then the teacher would ask me to back up a couple measures or something.

I would totally choke because I’d have to really think about what it might have sounded like a couple measures ago because I just didn’t really know the music. So I was embarrassed all the time. But I kept doing it because the joy of playing music was more fun than the embarrassment was bad. But I, you know, yeah, it’s one of those things like, oh, and then there’s 20 trumpets.

Right? I’m always hovering around 10th chair but I can never make it. So then they were like, well why don’t you play the baritone? It’s the same fingering as we need some baritones. And I’m like, okay, that sounds good. I didn’t know what it was and I went to go pick it up and it’s basically like a tuba.

Anna
Ha ha ha!

Holley Gardel
So now I’m riding the bus with my braces and my tuba and not being a cool kid and still just like, yeah, you know, it’s music, it’s fun. But I think band in the weirdest way sort of prepared me for a lot of moments of discomfort because you have to do this in front of all the people in your class, right? And there’s some people who are real standouts. I was not.

Anna
Right?

Holley Gardel
I was not that person.

Anna
I think you said it succinctly though, I think for the discomfort zone, you said the fun outweighed the moments of embarrassment. I think that that’s something that most of us would say, that’s one of the reasons why we keep doing it too. That’s funny.

Holley Gardel
Right. Yeah, I mean, that’s, I feel like that probably, that theme has entered a lot of different, a lot of different moments in my life for sure.

Anna
What is the biggest misconception that people have about aviation, being a pilot?

Holley Gardel
Mm.

Probably, I’d say that you hear it all the time, whether it’s flying or kayaking or whatever, people are like, oh, that sounds so amazing, but I could never do that, right? And the reality is, yes, you can. I mean, if I can do it, you can do it. It just depends on where you wanna place your focus and your energy and your determination. And yes, it’s a hard thing to do.

Certainly the financial piece is a big hurdle for a lot of people, but there are ways to get creative and do it. I think a lot of people think it’s something that’s unattainable and it takes a certain kind of person. Maybe it does take a certain kind of person who’s okay with being in the air and not always having your feet on the ground.

It’s not something that only certain people can do. I think anyone who wants to do it could do it.

Anna
Hmm. I would imagine that it’s a male-dominated career. Is that accurate? Okay. Have you come up against like doubters? Cause I find that like women who are in male-dominated, at least that’s been my experience of kayaking, like definitely I’ve come up against.

Holley Gardel
Very much so, yeah.

Anna
Doubters, they have not always been male, to be clear, just everyone listening. I’ve had as many doubters, hater, not, you know, I’ve had them from all different kinds of people. And I feel like when you’re in a minority in an industry or in a sport or an activity that you can come up against, maybe kind of like doubters or micro-aggressions a little more often. So how…

If you have, what’s your strategy for facing that?

Holley Gardel
Yeah, that’s a, it’s definitely pretty prominent in this field. You know, there’s of professional helicopter pilots, but statistics aren’t certain. They’re usually a few years behind, but it’s, it’s something like 5% are women. So it’s interesting. I was at a barbecue the other day and I was meeting a new person and we were chatting and getting to know each other and she asked where I worked and I told her and she said, oh, are you a pilot or a medic? And it, it was so interesting to me because that’s not the question I get usually. Usually somebody is saying, oh, are you a flight nurse? And no disrespect at all to my flight crew, they are amazing. I’m happy to be categorized in the same category as they are. They’re incredible. And it is nine times out of 10, people think I’m the nurse. And I have, well, to finish that, the more we talked, I learned that she’s a doctor. So she’s been getting that her whole career too, right?

And I really, I thought it was so interesting that she would ask me that because nobody asks me that. And it’s because that’s what she has encountered too. But, you know, I’ve flown all over the country and I can’t tell you how many times I’d get out of the aircraft. And I’m the one sitting in front of the controls. It doesn’t matter where the guy is in the aircraft, you know, he’s working on something for me. He might come out of the back seat.

And the line staff, when we land, will walk up to the guy and say, good afternoon, sir, are you taking fuel today? And he’ll go, ask her, she’s the pilot. I mean, I’ve been told to have a nice lesson when I was walking out of the airport with a guy toward the aircraft. I’ve been told by someone that I was working with that if women were meant to be pilots, they wouldn’t have called it a cockpit.

Anna
Wow.

Anna
Oh my God. Wow.

