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IWD 2020

Photo by: Christiana Theodoli

Jess Bess
@mulanmma
Youtube channel

Martial arts taught me to learn to love my body and what it can do - rather than what it looks like. It’s helped me discover my body and I’m amazed at some of the things I’m able to do that I previously never thought would be possible - both physically and mentally.

 

Growing up I feel like my self body image was influenced by the beauty standards of the East Asian community and magazines that I used to read. I remember being obsessed with thigh gaps at one point in my life. Now I’m at a point in my life where I accept that I don’t look like a model or a typical East Asian girl and actually appreciate my muscly legs because they are an asset in jiu jitsu for a strong base. 

 

I also used to judge my body constantly, wondering if it was ‘good enough’ for a guy to appreciate. I was self conscious of my small boobs and didn’t think I was sexy. Now that I accept and love my own body, I appreciate my small boobs and couldn’t imagine training with big boobs haha it’d be so convenient. The whole irony of this is that because I’ve now accepted myself and am comfortable with my body… Some people may say that’s what makes me attractive: my confidence - not whether I have big boobs or not.

 

Throughout my life I never felt like my body was really mine until I started martial arts and reclaimed the connection with myself.  I’ve been sexually harassed and groped in public before on several occasions by strangers but now I’m more comfortable in my own skin than ever before. With martial arts, I started to feel powerful and love my body for what it could do - not what it looked like or whether guys would like it. 

 

Having said that, the ‘funny thing’ is that I have actually been groped in a jiu jitsu class before. I don’t want to put anyone off training though because that is a rare case. The difference this time is that I had the confidence to confront the guy I guess.

 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that the real self defence isn’t knowing a certain combo or  jiu jitsu move, it’s actually being able to communicate and be vocal when someone crosses your boundaries and makes you feel uncomfortable. Voicing that when you first sense discomfort is the best way to self defend in my opinion but first you have to define your own boundaries and what feels comfortable in your body. Self defence is linked to self esteem because it takes courage and self confidence to speak up and martial arts definitely helps you with that.

 

Long story short, martial arts has definitely changed my life and the journey is still continuing. My body is mine and belongs to me. I treat it with love, care and respect and I love it no matter what. If I do squats it’s no longer to get a bigger butt to get a guys approval but it’s to develop stronger glutes to prevent injury

Ei Culvs
@yuki2707_

I was bullied from the age of 8 until I was 14. I spent most of my teens competing and by 10 was on the welsh squad all the while still being bullied, still unsure of myself, until one day I stood up for myself and from that day, everything changed.

 

Fast forward to today, I travel the globe teaching, training and competing. My life is so fulfilled through meeting so many amazing people along the way and to top it off gaining three black belts in various styles and a purple belt in BJJ in 29 years.

 

If it wasn’t for being bullied, I doubt if I would be where I am today and be the person who I am. 

Sandra Hinz

@sandra_hinz

“I first came into contact with martial arts when I was 12 and started Karate. I have since then trained in several disciplines, but last September Brazilian jiu jitsu captured my heart. It teaches you self defence, empowers you and you learn to focus under pressure. It has helped me deal with general setbacks in life as well as on the mat. Being a part of such an amazing community with incredibly inspiring people has helped me tackle my depression easier. It has become my happy place and I always leave practice on a high and satisfied no matter how brutal the session.” 

Rachael Hopkin
@attackoftheraebot

I started martial arts in my 30's as a new way of keeping fit after years of being too scared to give it a go for fear of being too unfit and looking silly, as the last time I ever did a martial art was a few months of judo when I was 10! I'm not naturally athletic, I'm pretty uncoordinated but doing martial arts has made me see my body in a less limiting way. It's pushed me to try to improve, be healthier and stronger, mentally and physically. It's also an incredible way of blocking out the noise and stress of other things in my life. It's frustrating at times and it's really hard work but I love it.  The community is also incredibly supportive and encouraging and I've met some wonderful people through it that I never would have encountered otherwise.

Neelum Hassan
@neel.has

I have been training Brazilian Jiu jitsu, 5 days a week at Carlson Gracie Team Karachi ~ Pakistan, for the past 13 months. Having multiple jobs and a family to go home to, I am often asked why I can't skip a day?

