A little bit before I started Muay Thai, which was my introduction to combat sports, I was caught in a cycle which many girls and women will find familiar, of hating my body, wanting to be “liked”, slavishly following poorly thought-out diets, and doing hours of cardio at the gym.
Needless to say, none of this was very fulfilling. In my quest for ever more cardio, I ended up in a Les Mills Body Combat class.
The instructor’s name was Kelly, and I remember thinking that she was amazing. She was lithe and strong in a way that I had always been told that women were not, and unlike the step-class instructors she made no apology for her athleticism – no thick layer of make-up or pink accessories or feminine affectations.
Unlike those other instructors, she was also very approachable and generous with her time. I spoke to her after class and she told me that she had a background in Taekwondo. I think she may have been the first person in whom I confided about my desire to learn to fight.
I grew up in a household where I was told quite clearly that women were not to participate in activities which might result in them “getting marked or damaged”, and that “the best thing a woman can do if she’s in trouble is scream” – presumably for the help of a man. Significantly, Kelly was positive and encouraging about me exercising my agency in learning a martial art, which played no small part in enabling me to take those first early steps in seeking out a place to train.
Fast-forward fifteen years. It’s a Saturday afternoon. I’ve entered my local state wrestling competition, but I’m the only woman who has entered, so I have some demonstration matches with the guys I’ve been training with. After one of these, a very elderly man approaches me where I’m sitting with my BJJ training partner who has come along as moral support. The old man is beaming, and congratulates me on my match. Smiling from ear to ear, he tells me about how he used to wrestle, and that he is trying to get his granddaughter to take up wrestling. It was the last thing that I expected to hear him say.
The next day I fly to Sydney, where increased women’s participation means that I get four matches. I experience some success in finding my rhythm and in applying new techniques and tactics under pressure. I’m happy with my performances, both in my wins and my losses. But I keep thinking about the old man’s words. I like the idea that somewhere out there is a young woman whose patriarch actually encourages her to participate in combat sports, and that maybe in the course of living my very ordinary life I might have helped.
There is no way that Kelly could have known what a contribution she would make to the direction of my life simply by showing up at work, doing her job, and taking the time to have a conversation with me. It reminds me that there are no insignificant moments. Our lives are our messages to the world, and the legacy we leave is to be found in the way we touch the lives of others. It doesn’t matter if it’s a crowded stadium or a camera crew or just one child who is watching us – every moment is an opportunity to leave an offering at the alter of someone else’s life.