Holley Gardel
And, you know, I’ve seen it so many times in the workplace where if a woman does a great job and gets a promotion, well, it’s because she’s a woman and they had to give it to her. And if she does something that’s not very good, or if she makes a big mistake, it’s because she’s a woman. So, you know, you see it in so many different ways. And honestly, it used to really get me pretty fired up or, you know, it would make me angry.

And now in my wise old age, I’ve just come to this realization that the reality is there aren’t that many of us. And for the most part, people don’t expect me to be the one getting out of the aircraft and being the pilot, you know? So you can’t really blame people because it’s not that common. And so really now where I need to just be thinking about this is I want to be able to mentor other women. I want to…

make it a lot more commonplace or even acceptable to think that women are, you know, in the aircraft behind the controls and pilot and command. It’s what we do and there are more of us all the time in the fixed wing industry. I think it’s maybe, I don’t know, up to 12 or 15% now, which actually has been a really pretty incredible increase in the last 10 years or so.

So yeah, you know, instead of getting upset, I just realized that it’s just, it’s unusual, I think, for a lot of people and they don’t really know how else to think. But someday it will matter at all, right? Hopefully.

Anna
Right. Yeah. If you, you know, continue with your passion, because you’re passionate about it and mentoring other women, I think that’s important. I’ve been thinking about this because I recently turned 50, and yay, thanks. Yeah. It’s good. It’s good. And I was…

Anna
I was having a conversation with a friend about this subject, about different drama that can happen in different communities or doubters, haters. What I’m coming to realize is that for me, being able to leave an empowering legacy is that I kept going regardless of. And just at some point, I was just like, I’m going to do… People can think whatever they think about me, talk about me, however they want to talk about me. I’m going to focus on the folks that I make a difference for and where I feel like my strengths are and what my passions are and I’m going to keep doing that because I’m enjoying it, because I get a lot of juice out of it. And so now after 20 years in working in the industry, 30 years of being on the river, I can really look back and I feel like now kind of to your point, I can mentor other women, I can…

maybe support women and people in different ways, not only women, but people in general, and make a difference in that way. It all came from, or I don’t know if it all came, but a big piece of it for me I’m realizing is my ability to stay resilient and committed and to keep doing the work that I was committed to and passionate about for a long period of time, whoever was saying whatever about me or had whatever ideas or judgments they had about me.

Holley Gardel
Well, I’m so glad that you stuck it out and then developed it into what it is now, because you have been an incredible mentor for so many women who are interested in getting on the river or taking it to the next level. I mean, when I think of anybody out there in the world who does this for women in kayaking, it’s you. And I know there’s a lot of people who think that about you too. So, amazing job in that regard. It’s been incredible to watch.

you know, all these years since I met you from the girls that play videos to all the amazing stuff that you’re doing now.

Anna
Well, thank you. It’s been a while!

Holley Gardel
It has been. And you know, I think about when I was, I had that stopover when I was working in Asheville and we went hiking and you were talking about how, you know, one of the next things you wanted to do was a podcast. And I was like, awesome, you need to do that. Do it. And here you’re doing it. So cool.

Anna
Yay. Oh, that’s awesome. I didn’t realize that I had mentioned that to you. That was like several years ago. That’s how long I’ve sat on this idea, which, you know, sometimes, like you said, it takes time. You know, it does. Yeah.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, for sure. Well then you have lots of other things going on. It’s not like you’re just sitting around wondering what to do next. You’re sort of a woman with a lot of balls in the air, right?

Anna
Right. Yeah, true.

Well, I also think that speaks to the power of also speaking things out loud, even if you’re not going to take action on them right away, but to speak them out loud, because then it keeps me in the conversation. And I keep hearing myself tell people that, and then, I don’t know, that helps me then actually taking that first step that we talked about earlier.

Holley Gardel
Yeah.

Anna
Sometimes that first step for me is actually telling someone, I think I wanna do this, I think I’m really interested in this. And it seems so simple. The more you hear yourself say it, the more your mind, your nervous system adjusts to it. Okay, do you have any other, do you have a question for me?

Holley Gardel
Yeah, right.

Yeah.

Holley Gardel
I have a couple. One is, you know, just as a public figure as you are and you were talking about, you know, in your earlier years maybe feeling that judgment and stuff and then the evolution that you’ve had to now where when you have a day that’s not a great day or…

maybe you’ve had a mistake on the river or something like that, and you’re at this point now where you will talk about it and tell people about your process going through it. That shift that you made from kind of wanting to be, I guess, not have people think of you a certain way to then being completely open about here’s what went on, what was that process like and what made you decide you were gonna…

kind of take it to there, to where it is today.