 

When I was 5 my mum would pick me up from school on her way home from work on the bus, and while I waited I would sit outside my classroom and watch 50 kids practice martial arts. Their coach would look at me and sometimes ask me to join in, but as soon I started my mum would arrive and I'd have to leave. I'd leave a little happy because their drills seemed hard, but a little sad because I never got a chance. I knew instantly that we were somehow different than these kids. Their parents could pick them up whenever they called them and so they got to stay back for every after school activity. 

 

In October 2018 I was hired as an artist at the same school's junior campus to paint a 60 feet mural for the same after school program. At 3 o'clock, 16 students gathered in the courtyard as their coaches laid out the mats. I saw how they stood in a line scared to death, miles away from a basic summersault but by the end of the day the same kids were nailing flying front rolls. And it wasn't because of the school or their parents or that they were extraordinarily talented. It was because of their Coach. I was 26 years old, but watching them made me feel like I was 5 again. I started my jiujitsu journey a couple of months later. I spent my whole life watching other people step on the mats while I sat out; I'm never sitting out again!

Sophie Luxton
@sophieluxtonmma

I started martial arts around 7 years ago. As a teenager I had nothing to put my energy towards. I started training 2 hours a week kickboxing and soon my interest spread to trying other martial arts. I slowly transitioned to mma which was welcomed to start with due to the lack of women in the sport! 

 

7 years on and I’m one of the most active amateur females in the country. Since starting the sport I have gained around 10kg and have such a better understanding of my body and health

 

It’s so great for girls now as they have the opportunity to walk straight on the mats and train MMA. When I started women weren’t allowed to do the classes because the men didn’t think they should be there! No men would train with me and I had to bring a friend if I wanted to train. I still struggle to find female training partners now but the men are so welcoming and proud of me at my new gym. It gave me an outlet, I’m a very hyperactive person and have had times in my life where I’ve struggled with mental health. But it’s always given me something to focus on. And now it’s turned into a career. One day I’ll turn the sport I love into my full time job which is so amazing. I’ve had a few losses in my career but the sport is more than just winning. I love fighting, training and know I’m getting the most out of my life that I possibly can. So I have never given up after a loss because I know this sport is where I belong. It’s hard for people who don’t fight and train on a serious level to understand, but it’s no longer an option for me!

Marieke Das
@miss_dasnl

What jiujitsu brought to me is the belief that I always have my own back. It allows me to be strong, bold, tenacious, passionate, assertive, and that what I put in, I get back. And that guillotines are awesome!

I think getting on a competition mat amplified it. You are so alone out there, surrounded by people watching, maybe not even you, but just rolls, comps, people giving it a 100%. And you stand there and it’s so scary. The sheer space around you. But you know it comes down to you. And you know you prepared, trained and are ready for it. You know you are going to give it all you have. And even though you might lose, you still faced everything, alone. 

 

Jiujitsu empowers. You are allowed to dominate, to give it 100% and win. You are allowed to show who you are. Any style of jiu jitsu can work and there is space for everyone, the small, the big, the athletic. 

 

Mentally it has had a massive impact as I have learnt how to navigate difficult situations.

 

Weightlifting has taught me that I am strong enough to handle anything whilst jiujitsu tells me how to handle things. It’s engaging, cunning, exhilarating.

Katherine Hill
@katricianh5

I am an academic, a full-time lecturer and researcher, but also a committed BJJ athlete and instructor. I can barely remember what life was like before I trained, and I can’t imagine my life without BJJ and time on the mats. I wouldn’t say it has made me a completely different person, but it’s added to my life in ways which I wouldn’t change. I was never one of the sporty girls, I was always the one who did well in exams, and I was quite chubby, but I know now I am an athlete. BJJ has given me confidence, helped me through dark times and saved me many times over.

 

I have a lot to be happy about. I have been successful in work and academic life, I am fit physically, I have a wonderful family, I have competed, helped set up a very successful BJJ gym ….. I have quite shiny hair. But I also have struggled terribly with depression and severe anxiety for the last 10 years.  At times this has been crippling and almost finished me. I was off work for a whole year, I have stepped on the mats with cuts on my arms covered up, and I have cried more times than I care to know at the gym. But never in that time I have not trained, and it so often kept me going.

