Representation Matters in Fitness, Too.

Last week, one of my Taekwondo instructors, Mrs. Cathy Downey, passed her 7th Degree black belt test. At that moment, she became MASTER Cathy Downey*, the first female ITF Taekwondo Master in Newfoundland and Labrador and one of only three female Masters in Canada.

Here’s MASTER Cathy Downey, with Grand Masters Lan and Marano, right after her successful test in Dublin, Ireland.
Photo credit: Senior Master Scott Downey

While I have always found her to be an inspiration, this latest accomplishment has really wowed me. I am fiercely proud of her for pushing forward in the male-slanted world of martial arts, and I have realized how much her competence and skill has paved the way for my development in TKD.

I have always been a pretty determined person but I also have to have sense that there is a point to what I am pushing toward. If I were in a typical TKD school, most of the senior students would be men, as would most of the instructors. However, in my school, because of Master Cathy Downey, students have a female role model. Achieving higher ranks seems possible for the women in the class. We don’t have to be an exception, we can strive to be like Master D.

Like I said in my title above, representation matters in fitness, too.

I am sure that we can attribute the sheer number of high ranking female students in our group to the fact that Master Cathy Downey is a vital part of our school. She shows us that women can do everything that we need to in order to excel at Taekwondo. And she does it without making us feel like an exception, she just assumes that we can do it.

And because she is so clearly skilled and so obviously competent, she sets a precedent. The women in the class are also assumed, by everyone, to be skilled and competent. There is no sense that we are skilled ‘for a girl’, we are just skilled. We are learning, just like everyone else.

Now that I have given it more thought. I’m a little shocked that I hadn’t really noticed this before. I knew how important Master D was to our school, but I hadn’t thought about her as a symbol before. I hadn’t realized that she is a marker of all that the other women can achieve.

Thanks to her efforts, we don’t have to prove that ‘a woman’ can do these things, we can just do them to the best of our abilities. Obviously, some of us will be more skilled than others, but any challenges, or even failures, will not be automatically attributed to our gender.

What incredible power there is in that. We can just BE.

I wish that everyone could have this feeling in their chosen fitness activities. I would love for you all to have a sense that ‘someone like you’ – your gender, your age, your shape, your whatever – can do the activity that you want to do and excel at at it.

How much better off would we all be if that were the case? What obstacles would be removed between you and your own version of fitness if you had proof that you could succeed?

I know that I have a lot of people cheering me on at Taekwondo. I have incredible support from women and men alike. In my class there’s a terrific 16-year-old kid who seems to have taken me on as a personal project. He helps when when I mess up, coaches me through difficult new steps and kicks, all without condescension. (Thanks, Patrick!) There’s a team of high-ranking women above me who encourage me every week (Thanks, Sharon, Catherine, Joanne, Lynn & Lucinda). My friend Kevin helps me at every turn. Senior Master Scott Downey has an unwavering belief in my ability.

All of that is amazing and encouraging, but watching Mrs. Downey work so hard to become Master Downey?

That has added a whole new level of possibility for me and I love it.

I have long known that representation matters but I had no idea the visceral impact representation could have until now. Because I have seen her do it, I can see *myself* doing it. I may be ‘only’ on my way to my third degree black belt but you can only do this one step at a time and Master Cathy Downey has lit the entire path ahead.

Congratulations and thank-you, Master D.


I don’t mean for this post to diminish the effort that Senior Master Scott Downey puts in to ensure that our school supports and encourages female students. He is a major factor in our success and he works hard to create and maintain a respectful atmosphere. This post, however, is about how being able to SEE a woman reach such a high rank is important to the women in the class.

*Because my TKD school is run by a married couple with the same last name, this post and future posts could get confusing.  So, to clarify:  My TKD school is run by a terrific couple, Scott and Cathy Downey. Master Scott Downey was a 7th Degree black belt when I started and has advanced to 8th degree in the past few years, becoming Senior Master Downey. Mrs. Downey was a 5th degree when I started, and has advanced to 7th degree in the meantime. Now my instructors are Senior Master Scott Downey (a.k.a. Master Downey) and Master Cathy Downey (a.k.a. Master D).

Savouring A Slow Start

For about ninety percent of the the school year, Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for Taekwondo. On those nights, I avoid taking storytelling gigs, I don’t teach writing classes, I don’t do social things – I just head to class and kick. The only real exceptions are emergencies and September.

