“Hey Jen, my mom gave me a copy of Billy Blanks Tai Bo. Want to try it?” my next-door neighbor Rose asked one afternoon. Rose was also looking for an athletic vent to shed some weight. And we could follow the sequence of moves lead by a spandex clad kickboxing fanatic with the blinds drawn.
Our moves awkward and uncoordinated at first, we struggled to keep up with the timing between giggles. After a handful of tries, thirty minutes started to pass with less effort. I started to increase the intensity and began doing the beginner tape twice a day. As I started to shed some weight, I also felt empowered. My fanaticism wore on Rose’s enthusiasm and she started to loose interest and eventually stopped joining me.
“Whatcha gotta do, you gotta PUSH YOURSELF!” Billy Blanks would shout through my TV, willing me to keep my arms up that much longer, challenging me to higher jump kicks as sweat flew from my body and dripped down the walls. I loved every minute of the physical and mental challenge and decided to progress my newfound passion at a local cardio kickboxing gym called, “Kick It.”
The studio was full of eager women punching and kicking freestanding punching bags lead by techno music and an enthusiastic and skilled instructor, Susan Thomas. It smelled of Febreeze coated sweat, masking the odor of dank Everlast gloves and Ringside focus mits. Susan patiently led us through a series of kicking and jabbing combinations, demonstrating them slowly at first and then showing us full speed, sharply exhaling on each point of contact.
“Ch! Ch! Ch! Ch! Ch! Ch!” Her movement fluid as she gracefully moved around in a circle, keeping her hands up and chin tucked. Entranced I decided right then and there that I wanted to move like that. I was ready to take kickboxing to the next level.
“Hey Susan, I have a question,” I asked that day after class. “How do you compete in this sport?”
“Oh! Come with me to a boxing workout tonight. It’s traditional boxing but a start.”
That night we drove 20 minutes north of Bellingham to the small town Ferndale. In the Cobra Kai dojo tucked behind Main Street, Susan and I were the only two females in a testosterone-laden gym. The stink of sweat stung my nose as ten or so guys assembled dressed in white tank tops, baggy shorts and hands wrapped in cotton gauze. The room was lined with mirrors, contained a ring, and time clock. On one of the walls hung a framed handwritten slogan “A Champion Is Made A Day At A Time.”
“Hey Coach Ferguson, this is Jennifer,” introduced Susan. “She’s interested in competing.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, reaching out my hand to shake his. His blue eyes sparkled, nose flattened like a pancake from years of being in the ring and smile displaying a denture mouth.
“Well, go get dressed Jennifer,” Coach said.
“You can call me Juice,” I boldly replied.
We ran around the exterior of the building then shadow boxed in the mirror, my movements jerky and lacking the finesse of the other boxers. Sweat started to drip from everyone’s temples as we did 50 push-ups, 100 jumping jacks, footwork drills and lunges back and forth across the room and finished with 15 minutes of jumping rope. Coach paired us up according to ability then height to work on punching combinations. The new stimulation left me exhausted before the sparring session even started.
“Juice, want to try sparring tonight?” Coach asked.
“Sure,” I said, having no idea what I was getting myself into but eager to impress.
I strapped on a well-oiled and salt encrusted piece of headgear and slipped on 14 ounce blue boxing gloves. I shoved my cheap plastic mouthpiece in and ducked between the ropes. My opponent, a 14-year-old kid named Jimmy, was the same height but 30 pounds lighter. His eyes showed no fear and his jabs caught me off guard, popping me hard square in the face and whipping my head back. Eyes watering, nose throbbing I was relieved to hear the end of the round after only 30 seconds. We sparred two more rounds before Coach called it a night and I retired to the women’s locker room.
I sat on a cold, hard wooden bench in shock. The sting of getting hit in the head by a 14-year-old induced real tears when I was safely alone. I knew better then to let those boys see how shook up I was of willingly getting beat in the head. I sobbed for five seconds, looked directly at myself in the mirror and said sternly out loud, “This is it, Juice. This is the reality of the sport. You either take it or leave it.”
I showed up two days later.