 

We never really know the journeys people have gone through to get where they are. For every smiling photo, there may be another truth. I can pinpoint at least three times in my BJJ career when the stark reality of what was actually going on in my life was nothing like the front I presented but also when BJJ gave me momentum, solace and insights about my life, even as it put me under unique pressures.

 

 I think I knew the point my marriage was over was at the Europeans in 2015 as a purple belt. I was exhausted emotionally and physically, somehow running a BJJ academy in Oxford, training in London and working in Norwich. I won a fight through pure determination, but I knew how much anger I had in that competition and that something had to change. So, over the next two weeks I made the decision to leave my marriage and home.

 

I won the British Open in May 2016 at purple and got my brown belt not long after in June. In between those two events I had bought a cut-throat razor and horribly cut up my arm and had a major breakdown. Despite that, I still achieved, I turned up, I taught classes and I found comfort and courage in the fact my body still being able to perform.

 

At the worlds at brown belt in 2017 I felt good physically. I had come off wins at the Pan Ams, but I was also crying most days and in a terrible place with my life personally, at the end of a year off my job as an academic. I remember sitting in Starbucks in San Diego in floods of tears before competing and then in Laguna Beach after, the mist closing round me. At that time, I had to escape and flew to Vancouver to see my brother. But even there I found salvation on the mat. I visited the Carlson Gracie there and had a great time which took me out of myself. These accepting people who I only met once invited me down to a BBQ and I saw them again when I visited in 2019,

 

I wasn’t better but there was a turning point of some kind there I think in my depression. The ability to see who I was for myself. My experience is not special and nor especially bad. It’s just an experience which is valid and is my journey.

I struggled at times with my relationship with the mat, and I still do. I have always tried to be kind to others on the mat but I struggle to be kind to myself, I have impostor syndrome, I doubt myself, I lack confidence often. I don’t think this is uncommon, especially with women in BJJ. We are still in the minority in the sport and many of the women I know are highly driven and capable high achievers, but they are of then the people most susceptible to self-doubt.

 

But I have always found so much comfort in BJJ. My BJJ friends never questioned why I needed to be there, why I sometimes was inexplicably distraught, why my arms were covered up, I made crazy efforts to get to training. I have also come to trust that the friends I have made through BJJ more than most. I don’t cover my scars now, I don’t see the point. The people who I have seen grow into great BJH players as students always make me proud I learnt to love my physicality and strength to know I was more than my mind and the brainy one and to trust people, and to know it’s ok to sometimes struggle, to even fail and make mistakes.. . I don’t hide the scars now. I don’t see the point   We joke about the fact that BJJ people come back from injury but it’s not just that we are crazy, but we miss our community and the sense of connection it gives to ourselves an others. I know quite simply I am a better version of me when I train. It won’t be the answer to everything, and it shouldn’t be everything, but if you let it will teach you a lot about people, true friends and yourself.

Mandy Gee

I'm 45yrs old, I have 2 teenage kids and I've been a cop for the past 20years. I've always been a frustrated sportsperson, whilst keeping myself fit to quite a high level, I never really had a sport. I had never done any martial arts before and I always thought it was something you had to get into in your younger years. I’ve always been a big UFC fan and I used to watch loads of videos of Ronda Rousey and Meisha Tate training and fighting. I'm so impressed how the womens game has come on over the years. My life changed a bit when I got into my 40's. Some life events changed and I met my partner (Jack Brown MNBJJ) in 2017. I started going to watch his fights and was dying to give it a go but thought I'd missed the boat! But Jack kept encouraging me and in October 2019 I went  to my first class at Ronin Grappling. I fell in love with the sport immediately. So its only been a few months but BJJ has definitely helped me in my job. I'm more in control and confident in situations that I've been involved in. Personally it's made me appreciate my body and how it can cope with being tested (if that makes sense!). At 45 I feel fitter and stronger than I have in years and I've actually put myself in for a competition in April! BJJ has made made me fitter, stronger, happier and its amazing for maintaining good mental health. I'm proud of myself and my kids think I'm pretty cool so that's made it all worth it.

