My interest in martial arts began at an early age. Like many children growing up in the ’90s and early ’00s, I was influenced by Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, The Karate Kid movies, Kim Possible, and of course anything with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. All of whom could easily “take out the bad guy” when necessary while still understanding the importance of finding reasons to live, laugh, smile, and love.
With being born in New York City and spending the majority of my school-aged years in Spanish Harlem, my parents made sure I was aware of the real-world dangers. The City made it easy, and by the time I was 5 years old, I had already heard gunshots outside on a otherwise seemingly “normal day”. I’m thankful my parents taught me about awareness and gun safety along with what to do when I heard or (*knock on wood*) saw someone with one.
By the time I was 8, my family and I had left Spanish Harlem and settled into a house in Bronx, New York. It was a “better neighborhood” compared to where our old apartment was on 116th and 2nd Avenue, but Dyre Avenue still had its fair share of problems. Plus, we still went to school in Manhattan so we would commute every day by train.
This provided plenty of chances for physical, sexual, and verbal assaults, harassment, and any other unwanted attention you can think of to happen; and they did. Not to mention the school bullies (but I’ll save that story for another time). Fortunately for me, I had minor altercations throughout my pre-martial artist life, nothing a little bit of running away couldn’t help with. Sometimes it was simple as not being in the place where **it was going down, so walk extra fast by certain blocks and buildings, keep my head down, and don’t say, do, or wear anything that can get you targeted – basically, be invisible.
Over the years I would sometimes daydream about what it would be like to know how to protect and defend myself. I would often ask my parents to sign me up for the local Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu, or any self-defense courses but no luck.
In December 2006, my family and I moved out to a “much safer neighborhood” in a small town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. At the time I hated the move and felt trapped in a small town especially after living in the big city, so I did what any independent determined teenager would do – I got a job to save up money to visit my friends and travel anytime and anywhere I’d like.
Summer of 2007 I started my first job at a local community center and one day after a few months of working there, I met the Karate and Self-Defense instructor, Tim Heinsinger. He was super friendly and introduced himself and I admit I was curious about his classes. Finally, an opportunity where I could start my training… but instead, I was crippled by my own self-doubt and anxiety. So I would tell myself that it would be okay and that I had spent all this time not knowing how to “fight” or defend myself so why should I bother learning? But my curiosity would still wander and over the next few years, some of my shifts overlapped with Sensei’s classes so I would purposely walk by to see what the class was up to, or I’d pop my head in (if I was feeling super courageous that day – which was so rare it’s not even funny) and say “Hi.”
When I started college in the Fall of 2009, I was excited by the idea of going to a new school and campus (like most college freshman) but had no idea of the potential dangers that came with it.
During my first year of college, I battled with my anxiety to push myself outside of the limitations I had mentally created to keep myself safe. Now, I had to be okay with being SEEN.
The following year (Fall 2010), I felt brave enough to “give it (martial arts) a try” and I am thankful I did.
On my first day of class, I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
I worked with my Senpai to learn the basics, but my inner critique couldn’t get over the fact that I was in the dojo and actually trying it out. My body felt awkward – I had to reason with my logic that of course, it would feel awkward, this was a completely new experience and it’s not like birds can fly as soon as they’re hatched. Yet, before I knew it, I was laughing at myself and learning to let myself just go with the flow. I felt free. By the end of the class, I realized how much I enjoyed myself and I even learned how to throw a proper punch! I had to come back.
After a few weeks of classes, I started to get the hang of things, I was able to learn and retain more techniques. Eventually I got my first gi and proudly wore my white belt as I diligently trained for my next (yellow belt).
Over the years, Sensei trained me in three styles; Shotokan Karate, Aikido, and Judo. Along with the basics, he taught me ways to defend myself from street attacks, ground attacks, attacks from the back, attacks from other fighters, along with defense and disarming from knives and guns. He taught me how to get out of chokes, holds, grabs, and pins. He taught me how to spar, fight, and think like a martial artist, while pushing me to go beyond my physical, emotional, and mental limitations. He trained me to be a weapon.
Not only was I was training my body, I was also training to become the best version of myself. I had become addicted.
As much as I wanted to devote all of my time to martial arts, let us just say “life happened… a lot”, and it left me facing more mental struggles and hardships, than I would have liked. The anxiety was only the tip of the iceberg (but that’s a story for another time).
Fortunately, every time things happened, I was able to take time off from my training to recover. When I would return to my training, everything just felt “right”; it was almost like all of the problems and worries went away. Eventually, I achieved my First Degree Black Belt in May 2018.
It was March 11, 2020; I was away for a work conference in Atlanta, Georgia when I was targeted and assaulted. I didn’t expect to be assaulted nor did I even fully understand what was happening.
After one of the days of the conference, I went to a bar at the hotel I had been staying at. Since the conference was massive, the hotel was occupied by many individuals from a variety of companies. I decided to mingle at the bar in an attempt to network (I had been practicing this in my professional career for years to help battle my social anxiety) and by doing so, I met my assailant. He was no different than a man in a business suit, simply because he was a man in a business suit. However, his jokes were sexist and demeaning, and his whole vibe gave me the worst kind of goosebumps.
I found a way to get out of conversing with him, but he proceeded to watch me from various points of the room. Eventually, after fighting through my anxiety and mingling with other people at the networking happy hour, I was starting to feel drained and wanted to call it an evening. I went to the nearby bathroom around the corner of the event hall, and after washing my hands I noticed this sign on one of the walls. The notice was a warning about human trafficking and its high activity in the Atlanta area – weird piece of literature for the restroom, but informative.
When I walked out of the bathroom, he was there waiting for me and grabbed me from behind. It was a rear right-handed choke, a move I had practiced in the dojo hundreds of times. I simply reacted. Before I knew it, he was on the floor and I was facing him in a forward stance with my hands up in a guard.
He was shocked. I was shocked. He was scared. I was scared.
He then started saying “I’m sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” and the only thing that registered to me was that there was this man in a business suit on the floor yelling sorry. So I did what any normal person would do when they see someone on the floor, they go to help them.
I helped this man up.
When he was back on his feet, he stretched his arms out towards my neck, only this time going for a front choke. I blocked and countered with moves from a kata that I had been doing for years. The muscle memory instantly took over before I could even process what was happening in the moment unfolding before my very eyes.
Again he was on the floor and again he was saying “I’m sorry!”
There I was standing over this man, in a forward stance and guard, studying this mans face. He falsely apologized again, but this time he would not get the chance to fool me. I glared at his eyes and mustered my courage to fiercely ask “Do you really want to do this?” I was fully prepared to fight. He said nothing and I could see that I had injured him and that now he was afraid of me. I backed away, not breaking eye contact or losing my stance until I was at a far enough where I could run away.
I think about that night quite a bit. What if I had gone straight to my hotel room instead of the bathroom? What if I panicked and froze? What if I never trained in martial arts? The truth is, that wasn’t the first time I was assaulted, but it was the first assault where I didn’t feel powerless. It was the first assault where I realized I’m trained in the art of self-defense and that I have the power to protect and defend myself. It was a game-changer. I realized I became a martial artist just like the ones I looked up to.
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