Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

by Lauren Kieren:

“How do we get the younger generation involved in diving?”
– Accept, mentor, and guide them in the right direction.

Throughout this text we will outline examples of reverse age discrimination* and its effects on the dive community.

More often than not I am the smallest, youngest, and only female at a dive site. Growing up with two big brothers who believe in equal opportunities to test and challenge me, I never thought twice about being the odd one out amongst a group of older males.

My perspective on this changed as I transitioned into technical diving and received a consistent response from divers on the majority of the tech dive trips I went on. These responses include divers moving my equipment away from the group on the boat while I was not present, questioning my experience, asking if I am old enough to dive or strong enough to carry my gear, stating they will have to keep an eye on me in the water, and probably rescue me later on, refusing to talk to me or acknowledge my presence – all of which occurred without knowing my experience or seeing me in the water.

I have been actively diving since I was 12 years old. I have over 3000 dives, hundreds of open circuit advanced trimix level dives; some of which include mapping deep trenches and surveying historically significant anchors, I can dive and teach on multiple rebreathers and have hundreds of logged CCR hours accumulated, most of which are in caves and wrecks. I have personally worked with over 500 students; I have been an Instructor Trainer Evaluator for the past two years. I have completed 2 recoveries, I am 25 years old, and I am asking the dive community to not judge a book by its cover.

It’s important to note, I never intended on sharing this information with the public as I feared it would dissuade people in my demographic from entering into technical diving. My intentions are always to motivate, inspire, and encourage more people into the dive community. I focus most of my time and resources on growing the industry as a whole and as a result, felt this is a necessary topic to bring to the table for consideration.

So what changed? While conducting an Instructor Trainer Workshop (ITW) in the summer of 2014, the youngest candidate in the class (24 year old male), pulled me aside to ask for advice on how to deal with the older generation of divers never giving him a chance. My response was simple, “get in the water and show them what you can do.”

This conversation lingered on with me after the ITW so I began asking young dive professionals if they have had similar experiences. The responses were alarming; this issue seems to be more prevalent than I would have ever imagined and the dive community will struggle to grow if this trend continues.

I hope outlining examples of reverse age discrimination and things to consider while dealing with younger divers and instructors will help the community grow as a whole, and work together to encourage young divers to excel in this sport.

Michael Thornton
SDI, TDI Instructor Trainer

What if I told you… I have been diving for over 16 years, technical diving for 14 years, diving rebreathers for 12 years, cave diving for 11 years, teaching scuba for 8 years and teaching CCR and cave for the past 4 years – yet I have been told by a open water student they will not take a course from someone half their age after meeting me at face value.

I am 26 years old, I have been diving over half of my life, and I am told on many occasions divers will not take a course from me due to my age. Why is that? Are those people missing out on potential good instruction? Are their biases correct? Can someone who is younger still be a good diver and instructor?

One of my previous students; Kent Jolly notes, “It took me over a year to find a rebreather model to meet my needs and an instructor with the experience I hoped to learn from in training… After signing up for the rebreather course with Randy Thornton, on the first day of class his son, Michael Thornton walks through the door to conduct my training… My immediate thoughts were ‘bait and switch,’ surely he’s too young to have the expertise and experience I paid for. It took less than an hour to let my guard down and have an open mind after realizing Michael has more knowledge and experience than what I originally expected from any dive professional.”

Many times, a younger instructor has more recently completed their professional development training. Many times, they are more up to date on what is current in this ever changing world. Teaching techniques, curriculum, and training in general has progressed with time. Technology has also caused the sport of diving to change dramatically over the last two decades. With this information, why is it inconceivable that a young instructor could be the right choice?

Have an open mind, just because a person is young in age; does not mean they are young in experience, especially if you take into consideration all of the knowledge and wisdom that went into developing what they were taught. I believe I learned to dive with good curriculum but I believe the next generation of divers will have even better tools to work with. They have the potential (at an even younger age) to be much better teachers than what we have today. Next time you have the opportunity to take a class from someone half your age, don’t pass it up without considering if this could be a good choice for you.

Phil Short
SDI Instructor, TDI Instructor Trainer

When I first started teaching technical diving around 1999-2000 for Kevin Gurr’s company, ‘Phoenix Diver Training,’ I was young for the industry (31 years old). During this time, the technical diving community was in its adolescent stage so people sought out the pioneers and leaders in the industry, the people who were literally writing the text books for training.