Anna
Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t think there was a moment in time. I think that I…

I think it’s been a journey for me to be more and more vulnerable because when I first started in whitewater kayaking, I felt like I had to prove myself. I felt like that whole, you hear you have to try to be twice as good to be half as respected kind of deal. I definitely felt that.

And I also started in the 90s when the community, especially at a high level, I mean, it’s completely different now. It was harsh, right? And so I felt like definitely I was always being watched and judged. And I was a bit naive too, because I was with people who had grown up paddling. I didn’t know I was new.

I didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family. And so that adjustment, I definitely felt like I needed to prove myself. And then at some point…

Anna
Yeah, like I said, I think there was a point where I was… I think it came with the more people who I saw that I could help, and I knew that I was helping them, helping or supporting them, because they would tell me. I would get notes and cards and verbal affirmation of how much one of my programs, instruction, whether it was a Mexico, Costa Rica trip, really helped them with their courage, their confidence, even with the life change. I’ve had people who decided to quit their jobs and do a whole new thing after coaching with me, not even kayaking related, right? And they have so much more freedom. I think focusing on that and understanding that when I shared my own process, it actually helped people and it helped

Yeah, because I believe sharing is really important. Just like, that’s one of the reasons why I started this podcast is to share. The more we hear and can hear each other’s humanity in each other’s process, I think the more courage and confidence we gain within ourselves. So I don’t know if that answers your question. That’s the answer that’s coming up. I think it’s in a desire to help people, to like, okay, if when I’m vulnerable, I can be of service.

Holley Gardel
Love it.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, because I think for a lot of people when they see like, Oh, if it can happen to Anna, then it’s okay if it happens to me too, right?

Anna
Yeah, for sure. And it’s really important to not just post the highlight reels. I mean, just this weekend, I was paddling a river called Tallulah Gorge, and there’s a big, like, slide, 100-foot slide called Oceana. And I was feeling weird above it, like, not fully present. It was really interesting. I’m like, okay, I’m not fully present. This feels weird. And…

Andrew had said something like, oh, I like to kind of like go slow at the top and then drive. And so I tried that and it didn’t work out for me. Actually, I was online, but the going slow at the top didn’t really work for me. And I totally like leaned away from this big rooster tail thing and flipped and I could totally tell like I didn’t need to lean away from it. Like I was fine online. And when I got to the bottom, I was like,

Holley Gardel
hahahaha

Anna
I know exactly what I did. I want to do it again. And so I asked Andrew, and in the past, I might have been like, oh, I don’t want to bother him about walking my boat up. It was also my 50th birthday. So I was like, will you help me go back up to the top? And again, that’s a vulnerability piece. And he did. And he was stoked. And I was very grateful. And I could care less of people, you know, because sometimes you’d be like, oh, I don’t want to.

I’m a woman, I don’t want people to see someone else carrying my bow because then they’ll think I can’t carry it. And it’s like, screw that. He’s a little more agile than me on the slick rock and he wanted to do it. And I’m going to accept that gift for today. And it’s my birthday. But you know, letting all of that go. I know I can carry my own kayak. I know I can load my own kayak. And honestly, if I couldn’t, it’s no one’s business. Because if I have someone helping me…

Holley Gardel
Yeah, and it’s your birthday. You’re not supposed to carry your own kayak.

Anna
that wants to help me and get me out there, then amazing, right? So then I put back on and I had a great line, my second run, and that was so awesome. And so just again, as a vulnerability piece and also an inside like, oh, I knew I wanted to do it again. And for all of us to listen to that, right? That little like, and not like…

Holley Gardel
Right, yeah.

awesome.

Anna
push it down and be like, well, I don’t want to bother people. Again, sharing that. I’d like to do that again and see what’s possible.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, totally. Cool.

Anna
I feel like I just went off on a tangent, but thanks for that question.

Holley Gardel
It was a good tangent. I have one more question. I heard a rumor that you and Andrew might be coming to Steamboat Next Winter to ski. Is that, is that for real?

Anna
Oh, we were thinking about it. Yeah, except from Sarah. Yeah, we’re still not decided, but we are thinking about it. OK, cool. I know. Well, one of the reasons we would do it is because of y’all. We know so many cool people out there. So yeah, it would be. OK, that’s extra motivation. OK, rapid fire round. Are you ready?

Holley Gardel
Okay, well you should definitely do it. That would be really awesome. That’d be great.

