She Falls in Love
Sarah Roussel is a Shreveport native who discovered Muay Thai in October of 2011. She was without a gym membership at the time and was looking for something different that peaked her interest and got her into shape. A coworker mentioned a kickboxing gym, called Tankhead. A few months later, Sarah decided to give it a shot and tagged along with her coworker.
She had never heard of Muay Thai. When she first walked into the gym it wasn’t what she expected. The whole floor was covered with mats; there was a boxing ring, punching bags, and a big cage, like the ones seen in MMA fighting. Sarah admits she was extremely nervous and had no idea what would be expected of her. She met a bare-chested Asian man in fancy shorts, who later she realized owned the gym along with his girlfriend. This was one of the first things that stood out to Sarah. All the men wore shorts that were extremely feminine. She recalls, “I wanted a pair, but I was shocked by all the man thigh!”
There are no beginner, intermediate, or advanced level classes. On her first day, in order to accommodate beginners, Sarah was pulled aside with the female instructor (co-owner), to work on basic technique. Sarah recalls the instructor asking if she had ever done this before because she was strong and coordinated. Sarah fell in love.
She paid for the whole month that night. When I asked her about her first impression all she could say was, “I knew it was something I wanted to be good at.” Sarah recalls the whole experience was attractive to her: wrapping her hands, the movement of punching and kicking as a dance or exchange. It was something she was instantly committed to, and knew would be her next adventure. Plus, she wanted a pair of those shorts!
Sarah’s second time was a little tougher.
Her coworker got sick, so she had to go alone. She sat in her car for 10 minutes debating on whether or not to go in. Finally, she walked into the still foreign gym only to find she was the only girl that night. The other female instructor wasn’t there. She didn’t have anyone to pull her aside when she didn’t know something, so she just worked out with the class most of the time. Her third class was just like her second. Much to the guys credit, she said, “The guys were patient with me, and very welcoming. They helped me wrap my hands, which was still sort of strange to me, and were glad to have someone else to share their passion with.”
She left both times even more enamored than the last. It was a hardcore work out that pushed her body and engaged her mind. She felt stronger, but would leave sore, exhausted, and worn out. Sarah attended four classes in her first week. During that week, the male instructor and co-owner, encouraged her, saying that she could really be good. From there, Sarah became obsessed with Muay Thai. She began researching it trying to learn everything she could. She even taught herself how to wrap her own hands from watching a YouTube video.
Sarah continued to train at Tankhead three to four times a week. She was a fast learner and her body was responding. She began to realize that the fighting was secondary to the movement—the dance of being in control of her body. Strikes, kicks, combos, footwork, pacing, pad work, it all became second nature. From being dedicated to learning the foundations, she was able to improve rapidly and start building on her skills.
She Gets Her Ass Kicked
In May of 2012, Sarah went through a few personal hurdles and took a break from the gym and Muay Thai. It was short lived and in November of 2012 she resumed her training. Much to her surprise she picked up right where she left off. She was a little rusty her first week back, but for the most part her body picked it right back up. She said, “It was like rekindling a romance with an old flame, familiar and much easier than it should’ve been.”
After being back in class for about four weeks, the instructor told Sarah she was getting too comfortable and didn’t seem challenged enough. He was going to start challenging her and pushing her limits more often. She was now included in every aspect of the class. She had to do everything the men did, even spar with them. She was paired up with the guys instead of the female instructor, who were a lot bigger. They were instructed not to hold out on her, and if they were caught going easy, they were barked at. “I never felt like a burden or inconvenience to the guys,” Sarah said. They respected her and trusted her to keep up with them. Knowing that she would be treated no different because she was a female held her accountable.
Sparring became a much bigger part of her training. And she could feel it. This is still a challenge for Sarah. Sarah says of sparring,
It is so nerve racking because everyone is watching, plus someone’s trying to hit you! It sounds weird, but I’ve had to learn how to get hit. It was really hard for me to deal with being hit in the face. Even though I’m wearing gear and it’s not very painful, it is something that I am constantly working through.
