Inside an all-female fight camp: ‘I thought there was no way I could do it – not at my age’

A curious audience has gathered at the top of the steps of the beach in Victoria’s Bellarine peninsula, gawking at the 24 women having at each other on the sand.

“LEAN BACK!” comes the instruction on the wind. That’s if you value your head.

Even those women who left a trail of beer bottles from the Airbnb’s pool to the sauna in the early hours showed up at 9am, enthusiastically dodging head kicks and trying not to get tangled up in passing dogs. Some have had amateur fights already; others are so new to Muay Thai that they have to be shown how to wrap their hands.

Vir nou, this Muay Thai retreat is the closest that any of us will get to intensive training in Thailand, which is a rite of passage for those who take up the sport. A typical day here in Ocean Grove will consist of pad work, sparring and some strength training. But there are also plenty of opportunities to let the hair down after the isolation instilled by Melbourne’s lockdowns, and that’s equally beneficial to wellbeing.

Overseeing the action are pro fighters Joanne La and Somsurat Rangkla who, just days before, many of us crowded into the Melbourne Pavilion to watch in action. They’re chalk and cheese, both as people and fighters. In the ring, Rangkla is a smiling assassin; technically proficient and relaxed in style – sabai sabai, as the Thais say.

La may be playful in person, but her ring style is more aggressive. Rangkla remembers the first time she saw La fight – climbing on the ropes to posture “like a man” – and being impressed by the fire in her. Though they’ve fought each other in the past, they teamed up to form JS Muay Thai, to introduce women to the fundamentals through courses and retreats like this.

The women here are from all backgrounds. My sparring partner this morning is Bridget Jacobson, by day a head of HR, by night an amateur fighter. Susi Seibt is an instrument scientist. Lauren Smith is a yoga teacher who runs our morning sessions. Ali Cheney works in gender equality and diversity inclusion. Deb Doan is a project manager working in international development, who calls herself a workaholic. She decided she’d be best suited to a pastime that’s “efficient and deadly” and has had two amateur fights.

During the lockdowns, JS Muay Thai switched to online classes. Many of the camp’s attendees credit these sessions with pulling them out of depression and heavy drinking during that period. Of, as one puts it, “Netflix and waiting to die”. There’s almost always a profound reason that someone takes up a combat sport as an adult. Why else submit to such pressure testing?

Angela Edward Hollingdale is in her early fifties. She has narcolepsy and suffered from depression after her brother died in a car accident. As a single mother of three, she felt she’d lost herself. She hired La as a personal trainer to lose weight, then found herself coaxed into Muay Thai classes. She was so nervous on her first day that she threw up. Now she looks right at home.

“I thought there was no way I could do it; not at my age," sy sê. “I had everything covered up – long pants, long sleeves.” The narcolepsy medication had made her pick at her skin, but that’s stopped now that she’s thrown herself into the sport.

Many of the women here were drawn to Muay Thai for the feeling of confidence that a combat sport can provide, particularly sparring, which Rangkla and La introduce unusually early on, believing that if well supervised it doesn’t have to be daunting.

Candy Ngo, a physiotherapy student, had been harassed on public transport. Amiee Shand, a graphic designer, has someone close to her who, under the influence of meth, can often turn violent. Knowing how to sweep an assailant to the floor feels reassuring, even if she hasn’t put it to the test.

For La, JS Muay Thai is a personal mission. She took up training to pull herself away from self-medicating her trauma. When she was younger, La moved between 20 domestic violence shelters across different states. She swore to never feel powerless again.

“I want to create a program for women in shelter homes so that they can feel those connections and the feeling of power, even though it takes time," sy sê. “Because I’ve seen it firsthand. They go back to the partner because it’s all they know and they don’t believe in themselves.”

Fatefully, two weeks after this retreat, Rangkla suffers a devastating injury, tearing her anterior cruciate ligament at the knee. Rangkla moved to Melbourne from Thailand for work 15 jare terug, and it’s here that she took up the sport. “In Thailand, Muay Thai was a way to get out of poverty, so not many people did it,” she explains.

Nou 35 met 11 fights to her name, Rangkla has made the difficult decision to retire, and will devote her time to developing JS Muay Thai. Already, she’s been a huge inspiration to the women drawn into this community.

As Ange Edward Hollingdale says, “We’ve converted our garage into a training area and there are pictures of Jo and Som on the wall. It’s great for my teenage daughter to see them as fighters, instead of just seeing the Kardashians.”

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