My three uniforms for this month: my dobok, my festival shirt, and my scarf (a.k.a. my Mom uniform)

September is a tricky month for me, not only is it back-to-school for my kids but my arts organization also hosts a week-long festival. So I’ll end up going back to Taekwondo for a few classes, then having to miss a few for curriculum nights and for festival events, and then I jump back into class.

If it were up to me, I would rather just get started and then stick with the routine (I know what what my brain needs). I used to fight the jumbled nature of this month. I would tie myself in knots trying to do part of a class and still make it to the events or to school stuff. I have gotten over that. I realized that I have to accept what September is like and just roll with it. It’s a lot easier on my brain.

So, I started this month by going to a few classes, even though I knew I would then miss three or four in a row. It was fantastic, even though I forgot a few things and the workout was a challenge.

I don’t know if it’s the same for other sports but, for Taekwondo, no matter how much practice you get on your own, getting back to group work is going to be tough. Doing your patterns surrounded by your peers is a lot harder than taking things at your own pace in your living room or yard. Not only do you have to work at a different speed, you have to avoid getting distracted by the person next to you.

My brain loved it though. You know how it feels when you are struggling to remember something and it is just on the edge of your thoughts? Then you get that great feeling of satisfaction when you finally remember? That’s what it felt like to get in the lines for our patterns. It’s not that I didn’t remember the patterns when I was working on my own at home, but there was a delicious feeling of familiarity to getting back into those lines and starting to move as a group.

The same people were to my right and left, the same people were in the row ahead. I was among like-minded friends. The routine was the same, the movements were familiar, they belonged to me. It had that feeling of being the right thing to do at the right time.

One of the things I have always enjoyed about Taekwondo is that it is just complex enough that I can’t let my mind wander while I participate. I have to focus tightly or I lose track. The sense that I have to leave the outside world behind and just do the thing in front of me is a sort of relief. I can’t multitask and do well in class – it just doesn’t work. Using that type of attention again after summer break was really enjoyable and sort of relaxing.

So, yes, I’m having a slow start, but it has been a good one. I’m enjoying the benefits of the classes I can attend and letting go of any guilt about the ones I cannot. It feels great to be easing back into that specific routine, and I especially like how I am able to observe my own muscle memory serving me well. This is going to be a great year of kicking and punching.


Coordinated Improvement (Guest Post)

I was in my late 30s before I knew that you could improve your coordination. Up until that point, I thought that you were either coordinated or you weren’t and that I was decidedly not. It wasn’t like I was banging into things or falling down all the time, but I found it incredibly frustrating to do any sort of sport or physical activity – I just couldn’t ‘get it.’

I hated gym class, right up until I could opt out in high school. I couldn’t figure out how to catch the ball/move my feet/jump that high and no one seemed to be able to explain it to me. I struggled in the dance classes I took as a kid – matching the steps to the music was excruciating and it took me forever to learn the routines.

Whether I was trying to play a sport or do a set of dance steps, my brain and my body took a long time to start communicating. I could always see what I needed to do, I could probably even describe it to you, but I just couldn’t make my body do the thing – especially if it involved various steps.

As an adult, I found some work-arounds when things were really important to me. I would bring my sister Denise to dance classes I wanted to take. She picks up movements quickly and she could break the actions into descriptions I could memorize (turn, then heel click, wiggle, shake it out). I would write out descriptions of movements where I could, find ‘early warning’ cues in the music in order to prepare for actual cues, and I would stick to the parts of sports and activities that I could be less-than-totally-awful at.

Those workarounds meant that I could get along well enough to enjoy a dance class or two, or participate enough to get by, but when I started to do Taekwondo, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to ‘get by’ – I wanted to be good at it.

I still used all my work-arounds – describing the movements to myself (step, step, Wonder Woman arms), using cues in the room, getting help from someone who could translate the movements for me (Thanks, Kev!) but I knew it was going to take more than that. So, I started to learn more about how I learn and that led to figuring out that I could improve my coordination, my proprioception (sense of spatial orientation and movement), and my ability to process and understand instruction about movements.

I still don’t pick up new patterns easily and I have to use all my work-arounds (at least in the early stages) but I enjoy the sense that it is *possible* for me to learn these things. I no longer feel stuck and I recognize my stages of learning. I know what progress looks like for me and it feels good to be improving my skills all the time.

However, it really annoys me when I think about all the time that I spent believing that I just wasn’t good at sports. When I think of how many other women believe the same thing, it annoys me even more. If it weren’t for my determination to learn TKD, I would probably have never broken out of that belief.