I asked Sarah, “How often do you like to spar?” “Often I’d go in the gym just wanting to train alone and work out, but my instructor made me get in the ring. He was pushing me, he wouldn’t let me hide behind laziness or fear. So, it was seldom a choice”, she responded.
One day the instructor geared up and called Sarah into the ring. Sarah adds, rather quickly, “He had no intention of taking it easy on me!” Her nerves got the best of her and within seconds she was over thinking it—trying the same thing over and over again. She said, “I kept going in for the same strike every time, and he kept blocking me and countering, kicking me in the exact same part of my leg every time.” As she recalled this story I could see through her laughter at just how frustrating this was for her. After a few minutes the instructor said, “You’re done!”
She climbs out of the ring, goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror, and starts crying.She said,
I just had an emotional breakdown. I was ashamed and angry at myself. I was angry at the instructor. I knew he was teaching me a lesson, to be a smarter fighter, and not to keep trying a technique that clearly wasn’t working. I knew he was right, but I was still pissed.
When I asked her, “So what’d you do, just call it a night and go home?” She shrugs her shoulders and says, “No way. I wasn’t leaving like that. I cleaned myself up took some big deep breaths and went back out there.” She didn’t get out there and kick ass, but she stayed and had a tough conversation with her instructor about how tense she was, and how he could predict every move she was about to make. She went home feeling horrible that night.
Another rough outing occurred during light sparring, which, according to Sarah, “is for learning, not dominating.” In light sparring you don’t wear gear and the purpose is to practice technique. She was paired up with a newer student, which was already a red flag for her. “The newer students,” she remarked, “are pretty anxious to prove themselves.”
During light sparring, when the instructor says go, usually it’s a slow exchange of strikes that builds into an unspoken rhythm between the two partners. This guy just lays into her. He bull rushed her, striking at her unprotected face, and completely unnerves her. “The guy was much bigger than me and I certainly didn’t see it coming. I lost all my training in that moment. I just couldn’t fight back. The instructor broke us up, and when we started round two, he did it again! Finally, I just walked off the mat and said I’m done. The instructor paired up with him and gave him a taste of his own medicine”, she said with a smile. However, at the end of the class when they circle up and give each other feedback, the instructor’s criticism was of Sarah. “He was disappointed in me,” Sarah said with a shrug. “He felt that if I had kept with it for a few more seconds, I would have figured out how to maneuver my defense against him.” She looked right at me and added, “He was right. I panicked. When you panic, you can’t make a decision, it’s been made for you.”
She Goes to Heaven
When Sarah returned to the gym in November, the female instructor invited her on a trip to train in Thailand. This was a no brainer. Sarah booked her flight by borrowing the money from her credit union. “I went in and just told the loan officer exactly what I wanted the cash.” She was determined to go. She booked her flight before she even had the vacation days approved at work.
Sarah went to Thailand in March of 2013. “I was in heaven!” she exclaims. While she was there she trained twice a day every day. That’s all she wanted to do. So many rich white tourists come to Thailand for the experience of Muay Thai. But for them it is just a new hobby, another part of their itinerary. So, the fighters who facilitate the training didn’t expect anything different from Sarah.
She loved how she surprised them with her skills. She sparred with girls who were much bigger than her, and got a huge bruise on her left hip to show for it. She grins as she says, “I was so proud of it!” She got to attend her first real Muay Thai fight. Sarah said her best experience was getting to spar the Thai teenage boys. “They were so intrigued that these western girls could fight,” she said. “And they were very gracious.” When she recounts her trip, she is smiling the entire time.
Sarah continues to train at Tankhead Fight Club in Shreveport. She says, “It’s always challenging me. When my mind is telling me that I can’t do something that Muay Thai is asking of me, my body takes over and does it. That is the best feeling in the world.”
Sarah plans on returning to Thailand in 2014 for a month.