Londrita Jan

I am 19 years old and a black belt Jiu Jitsu and MMA instructor. My dad is a Master so it was very easy for me to get into martial arts. I was a very shy girl and struggled to stand up for myself. After speaking to my dad, I realised martial arts could be a way to boost my confidence and self esteem. I have completely fallen in love with it so I wanted to pursue it further. I have now taught Martial Arts for 6 years at my dads club and at my University. A few years ago, my sister and I (who is also a black belt in Jujitsu and an MMA fighter) took part in an advert for the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign for our martial arts.

Cynthia Lelengboto

Martial arts has kept me on the straight and narrow.

 

Growing up, I came from a broken home where I was a rebellious child with anger issues and a short temper. Being labelled a tomboy, I played many sports, the main one being football. The beginning of my martial arts journey happened when I was 8 years old. My father made my brother and I join a Karate club - Shotokan style, which was his way of punishing us and disciplining us after we had got into trouble throwing stones at our neighbour’s window. I did it for a year and then returned to it when I was 16. It taught me true discipline and mental strength. However, in my late teens I wanted to try something different so I decided to start Muay Thai in 2011. I was a troubled teen consumed with so much anger due to my upbringing and the issues I had been through. I hung out with the wrong people and lost focus in school and in college. I wanted to drop out of both and not pursue academia. This is where I felt that training Muay Thai had helped me vent the anger that I was feeling in a constructive way. I remember the club had introduced MMA/grappling classes and I fell in love with it and trained it for about a year. Training martial arts made me believe that there was hope in my life and it made me feel strong and confident. 

Unfortunately, I suddenly stopped doing martial arts around the beginning of 2013, in the midst of when I started seeing someone. Although the relationship was short-lived, it was a toxic and controlling one where I lost my self-esteem and sense of self-worth and stopped doing the things I loved. I didn’t know who I was anymore. After exiting that relationship, I gradually managed to get myself together. I remember I wanted to return to martial arts but I had constantly put it off because of self-doubt and not feeling like I was good enough to get back into it. Five years passed by and I still hadn’t started again. 

 

Finally, in Summer 2018, I joined a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club and fell in love with grappling/jiu jitsu all over again. I felt instantly at home in the club and found a family within it. My passion was re-ignited and it brought me so much happiness and joy in my heart. It was my first time training jiu jitsu with the gi as I had only trained in no-gi (without the kimono) in the past so I started as a fresh white belt. I absolutely love BJJ and for me it has become a lifestyle and a passion. It has taught me to love myself as I am, fearlessly and unapologetically. It has taught me to persevere in life through hardships, to remain humble, to be confident in myself, to love my body completely, to flow through life in the same way as I do in sparring. It taught me that there is always a solution to every problem, to think outside the box, to embrace challenges and grow with it. BJJ continues to develop me mentally and physically. It has brought a confidence that I found hard to find in myself growing up as a child and a teenager. I no longer feel like I have something to prove to anyone. One day, I would love to teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and share with others the beauty of this art and help empower women through this.

 

Martial arts played a huge part in developing the woman that I am today. It took a long while but I can truly say that I have come to love and value myself as the  Woman that I have become.

Daniela Ilieva

It took me a while to write this because I didn't know how to put into words how much martial arts had helped me and healed me of wounds I didn't know I had.

 

Growing up being bullied and being told you're too much of this and not enough of that, left me with a whole lot of issues to deal with as an young adult. Those issues not only affect my day to day interactions, but my training also. 

 

Seeking constant validation was part of the reason why for two years of my life I was feeling stuck and did not make any progress in my training at all. 

 

The fear of failure and being compared to others and shamed for not being good enough was the other. Hence why to this day I still hate competing. 

 

I was locked in my own personal hell, where the everyday battle with my own mind would leave me drained. Add sleep deprivation and an ED to the mix and you get that feeling of drowning in the middle of a crowded street where nobody is stopping to help. And I needed someone to help me so badly.

 

Because I used to see myself as the villain in the story, I did not believe I could save myself. But I did. I went from having suicidal thoughts to thoughts like 'Wow, I can really achieve anything I set my mind to'. And this is by far the biggest win, the most important prize I have received. And it wouldn't have been possible without going way beyond my comfort zone and into the darkest corners of my mind, where all the demons were hiding. 