And, while I know that there are lots of men who have been told that they are uncoordinated or bad at sports, I can’t help but wonder how much I was limited because of my gender. If had been a guy, would I have been encouraged to try more often? Would I have been given more frequent opportunities to practice coordination-building activities? Did gym teachers assume that, because I was a girl, my sports skills mattered less?

I don’t know, of course. Perhaps the idea that coordination is a learned skill might just be new, and it wasn’t taught to anyone when I was a kid.

Either way, I know it now, and I am passing that message on. Any time I help with Taekwondo instruction, I don’t let anyone believe that they are ‘just uncoordinated’. And every warm-up that I lead includes some exercises that improve coordination and proprioception. I’m getting better at those things all the time, and I am bringing everyone I can along with me.


Fighting With Myself (Guest Post)

The hardest fight I have in Taekwondo is the battle with myself. In order to make progress and to improve my skills, I have to fight my concept of time and my sense of ‘good practice.’

An agenda book with a pen

I want to do everything at once and I want to do it at the perfect time. In the fictional world where I can do this, my practice space is tidy, my work is neatly portioned into appropriate slots, and my family is delightfully engaged in their own wholesome pursuits. And, of course, in this world, I know the exact right thing to practice at this point. My perfect practice self has identified a course of progressive work that starts at the ‘true’ baseline and will bring me forward in a logical fashion. This will lead naturally toward my goal of being a super-fit Taekwondo genius with strength beyond measure.

I can hear you laughing at me from here. It’s okay. Go ahead.

I know I am being ridiculous.

I know there is no perfect practice time and there is no perfect practice plan. I know that something is better than nothing. I know that any work will bring me closer to being a 3rd degree black belt.

Yet, I get tangled up in this intellectual exercise of perfect practice at the perfect time. It ensnares me so completely that I have trouble doing anything at all.

This doesn’t just happen to me with exercise, of course. I have the same trouble with all kinds of things. The familiarity of the feeling has indeed bred contempt but it still crops up all the time.

When I make a plan to exercise in the morning, my brain gives me 5 or 6 reasons why it’s really not the best time – it’s better to write first thing, or I should probably focus on getting enough sleep, or, I am not awake enough to have good form, or I might not have time to shower afterward and that will throw off my morning.

When I plan to exercise in the afternoon, the litany goes like this – you don’t want to waste water taking two showers a day so you’ll feel weird all day until you exercise, or you will probably be in the middle of something in the afternoon and you won’t want to stop, or that it will be a hassle to change clothes and put on a sports bra in the middle of the day.

The evening is no better because then my brain says that I am taking away from family time and that if I work too hard, I will have trouble sleeping later.

I would be less annoyed about all of this if I didn’t actually enjoy exercising. No matter what time of day I actually get over myself and start moving, I always like it, but my brain forgets that in the effort of finding the perfect schedule.

After I clear that scheduling hurdle, though, I have to win the battle of the perfect practice. (Yes, I get on my own nerves with this part, too.)

In my post two weeks ago, I identified all of the things that I want to improve as I move toward my next belt test. I want greater strength, I want greater balance, I want to improve my skills, and so on. The trouble is, that I want to do all of those things at once. Any time that I am working on one piece, my brain reminds me that I *should* be working on the others. It refuses to believe that I have to work on one thing at a time.

The problem is not that I want instant results – although, I’ll take them if someone is giving them out. It’s that some part of me refuses to believe that the results will be achieved by doing things one at a time. So, I keep seeking this perfect practice plan that will make it obvious to my brain that I am doing the *right* thing right now and that I am on the road to my goal.

I know better than this, too, of course. I know that I don’t actually need to do everything all at once. I can work on my balance today and my cardio tomorrow and it will all come together in the end, but, yet, I resist getting started. Some part of me fears that I will be ‘wasting time’ on the wrong exercises – and, no, the foolishness of thinking any that exercise could be wasted is not lost on me.

Typing this all out has made me even more aware of how silly all of this is. I am working against my own interests and I need to get over myself and take more action. I have to borrow from the basic tenets of Taekwondo and remind myself to use self-control and perseverance.

So, here’s how I am going to win this battle against myself: I am committing to practicing for at least 30 minutes in the morning for the next seven days. I will design my practice the night before and include a variety of exercises that will help me get stronger and have better balance.

I’m going to give myself the week off from overthinking my exercises and I am just going to enjoy them.

I’ll take this one week at a time for now. I don’t have to solve this all at once.