Holley Gardel
Y’all, come out. It’d be so fun. We’d have a blast.

Anna
Okay, so these are designed to be shorter answers. Um, first one, what’s a morning ritual that sets you up for success?

Holley Gardel
Oh, um, nearly every morning, unless I just jump out of bed, I will just take a few breaths, think about what I’m grateful for, think about something I want to focus on for the day. So, you know, before grabbing my phone, anything, I just, I, as soon as I open my eyes, I try to get centered and, you know, happy to be opening my eyes another day. And here we go.

Anna
Yeah, I love it. What’s a non-negotiable self-care practice?

Holley Gardel
movement, meditation, and nature.

Anna
Great. What is a favorite motivational book or talk?

Holley Gardel
Um, anything by Dr. Michael Gervais and Nate Zinser, who I mentioned earlier. And then for any of you aviators out there, Tammy Bartlett.

Anna
Great. What do people get wrong about you?

Holley Gardel
to… I think there are certain professions where people automatically have an assumption about who you are because of what you do. And I think this is one of those. So I think that, you know, for most people, if they would get to know me, they would learn that I’m probably a lot different than they think.

Holley Gardel
than they thought I was going to be, I guess.

Anna

Okay, throughout the course of your life, have you been the underdog or the favored to win?

Holley Gardel
Um, geez, I don’t know. I think probably a little bit of both. I mean, my determination, I guess, makes me favored to win, but, you know, in most circumstances, I’ve probably been the underdog.

Anna
Okay.

Hard moves in easy water or flooding.

Holley Gardel
I know these are either or questions, but certainly I… Okay.

Anna
They don’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be. I’m just putting it out here to hear, you know, how folks feel or view.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, hard moves in easy water is always what I’m hoping for, but flooding is where the real magic happens, right? I guess that’s where you get to see what you’re made of. So yeah, and you kind of have to do both because if you haven’t practiced the hard moves in easy water, then when the stuff goes down…

Um, it’s a lot harder. Yeah.

Anna
Yeah, agreed. It’s a great answer. What’s one word that describes your comfort zone?

Holley Gardel
Home

Anna
Freedom through discipline or I do what I want.

Holley Gardel
Definitely freedom through discipline. I’m a rule follower. I like my ducks in a row.

Anna
Okay. Yeah. Yeah, I’m similar. In one word, what do you hope your legacy will be?

Holley Gardel
integrity.

Anna
Is there anything else you want to tell our listeners?

Holley Gardel
Uh, yeah, there’s something that my mentor, John Witte taught me years ago when I was learning to fly that has been really helpful for me in life in general. And, um, and that is, you know, we’d be in the aircraft and I would have maybe really screwed up a maneuver or had a terrible radio call or something and I’d be beating myself up, you know…

mad at myself and wanting to talk about it. And he right away would shut that down. And he would say, Hey, that happened back there. You need to be focusing on what’s in front of you. We’re going 120 miles through the air. Anything can happen next. If you’re thinking about what just happened, you’re not thinking about what’s about to happen. Right. And you’re not focusing on what you need to be doing next. And you know, when we get on the ground, we’ll debrief and but for right now, we’re not gonna dwell on that. And that was such a huge lesson to me. It’s something that I’ve taken into so many parts of my life. I mean, it works on the river. If you’re beating yourself up while you’re trying to get through something, then you’re not thinking about what’s in front of you. Get in the eddy, get in the still water, have yourself debrief or debrief with your friends or your instructor, your coach, whatever, but don’t be thinking about it in the moment because there’s…more important things to do than dwell on what you just screwed up on.

Anna
Yeah, well said. Thanks for sharing that.

Holley Gardel
Yeah, he uh, Don Witte, wise man.

Anna
Yeah, well, thank you. Thanks, John. Where can people connect with you?

Holley Gardel
Hahaha!

Holley Gardel
You know, I’m not really a public social media person, but I am on LinkedIn. And if anybody has any aviation type questions, or if there’s somebody out there who’s listening and feeling like they might be a little bit stuck in their aviation journey, I’m always happy to help. So that’s probably the best way that you can find me. Yeah.

Anna
Great. And I’ll put that in the show notes. So a link to your LinkedIn profile. Yeah. Thanks so much, Holly. Thanks for all the gems and wisdom. I know, right? So yeah, you too. Thanks so much for being here.

Holley Gardel
Okay.

Holley Gardel
This has been great. I could talk to you about this stuff all day. It’s really fun to see you too.