I clearly remember a group of students arriving one Monday morning for a technical nitrox class and after introducing myself, the students asked, “where is Kevin Gurr? We came to Phoenix to train with Kevin, what can you teach us? You’re so young!”

Kevin quickly came down from his office and told the group, “I trained him – I believe he is ready to represent me, the company, and the dive industry. Phil will conduct your class and you can pay at the end if you feel you receive good instruction.”

Every student paid after a dive planning lecture and I have never looked back.

Taking a class is not about proving what you already know and passing a test. It is about finding out what you don’t know and where there is room to grow and improve with the guidance of an instructor, regardless of their age.

Becky Kagan Schott
Underwater DP, Cameraman, Photographer, SDI, TDI Instructor
Liquid Productions, Inc.

After losing my Dad at the age of 13, I made a personal choice to live my life to the fullest and follow my dreams without letting anything get in the way. My passion for scuba diving developed during this period and I was determined to make it more than a hobby but an essential part of my life. I took every scuba diving course imaginable and found myself working with an Instructor by the name of Herb Sugden.

Herb forever changed my life by taking me under his wing and becoming my mentor from the age of 15 as a cavern diver, to the age of 18 as a full cave diver, and later on into my dive professional development training. Throughout these stages, Herb allowed me to gain experience and learn by discovery under his watchful eye. He was never easy on me, I always appreciated this and he was very patient, understanding, and encouraging. Herb introduced me to technical diving which is a world I am still obsessed with to this day.

These are the positive attributes of a mentor and role model in the dive industry; someone who can inspire and drive an individual to be the best in their ability and encourage them to continue on, consider other facets in diving, and move forward. With an influx of young divers coming into the dive scene, I feel the importance of mentorship and good role modeling is an important topic for discussion.

I have never felt discriminated as a female in the dive industry, if anything I think it helped me stand out in a primarily male dominated sport, however I have felt discriminated at times due to my age. I greatly admire and respect the divers that have come before me; it is never my intention to take away from their accomplishments. That being said, several years ago I found it difficult to enter a film festival as a speaker. I noticed the lineup of presenters were accepted year after year and some of them did not even film what they were showcasing as their work. There is no doubt these presenters were very accomplished but I found myself asking why the industry is not looking for a young new perspective. I struggled for months trying to communicate with the organizers of this event and when I finally had the chance to speak to someone, I snapped and said; “I won an Emmy this year, what is it going to take to allow me to present at this film festival?”

I was able to present that year and I was very proud of myself. Unfortunately I received an unwelcome response from the other presenters; only one person on the speaker lineup talked with me that evening. I lost a lot of respect for my peers that day and I made a promise to myself that in the future, I would try to help motivate and mentor someone when the opportunity presents itself. I strive to be approachable and support others in the industry, no matter how old or young they are.

In December 2014, I won 4 more Emmy Awards for filming a cave diving special and I am in my early 30’s. I would not be in this position and have these opportunities to film in amazing places around the world without mentorship and support. I encourage everyone to mentor someone in the future.

As mentioned in the beginning, the dive community will struggle to grow if this trend continues on. Year after year at dive industry trade shows, meetings are held to discuss how to enhance the dive industry and bring in a younger generation of divers to step in and make diving “cool” again. Colorful flow charts and infographics are created in hopes of finding the magic cure as we are in a dying industry starving for a fresh, young, new perspective.

Reverse age discrimination is only one area in a larger pool of issues that need to be addressed in order to grow this industry as a whole. The truth is, the younger generation is here, driven to make diving mainstream, and need to be accepted to assist in moving forward. We are experimenting with new technologies, incorporating modern teaching methods into our courses, and exploring never before seen places and bringing footage of it all back to be shared with the world. So listen up, you might just learn something.

*Reverse age discrimination – A term used to describe discrimination against a younger generation, including ignoring their presence or ideas because they are too young or act in a certain way due to their age.

1 reply
  1. Alexander Douglas
    Alexander Douglas says:

    Thank you for sharing the memories, I too had the pleasure of being mentored by Herb Sugden during my NAUI ITW/CDW training. At work he is a Pro and like a best friend, dad and grandfather rolled into one, out of working hours. A truly great guy.


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