Here’s to winning this battle!


Consistency and Confidence (Guest Post)

As I said in last week’s post, my main goal for Taekwondo this year is to be willing to be *seen* in class. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to build the mental and physical confidence to do that.
Obviously, for the mental confidence, there is going to be a certain amount of just ‘go for it’ involved, a willingness to accept the possibility of appearing foolish if I make a mistake. I can’t practice that until I am actually back in class but I am going to do some meditation and other practices to help me with enduring the discomfort I know I will feel.
Luckily, I’m not generally one of those people who needs to feel like they are doing things perfectly, I just need to feel like I have been steadily working. I don’t so much mind making mistakes if I have been putting effort in so I have to commit to practicing consistently.
The need to continue practicing my patterns goes almost without saying. For the record though, I am going to practice each pattern at least twice a week so I am never caught off guard by a request to perform any given one.
Aside from that though, I have realized that I really want to improve my overall fitness and strength so I can have a better sense that my body will do what I ask it to. I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t have strength or that I lack body confidence right now, I just want more.
I have always had trouble with consistency with my fitness training. Aside from my class time in Taekwondo, I find it challenging to schedule exercise. It seems like everything else has to fit in first and if our lives get busy or someone in my family is sick, my exercise time is the first thing to go.
I don’t want that to happen any more so I have to create a smoother path to a regular exercise habit – having my exercise clothes ready, having a plan for busy days, picking specific exercises and a dedicated time to do them. I know from past success in other areas that choosing my actions in advance means I am much more likely to do them in the moment.
So, my next step must be to make some advance choices about exercises.
I know that I want to have stronger arms and I want my arm muscles to be visible. I am already decently strong but I want to see a muscle when I look in the mirror. That’s going to require a variety of arm exercises.
I want to be able to feel more power in my strikes and my blocks. That means I need greater strength in my core. My back and I flatly refuse to do crunches, so I need a variety of ab exercises. The fact that those exercises will help my back is a bonus.
There’s a certain way my body moves and feels when I am getting enough cardio. There’s a strength in my movement and feeling of cooperation in my muscles. Those are good things and I want to feel like that all the time, so that means there is more cycling, more time on the rowing machine, more walking, and more jump rope in my future.
I want to refine my kicks. I’ve got good accuracy but I’d like to increase the strength and height of my kicking. That’s going to require some leg work and some hip work, so I’ll be doing a lot of lunges and squats and stretching.
Usually, I have trouble seeing how individual pieces make up part of a greater whole but the process of writing about these exercises has given me a strong mental picture of how they all fit together. I suddenly feel really excited about putting this program together for myself and bringing the results of my efforts into my classes in the fall.
One of my reasons for joining Taekwondo in the first place was that I wanted to have a warrior’s body to match my warrior’s mind. I do have a strong, capable body now but I want to inhabit it even more fully. I want to be more charge of what my muscles will do. I want to have even more strength. There is always room for a warrior to become more powerful.

Christine Hennebury is a storyteller, writer, creative life coach, and martial artist who lives in Newfoundland and Labrador. She is the founder and Chair of the Association for the Arts in Mount Pearl and the President of the St. John’s Storytelling Festival. She wishes she could help you be a little kinder to yourself – you are doing just fine.

Feminism, embodiment, and fighting back: All our posts on self-defense in one place

Self defense is a feminist issue (Sam)

Study shows self defense makes a difference but the issues are still complicated (Sam)

Self Defense and Sexual Assault (Audrey Yap)

The therapeutic value of feminist self-defense, part 1 and Part 2 (Grayson Hunt)

What (Feminist) Self-Defense Courses Can Do (Guest Post) (Ann Cahill)

Edith Garrud: The suffaragette who knew jiu-jitsu (Sam)

Why is it so hard to kia? (Sam)

Aikido: Touch me without consent and your first lesson is free (Sam)

Touch me/Don’t touch me: Bodies, boundaries, and non-sexual physical intimacy (Sam)


Climbing Things, Choking People, and Disability Inclusion (Guest Post)

I don’t remember why I had to go into the campus gym. As a nerdy college freshman who had no athletic interests and was in a wheelchair to boot, I felt out of place even being there. But while taking care of that long-forgotten errand, I saw something that would become a cornerstone in my life: a rock climbing wall.