 

The deeper I got into training, the deeper I had to dig into my unconscious to understand my demons and why they were coming out in training. But day after day, with a lot of hard work, I managed to tame them. 

 

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the people I met through it, showed me the incredible things I am capable of. Things that I wouldn't have believed I could do in the past. The real difficulty was to change the way I think about myself. It's been really hard for me to unlearn old habits and rewire my brain. But I had to, because I was sabotaging my own development. 

 

There is still a lot of work to do but as one of my favorite athletes Jonathan Torres says 'Hard work works!'. I've got the tools and the work has already started. It will take a lot of time. But I will get there.”

Sally Hassuna

I’m a retired amateur boxer who fought many years ago in Australia under league boxing and then with Boxing Australia (AIBA). During my boxing career I became Australian Golden Gloves & King of the Ring Champion and three time New South Wales Silver Medalist. I also fought for many good causes such as cancer and domestic violence. Boxing was my last sport as an athlete; I started kickboxing during my last year of high school, but had left it after a big injury and went back to soccer. 

 

I played different sports from childhood, including league soccer while attending Western Sydney University for my communication undergraduate degree. I later interned for the Sydney 2000 Olympics press centre as a sports reporter. 

 

With a long career in sport as an athlete and coach, I earned many sports coaching certifications and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (sports coaching) from The University of Sydney; I currently teach PE and Health part time and coach at Cairo American College Middle School in Egypt.  

 

Egypt. Here female boxers don’t really get the time of day. There are many reasons why including Middle Eastern cultural boundaries and funding, 

 

I wanted to change this and with a little help from a coach at a local club, I formed a team to compete and after winning a couple of medals at Nationals with a few months training I requested to put forward my women’s team at the National team trials. I now have my own little Academy where I coach girls from all walks of life including the less privileged.

 

I try to fundraise to get resources required for a higher performance, whether to travel to camps or tournaments. 

 

I have recently invited an Australian junior champion boxer who is also currently fundraising for her trip to Egypt, (

https://www.gofundme.com/f/cairns-to-cairo

to come have international experience and work with the less privileged girls who cannot travel. 

 

I will be speaking at the Australian Ambassador’s International women's day reception about my boxing quest and about the Indigenous Australian Junior champion visiting Egypt. 

 

Boxing taught me how not to be anyone’s doormat, have an opinion and voice what I think is right by me. And most of all to never give up.

This is my purpose and passion, to promote as many females as possible in sport. Possibly because I never had the support in my lifetime as an athlete, I will now give it to those who need it. 

Christine Hab Einen

Martial arts gave me a goal in life, when I did not have one. 

 

All my life I've been learning and studying, working towards finishing school and taking my exams. I always had a goal. 

 

After my exams I got the job that I wanted and it was amazing; I liked work and I loved not having to study anymore. It was a great feeling to finish work at 5pm without having to sit down in the evening and repeat or practice anything.

 

I was 22, I was told this should be the time of my life. I was young, independent and finally earning good money. But instead my life was just eat - sleep - work - repeat. My boyfriend was usually working longer hours than me and all my friends moved away for their own studies or jobs.

 

I started to watch WWE in my free time and I admired the girls doing this.

Unfortunately there was no wrestling gym nearby, so I went to muay thai instead. 

I thought about going there one time a week, but quite quickly I was going there twice a week.

I loved the fight and pushing myself to the limit. But I was totally untalented and when we sparred I used to close my eyes whenever a punch came close.

 

I was introduced to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu because my muay thai coach was a BJJ brown belt, and I fell in love with the sport. Quite quickly I was going to class at least three times a week. A total addiction started, one I never want to end. 

 

Through BJJ I found friends, I got in great physical shape and I got back a goal in my life.

This goal is not to become a black belt, it is just to improve, step by step, everytime I step on the mat. I am having the time of my life, travelling and competing whenever and wherever it's possible.

Keelie Tatham

@keelietatham

The reason I wanted to share my story is because I never have with anyone but I think every little girl going through what I did, should know they aren’t alone. 

