The first time Erin Scott played paintball she took a licking.
Twenty years old and running through the woods in Maple Ridge with her younger foster sister, Scott got a good taste of the feeling of paintballs striking skin.
“We got absolutely stomped on. But for some reason, she and I looked at each other and we were just like, ‘This is awesome!’”
There was something about the adrenaline and the anonymity of wearing a mask that gave both the typically-shy women an exhilarating boost of confidence.
“It hooked us in.”
Thirteen years later, the Mission resident is a set designer and the captain of Canada’s first all-women’s pro paintball team, the Northern Lights.
The new team is made up of seven other players – four of them also from B.C.’s Fraser Valley, one from Nova Scotia, one from Ottawa and one from Manitoba – all dead set on growing the sport.
“It’s changed my life,” Hannah Urquhart, a 28-year-old Chilliwack high school teacher says.
She was introduced to the game just a couple years ago by her fiance. They showed up to the field with his old gear and struggled to make the equipment work before they even started playing.
“It was intimidating. I felt really silly,” Urquhart says. She told her partner she didn’t think she wanted to go back.
At that point in her life, Urquhart was the kind of person who liked to play it safe. She was good at school and good at her job and, for the most part, that felt like enough.
“I was really shy and didn’t have a lot of confidence. I didn’t really feel great taking chances – not just playing paintball, but in other areas of my life. I was a bit of a people pleaser, a perfectionist.”
But something inside her made her return to the paintball field once more, and she scored. She’s been there most weekends since.
“I didn’t get super fantastic right away, that’s definitely not how it was. But the way I would feel when I played changed quite a lot.”
Grinding away at something truly challenging and seeing progress was immensely rewarding to Urquhart in a way she’d rarely experienced before. The paintball community was different from what she was used to, too. Instead of just being polite and telling her what she wanted to hear, Urquhart’s fellow players were honest and direct with their criticisms – unrelenting in their push to see her improve.
“It changed the way I saw myself.”
Like Scott, Urquhart started to feel a kind of confidence she hadn’t known existed.
Part of it was how hard they had to work to prove themselves. Most times the only women on a team and often times the only women on a field, Scott and Urquhart say there were games when they were treated as second-rate players or men would get upset for getting shot out by them.
Amanda Renardy, another Northern Lights player from Chilliwack, says she distinctly remembers a day in 2019 when she was practising and was approached by a group of regulars offering up some tips.
“I think that was the first time I felt really acknowledged that I was there to be a player and wasn’t just someone’s girlfriend,” the 27-year-old disability management worker says.
All three agree the lack of women in the sport is primarily an issue of representation.
“We are often conditioned to believe that we’re not as capable as men, that we’re not as aggressive as men, that paintball isn’t a game for women,” Urquhart says.
But the game doesn’t favour one body type over another, it rewards mental strength.
“It’s about how you approach each point and how you process change,” Renardy says. “It’s essentially a very fast-paced chess game. It’s a lot of read-and-react. Every second counts and you can’t let other people get in your head.”
Renardy says it doesn’t make a big difference to her if she’s playing with men or women, only that she wants to see the sport grow. If young girls seeing Renardy on the field instead of in the sidelines makes that happen, then that’s a win in Renardy’s eyes.
“I think people need to be brave enough to suck at something new. Paintball comes with a lot of life skills that people should try and explore.”
Scott and Urquhart are also hopeful the Northern Lights team makes more people consider joining the game.
“I hope we show the little girls at my local paintball field that if you just play and take chances, you could end up doing things you didn’t expect were possible,” Urquhart says.
The team will be heading to the world cup in November.