As a kid, I would climb on anything I could — playground equipment, piles of mats in adapted PE class, anything I was physically capable of. I loved the creativity and problem-solving inherent to climbing. That impulse was still there at 18, so when I saw the wall, I immediately wanted to try it. But how? I have cerebral palsy that affects my balance (thus the wheelchair) and makes using my upper body difficult. One arm likes to reach up — when it’s not too spastic. The other prefers to stay closer to my body but is better at fine movements. Both arms move on their own and may or may not cooperate with what I want them to do. This did not portend success in rock climbing.

Sometime during winter quarter, I got up my courage and decided to visit the Outdoor Adventures office. I shakily introduced myself to the person in charge and said that I wanted to climb.

He was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. Unlike me, he knew of other climbers with disabilities and jumped into discussing possibile ways for me to climb. We talked about what I could and couldn’t do and what kind of gear I would need. From that moment, there was no question of whether I would climb, only how. A few weeks later, with the help of a full-body harness, I climbed for the first time. Despite being completely exhausted after a grand total of 20 minutes on the wall — climbing is hard and I was completely out of shape, having only recently begun to do any exercise after more than two years of inactivity — I fell in love with it.

At the wall, I learned to focus on my own progress rather than comparing myself to others. I spent weeks or months working on a single climb before any academic endeavour required such persistence and met people who remain friends to this day. (One is now a close colleague.) Wanting to climb better made me pay more attention to overall fitness. Eventually, I developed the endurance necessary with my slow pace, started using a regular harness, and surprised myself by learning to climb overhangs. I am now 33, have been climbing for most of my adult life, and can’t imagine going for long without it.

In 2014, however, I faced precisely this prospect after a massive water main break flooded much of the central part of campus. (After finishing my Ph.D. in ecology, I ended up working at the university where I had done my undergrad.) The rec center had reopened but the climbing wall would be closed for several months because the floor padding had to be replaced. While I was still doing gym workouts, I wanted something more fun than weights and cardio machines. I therefore decided to follow a childhood interest in martial arts and try Brazilian jiu jitsu, the choice being motivated largely by the fact that BJJ is a grappling art and the floor is my natural habitat. To start, I showed up to the first day of the beginner BJJ class.

While being on the floor felt comfortable to me, doing anything physical in a group setting certainly didn’t. (The only time I had done so was in a karate class I tried in undergrad.) Fortunately, someone had left a large punching bag lying on the floor and I used it to transfer from my chair to the mat without having to speak to anybody. I listened to the instructor’s introduction and then joined the other students, trying to keep up with the warm-up. (Calling it a warm-up seemed like an understatement, but I digress.) I could do, or sort of do, most of the movements and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the butt scooting I had come up with in childhood actually being taught. At some point, the assistant instructor came up and started helping me adapt some of the harder drills. Despite the fact that I managed to pop a toe doing a move that you couldn’t possibly hurt yourself doing, nobody questioned my being there and I came away from the first class knowing that I would return.

It wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Jiu jitsu isn’t easy for anyone and I’ve had more than my share of challenging moments. (Doing a drill with the instructor as my partner and mounting him backwards is high on the list.) But I loved the power (learning the rear naked choke on a much bigger guy got me completely hooked), the competitive outlet, and most of all, the mental challenge of sparring. And there was always support, both from the teachers and from fellow students. In fact, sometimes more advanced students would take the lead in coming up with an adaptation or substitution or making sure I was included when there was a guest instructor who didn’t know about me. There was no false cheerleading and discussions of how I was doing always felt honest, but the ongoing message was to keep at it. And I did, eventually going to my first open mat and training with people who had never met me before, then dropping in on classes at another school while we were on break, and then competing at Grapplers Heart, a tournament for grapplers with disabilities. I plan to stay on the mats for the foreseeable future — and given the number of gis in my closet, I had better!

What made these experiences of inclusion so successful? The thing that drew me to both climbing and BJJ — the constant puzzles that both offered — was part of what made them inclusive. Both activities emphasize technique and strategy over purely physical attributes. (In fact, BJJ started out as an adaptation of what is now called judo.) In both, there are many ways to achieve something and figuring out what to do is an intrinsic part of the activity. Most importantly, both embrace failure. Everyone who climbs falls off the wall — a lot. Everyone who trains BJJ gets tapped out — a lot. The only difference is the level at which these things happen. This results in a culture focused on individual improvement, at whatever pace. And this readily gives rise to inclusion.

Jane S. is an ecologist currently doing curriculum development in mathematical biology. She enjoys climbing, Brazilian jiu jitsu and any activity that involves thinking with your body. She also put way too much time into choosing the color of her most recent powerchair.