 

I started martial arts at the age of 8. I was a shy kid and didn’t know how to stand up for myself or speak up. After being really badly bullied every day through primary school and hating my schooling at a young age my parents decided to start me in martial arts. Not even six months after starting I was a different kid, already with more confidence and with a passion for martial arts that is strong to this day. I continued until I reached my first dan adult black belt at age 14, I then started kickboxing and then jiu jitsu and continue both still. Martial arts changed my life a who I am as a person and still does today, it represents something different for me now as no matter what I have going on in my life when I’m on those matts nothing stands between me and that bag or gets in the way of my next roll or my next comp. Every little girl should have the chance I did to be a martial artist and to learn how to be confident within themselves. 

Elena Cresci

@elenacresci

When people find out that I am an amateur muay thai fighter, the first thing they often ask is whether I am scared when I get in the ring. To a certain extent, yes: thai boxing is known as the art of eight limbs, where punches, knees, elbows and kicks all come into play. As an amateur, I’m not at the elbows stage just yet, but even so, fighting isn’t exactly a risk-free activity.

The truth is, I am a fighter because I was looking to escape parts of my life I found more difficult than being punched in the face.

Outside the ring, I am the master of avoiding things I don’t want to deal with. When I was 16, my grandfather died in a house fire the day before my GCSEs started. My reaction was to not tell any teachers or friends until later, pretending that it didn’t happen. I thought I was being mature, but all I was doing was tucking away the grief and trauma to fester for another day. In the background, anxiety and depression became the fabric of my day-to-day life, but only in parts I could safely hide from others.

Denying the erosion of my mental health became a recurring theme throughout my 20s. I had wanted to be a journalist for years, with wide-eyed dreams of making a difference. But as a young member of the newsroom adept at navigating the murkier parts of social media, I was often the person looking for the worst possible videos on the internet in the thick of terror attacks.

Those first few hours after a suspected terror incident are crucial to figuring out exactly what is going on, filled with misinformation from bad actors and people who are just vying for retweets. In among those are the witness accounts, pictures and videos that tell you what is really going on. I wrongly assumed my mental health would be safe when I switched off my screen.

 

When the panic attacks and flashbacks began, death and violence was on autoplay. Even when I was away from computers, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame – what journalist can’t handle the realities of the world? It turns out I was dealing with the effects of vicarious trauma, where someone is affected by traumatic incidents they weren’t directly exposed to.

A very bad day meant crying on the tube during rush hour, which became peak panic attack hour. I’m not proud of the person I became: irritable, miserable and not much fun to be around. I quit my job, got another one, only to quit that, too. Anger would swivel to hysteria most days and I couldn’t figure out why – it is only recently that I have pieced together why my mental health crumbled in this way.

One day, I got an email about a local charity boxing event, where you trained for eight weeks and then fought at the end – and this particular event offered the option to do muay thai, a sport that I had always wanted to try. As a teenager, karate had been a big part of my life, although I was never much of a competitor. At 18, I did one tournament, got knocked down and hated every minute of it. I knew a muay thai fight would be much harder. Thailand’s national sport is one of the toughest combat arts around. The thought of it terrified and exhilarated me in equal measure.

That first fight camp was probably more exhausting than terrifying and I realised exactly how unfit I was when I threw up after the first session. I got battered in every sparring session I attended, ending up with a gigantic bruise on my left leg. I cried in the showers, limped out of the gym and thought about not going back. But I strapped my leg up and ended up winning that first fight.

Two years and seven fights later, taking up muay thai was the best decision I ever made. I train six times a week, hitting pads, clocking up the rounds on the bag, sparring, clinching and topping it all off with strength conditioning and more running than I thought possible.

Last month, I fought, and won, at the Indigo in the O2, alongside some of British muay thai’s best and brightest. If I could bottle up the feeling I get when I step in the ring, I would. The adrenaline when the bell chimes; looking at my opponent’s chest and trying to figure her out, like a dangerous puzzle: is she a kicker or a puncher? Does she like to clinch and knee or is she going to try to sweep me to the ground? And how likely is she to knock me out? All of that is even sweeter if your hand gets raised at the end.

Muay thai didn’t heal me, but it brought everything that was foggy into focus. And it means much more to me than just fight night: my fight team is my family. I have won fights, I have lost fights. But the real fight has always been within myself.

Published in The Guardian, Jan 2020

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jan/06/fighting-helped-me-escape-parts-of-my-life-i-found-more-difficult-than-being-punched-in-the-face