I want to play too!
Being a female in male dominated sports is one thing. Being disabled but participating in a sport which is dominated by able bodied people is even more difficult. But being a disabled female in combat sports is just pure fun, if you have the mentality to take the challenges on the chin.
Every time someone new joins a class that I do, or if I try a new class, I can feel the eyes on me. Everyone thinking “Is she in the right class? Is she allowed to do this?” and“Is it safe and acceptable to strike, take-down, roll with, choke or submit a disabled chick?”.
I have Dystonia and my name is Gina. Introducing myself that way around is usually best, it answers the relevant questions first. Dystonia is considered a rare condition. I’ve lived with it for 19 years so it’s very familiar to me! Technically, Dystonia is a neuromuscular condition. In reality, my muscles don’t do what I tell them to do, my posture sucks as a result and my speech is just as messed up. Luckily, I have rarely been so tied up that I can’t tap if I need too, although it’s sometimes amusing when I have to try and say “tap”….
Joking aside, it’s a painful, very uncomfortable and debilitating condition. There are lots of complexities which come with the package, such as the poor coordination, poor agility, fatigue, injury susceptibility, adapting techniques, etc. Far from the preconceptions that people have, my condition helps me in lots of way to participate in the sport. People worry about hurting my neck (due to cervical Dystonia, also known as Torticollis) but actually my neck is incredibly flexible and strong, as anyone knows who has ‘tried’ (admirably hard) to neck crank or choke me out.
I understand the concerns people have about sparring or rolling with me. It’s natural, no-one intentionally wants to injure anyone, but I want to play too! It’s great for my condition, it helps me with my fitness, it helps me control my pain (believe it or not!), it’s good social contact, it gives me a release and more importantly it’s empowering.
The recent publicity of Robert Consulmagno has reinforced my resolve to promote combat sports as a healthy outlet. There may not be the practical resolve, as of yet, to help disabled people into the more underfunded or non-Olympic or Paralympic sports, but now is an exciting time to be a disabled female athlete, more so than ever before, with such campaigns as InvictusGames, This Girl Can, Why Not People and particularly with the success of the Paralympic campaign. Which is why I was incredibly excited to hear of the Grapplers Heart Tournament.
Being in the sport industry as a Masters Sports Science student at a prestigious university, I saw this competition about 18 months ago and signed up as I was feeling particularly optimistic after narrowly avoiding having my spine fused after an injury in 2010, I was feeling good and starting my long awaited MSc. My sporting background is in kickboxing and power lifting, and I also coached Rugby. My disability (not to mention my stature at 5ft 1!) made rugby a bit too hard to play. I thought my days of competing were over, getting over the peak age for physiological adaptations. So, already contemplating going back to MMA, which had been intermittent because of my back injury, I went back full of excitement. Then, I had what I thought was minor surgery. It was said to be so minor that I had both feet operated on at the same time. Wow, that backfired, something I haven’t recovered from and I don’t think I ever will. I have no toe movement, sounds quite insignificant right? Try standing on one leg, walking over uneven ground, pivoting to kick, pulling your toes up to kick, using your feet to enable you to stack someone up, to push off to take down, or to spin to transition on the floor. I thought I was ready for the scrap heap again. I thought Grapplers Heart was out of my reach. A skint student, injured, disabled and female – great combination to sell to try to get support to get to the competition! If that low point has taught me anything, it’s that there are some genuinely good hearted and supportive people out there. These people helped carry me through this dark time and I went tentatively back to MMA, aware I couldn’t kick, pivot or take impact through my feet. The guys were amazing and really helped me build up my confidence to do what I could, I will never be amazing at takedowns, I doubt I’ll ever be able to throw people with a dodgy back and feet (and the rest!) but that’s OK, we can’t be good at everything.You’ll still be going down one way or the other and when you do, it’s my game – I can’t deny I do love throwing elbows, punches and knees, on the floor its ground and pound time.
When I mentioned Grapplers Heart to Jake O’Hagan of Impact Gym, he jumped on the idea and has been amazing in supporting my training, as have Scramble and loads of people, too many to mention, seriously, so many people are backing me in so many ways. The support has been immense, so much so that I feel I am not just competing to make a point for female disabled fighters but I’m representing a lot of people and I’m going to add some real competition into the tournament.We currently only have 3 women in the whole tournament. With a possible documentary promotion following a few of the UK fighters out, myself included, I have a platform to achieve something.
What do I want to achieve from this? If one woman sees me in the gym with the guys sparring and rolling and doesn’t just think “I’d like to try that”, but actually gives it a try. If a disabled person sees this and thinks “maybe I could do that”, and gives it a go. Then I will achieved something.
Whether it’s pure BJJ, grappling, MMA, or any other combat sport, all sports can be inclusive. It shouldn’t be intimidating although inherently it is, it’s not for everyone but I have so much confidence from knowing although in plain clothes, I may look vulnerable….what an ill guided preconception that is. It gives me a little sense of pride, a little smugness, to know behind what you think of me I am stronger than you, I am fitter in many ways than you (okay, I can’t out run you but I have the latter), I can hold my own, I am stronger than most people I meet will ever be. It gives me pride to face my problems head on and still pursue life and sports.
There is now a grappling tournament for disabled and injured people.That fills me with pride and I will do everything I can, both personally and professionally, to push disability sports and to empower people.The Grapplers Heart Tournament is the first disabled only tournament in a combat sport. Long overdue for everyone who has tried to integrate themselves into able-bodied competition, now is the time to jump on this opportunity. If we can have support and push this tournament the potential is mind blowing. The concept of a MMA tournament which is fully inclusive is the sort of thing I hope to see in my lifetime, it’s exciting! Grapplers Heart is a really good start and thanks to Dr. Jon Gilber of Fightmedicine.net for initiating this concept and giving people like myself a platform to fulfill my competitive instinct.
I hope this has challenged some perceptions and next time you see a person with physical difficulties, you’ll wonder what they do and not what they can’t do. Just look at the Paralympic success of 2012. I hope you’ll follow this tournament on the below details, maybe sign up yourself, follow the updates via this blog and get behind this momentum of bringing martial arts forward.
If you are able to offer any support in helping me attend the tournament as the only female UK fighter it would be gratefully appreciated, by sharing and/or donating.
To find out more about Dystonia: