fitness

It’s not all about winning, but sometimes a win is just what you need (Guest post)

by Rebecca Kukla

I’m a 46-year-old philosophy professor and an amateur boxer. I didn’t start boxing until I was 43 years old, which is exceptionally late. I never expected to be able to compete, because of my late start, my age, and my deep lack of faith in my own athletic abilities. Also, most pragmatically, I never expected to be able to find a match, because according to the rules I can only fight people within 10 years of my age (namely, really old to be doing this!) and in my weight class, which is the rare under-105-pound or ‘light flyweight’ division (namely, reall small to be doing this!). But as some readers of this blog will remember, I got in the ring for my first sanctioned match last year. It was intensely exciting, and while I did not win, I held my own and everyone agreed it was an extremely close fight. That was more than good enough for me! I was thrilled that I had managed to get my skill level to the point where a real competition was plausible; that I had found a match; that I had mustered the courage to get in the ring; and that I had survived three rounds without getting knocked out and with my dignity intact.

It took a while to get to a second fight. In between I had surgery and a long recovery, a fight that got frustratingly cancelled at the last minute, and various other slowdowns. But this past Saturday I got back in the ring, once again fighting at the legendary and atmospheric Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. And I’m going to admit something that’s kind of at odds with a lot of the norms of this blog: I really, really, really needed a win.

I was coming off several months of personal, professional, and family stress – stress of the sort that eats at your self-esteem and your basic feelings of being a competent and worthy person. My boxing was stuck in a destructive spiral: Although I had been training really hard, the closer I got to fight time and the more anxious I became, the worse I got in the ring. When I sparred I felt like I was moving backwards instead of forwards. People yelled at me to be more aggressive, to be faster, to move more … and the more frustrated I got the less I could put all these pieces together. Things degenerated to the point where one coach who I respect enormously shouted at me in frustration that maybe I should consider a different sport. I left in tears. My trainer was coming up to New York from DC for the fight on his own dime, just to corner me, and my sweetie and my son came up with me too, and I felt like I would let all three of them down if I lost. I was beside myself with anxiety and self-doubt.

Making weight was easier than usual for me this time, as I had recently done a powerlifting competition and I was pretty good about not letting my weight bounce back up after the weigh-in for that. So a few days of low-sodium, high-fiber eating and a day of semi-dehydration let me weigh in safely at 101.2 pounds. My opponent weighed in at 100.6, so we were a perfect match. Getting into the ring was also a helpful mood-booster, as the crowd always enjoys seeing the tiny little women fight, so we were greeted with big cheers. (My sense is the tiny fighters and the giant fighters are the biggest crowd pleasers.)

As soon as the fight started, my anxiety let up quite a bit. I realized that unlike during the first fight, I could actually hear and focus on what my coach was telling me to do from the corner. The first time, the noise just overwhelmed me and I was too caught up trying to stay in the fight to have a lot of control over my strategy, but this time his orders translated almost immediately into my bodily responses. I could also tell quickly that I was doing a good job of ‘controlling the ring’ – that is, I was able to move my opponent where I wanted her in the ring, rather than chasing her around or running away from her. I could also tell that I was much better conditioned this time and the rounds were not going to tire me out (unlike last time when I almost passed out and threw up once I was done).

About half way through the first round I managed to get my opponent on the ropes and keep her there until the referee broke us up. I had tried to do that probably fifty times during sparring, and I never could manage it. I would always back off too soon, or my opponent would slip away from me. Once I had her on the ropes, somehow the last of my anxiety and under-confidence vanished. The rest of the fight was fun and I managed to stay aggressive right to the very end. My opponent and I were really well-matched and I think the fight was exciting the whole way through. (Oddly, it helped that I adore her. Counterintuitive as it may sound, I am much better at punching people who I like and care about outside the ring.)

To be honest, when they announced that I had won, I burst into tears of relief. Please understand that I really, truly don’t think that something like boxing should be all about winning, especially not when it’s just a hobby on top of a full life. But on this occasion, a win was something I needed. My sweet wonderful partner has told me several times that he would have been equally proud of me whether I had won or lost, because of all the hard work and the courage it took to get into that ring in the first place. I believe him and I see his point. But I felt like the universe had been harshing on me pretty hard, and a win was just what I needed.

rk2
Me with my coaching team  

 

Me and my opponent post fight
Me and my opponent post fight

 

Watch all three rounds here!

 

 

Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. She does research on the making of medical knowledge, health and risk communication, body diversity and inclusion, the culture of eating, and other issues relevant to this blog. She is also an amateur competitive powerlifter and boxer, a loyal and enthusiastic bike commuter and pleasure rider, and a certified sommelier. She sometimes runs races with other FFI folks and is training for the Key West Half Marathon in January. She lives in the middle of Washington, DC, with multiple human and non-human animal kin.

 

boxing · Guest Post · training

Part 2: The Fight (Guest Post)

Last week, Rebecca Kukla wrote about her prep for her first officially sanctioned boxing match. See “Part 1: Getting ready for my first sanctioned boxing match.” That left lots of us on the edge of our seats, wondering what happened! Well here’s part two. Enjoy!

by Rebecca Kukla

Dan arrived the morning of the fight, which was a very good thing, as I wasn’t allowed to do any working out other than stretching that day and I was far too nervous and uncomfortable from dehydration to do anything else. We spent a few hours hanging out and catching up and trying to help me unwind. Finally, that afternoon, we headed over to Gleason’s for the big event.

I knew, vaguely, that the event was a benefit for something that had sounded benefit-worthy, and also – very unusually – that all the boxers that night would be women. I did not understand that it would be a gala, with piles of fancy food and pass-around amuse-bouches and free foofy drinks. The event was a benefit for Save a Sato, which rescues street dogs in Puerto Rico. This was a group I was very happy to be supporting, but it was heavily gendered as well, as animal rescue organizations tend to be. So the gendering of the space was complex: there were a few of us boxers roaming around nearly-naked, getting ready to be as violent as we were able; there were ever-growing crowds of high-society women in evening gowns and expensive jewelry; there were a handful of fully-clothed down-to-earth dog-type women from the foundation itself; and finally there were a small minority of men, most of whom worked for the gym or were trainers or partners.

I felt acutely self-conscious as well as overwhelmed by the noise and the party atmosphere, not to mention very hungry and thirsty. I was desperate for the weigh-in and the medical exam to be over with so that I could eat and drink (though I’d be on Powerade and energy bars, not champagne and shrimp-and-coconut toasts with sprigs of fennel). Dan and I claimed a small corner of the back of the gym with a well-worn little ring and a single chair, where I tried to hide and wait for my trainer, Delvin Tyler, to arrive from DC. I needed his advice, his reassurance, his help warming up, and his paperwork, without which I could not fight.

We claimed the space successfully, but hiding was impossible. Every time I started to warm up, photographers swarmed me and popped flashes in my face, intensifying my self-consciousness and my impostor syndrome. At one point I was pulled over for a photo session with my opponent in front of a sign reading ‘No Ordinary Girls’ – the official name of the event. Debbie proved to be a fast-talking firecracker with a heavy New York accent who weighed in at 97.5 pounds and was completely adorable. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that Debbie was fighting for the ‘home team,’ representing the charity and wearing its shirt. She was also at her home gym. This was not good as far as crowd and judge sympathy went. I was desperate for Delvin to show up.

But when he did, the whole thing became a comedy of errors. Debbie had been presented to us as having one fight behind her, a loss, but we found out last-minute that her actual record was 2-2; this was not a fight that Delvin would even have let me accept if he had known. I had the wrong boxer’s passbook – I need a masters’ book (since I am over 35), not a regular one. One of the glitches I can’t even put in this blog post as it was patched up under a seal of secrecy. Delvin’s coaching papers were nowhere to be found and the computer listed his status as expired even though he had renewed it in person just for this purpose. I had non-regulation body jewelry that I had to remove, including one gauged tragus piercing that no one could get off: not the doctor, trying a variety of tools, not Delvin or Dan, neither of Delvin’s two other boxers who had showed up to watch and support us, and not even any of the random pierced partygoers who I approached for help. Each of these roadblocks seemed like it was about to keep me out of the ring altogether, and I was near tears. The staff was infuriated with me for all the glitches. A passbook for me was jammed together with a bunch of sticking tape last minute, as was my ear.

Sonya "The Scholar" Lamonakis, punching in a boxing match. Opponent up against the ropes.
Sonya “The Scholar” Lamonakis, in the pink.
In a dramatic development, we found out that Delvin would not be allowed to officially coach me because of the paperwork snafu; instead I would be coached by Sonya ‘The Scholar’ Lamonakis, the 5’7”, 220-pound Harlem public school teacher who was the reigning Women’s Heavyweight Champion of the World. I shit you not. The new plan was for Delvin to sit behind her and pass messages to her that she could convey to me during the fight, but I wasn’t allowed to turn around and look at him or anyone else who wasn’t officially in my corner (who knew?). I thought that Sonya was just going to coach me as a mere formality, but as soon this arrangement was settled, she jumped in full-throttle. She grabbed the mitts and finished my warm-up with me, grudgingly telling Delvin through her irritation that I was ‘well trained’ (ha! score one Delvin and score one me). She also proved to be a dead-serious and deeply skilled advocate for me once I got in the ring. I am a little bit in love with her.

In yet another narrative twist, I found out just before getting into the ring that I could not use the 10-ounce gloves I had picked and trained with. As a geriatric fighter, I had to use the gym’s giant 16-ounce gloves that were basically pillows the size of my head. I was not used to them at all, they slowed me down, and I had no ability to judge what counted as an opening with them on. This also did not bode well.

The evening wore on and fell increasingly behind schedule. Strange events I could hardly process occurred, such as a flaming jump rope demonstration, an auction, and some sort of synchronized boxing show involving women in matching outfits. I hid in my corner. At long last I was weighed, examined, wrapped, head-geared, mouth-guarded, giant-gloved, and it was time to fight. Mine was the first bout.

the fight captured over webcam. Rebecca punching Debbie, Debbie back to the ropes.
The fight, captured over webcam.
Frankly, during the fight I was in an altered state of consciousness and I hardly remember it. It was a three-round bout. Almost everyone was screaming for Debbie, though I could hear my little team calling my name. I came out slower than I would have liked, overwhelmed by the giant gloves and the noise, but by the end of the round I felt like I was controlling the ring and had Debbie on the run. She punched more than I did, but her punches glanced off me, and mine felt more precise. Looking at the video now I realize it was an aggressive round but I couldn’t tell that at the time. I also couldn’t tell at all whether I was leading or losing. During the break, Sonya told me to be more aggressive, that I was more powerful and shouldn’t let her out or back off. I heard Delvin and Dan and my boxing friend Shannon shouting the same from behind me, though I couldn’t look at them. I obliged and gave it all I had in round two, and I dominated the round, chasing Debbie to the ropes repeatedly and plunging through her punches and going for her body. When I made it back to my corner, Sonya told me I had won round two, that round one was up for grabs, and that I needed round three to win. Unfortunately by round three I was mentally exhausted and somehow tied myself in knots over the double knowledge that a win was both within reach and by no means a given. I started thinking too hard and slowed down just when I shouldn’t have. The round was still close, but Debbie definitely had the edge.

In the end they called the fight for Debbie, although it was as close to a tie as could be. I strode across the ring to congratulate her, and apparently I looked so intense that her coach thought I was coming over to beat someone up and rushed out to stop me. But honestly, I was (and am) delighted to have nearly tied and won one round solidly against a fighter with so much more ring experience, and given the crowd an enjoyable fight. And I certainly did that! I have to say, tiny and middle-aged and intensely aggressive, Debbie and I were big crowd-pleasers.

RK6
Debbie’s coach trying to stop me from what he thought was my imminent attack post fight. I was actually coming over to congratulate her!
A lot of people from both sides seemed surprised that they had called the fight for Debbie; their sense was that I had won the first two rounds and lost the third. I am not sure if this is right. To me, the fight looks like a dead tie, and I really do understand that if it was a tie or even quite close, it made sense to call it for the person who represented the charity and the gym. Or maybe she won fair and square by a narrow margin. I am not sure and don’t care much; I held my own against a five-time fighter in a disorienting crowd after a chaotic day. I am intensely proud and happy with how I did. And she’s already asked for a rematch in November, and I intend to beat her unequivocally then!

I honestly don’t remember getting out of the ring or back to my corner, or who removed my gear. My son (who also boxes) called from Florida, where he’s spending his school vacation with his dad, to congratulate me and tell me what I’d done wrong – he’d watched on the live webcam. I felt fine and energized until about ten minutes after the fight ended, when I suddenly realized I was about to throw up and pass out. I lay down on the floor trying not to submit. Just then Debbie came over and we had a fantastic bond over how much fun we’d had and how close the match had been, and that pulled me back to consciousness.

Lying on the floor because I had to.
Lying on the floor because I had to.
RK3

Rebecca with her trainer Devlin, looking relaxed and happy post-fight.
Me and my wonderful trainer, Delvin Tyler, finally relaxing post-fight.
My little team lingered at the gym until everything was shutting down, and then headed out for (more) celebratory drinks. Over the course of the evening, as we had more alcohol, Delvin’s take on the fight progressed from “I think it was close to a tie, but you maybe should have won,” to “WE GOT ROBBED!!!” shouted loudly and repeatedly in a bar under the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t think anyone got robbed. But I am so grateful for Delvin’s enthusiastic and generous support, not to mention his incredibly skillful training, which got me within ten months to the point where I could get in the ring against a fighter with a decade of experience and make it through with pride.

Post fight: Rebecca with her trainer, Delvin, and her partner, Dan. Dan in a white suit, knows how to dress for a boxing match.
Me, Delvin, and Dan post-fight. Dan knows how to dress for a boxing match!
On the train home the next morning at dawn, I noticed I had a small but dark bruise over my left eye. I don’t remember when I got it; I didn’t feel any of the punches that landed on me at all. I heal fast, and I was sad to notice that the bruise was gone three days later. It’s almost like none of it really happened.

Watch the fight here:

athletes · body image · competition · Guest Post · weight lifting

I was wrong (Guest post)

Last year, as my 40th birthday disappeared in my rear-view mirror, driven by a combination of vanity and fear of my own mortality and decrepitude, I committed to getting in shape. I’ve always been fairly active: I have always walked a lot, commuted by bike when that was plausible, and just generally been high-energy. I’ve always avoided driving whenever possible.

But a childhood full of failure at team sports and a lack of innate gifts in the coordination department scared me off of formal physical activity for decades. Indeed, I was convinced that I hated working out – that I would always hate it, no matter what, and that it would take a tremendous and ongoing act of sheer will power to do it.

One year ago today, I posted on facebook about how much I hated it, and defended the permanence and context-invariance of my hatred against comment after comment from friends who were trying to be helpful. This guest post is a kind of personal anniversary celebration, as well as a very public admission that I was totally wrong.

I have always been deeply uncomfortable in spaces that are specifically gendered female. In general, I am more at home in male-dominated spaces. For example, I am a philosophy professor. Philosophers worry a lot about how male-dominated the discipline is, and I share this important concern, but at a personal, visceral level, the gendering of philosophy spaces has always made me more rather than less comfortable. Even more acutely, it turns out, I prefer physical activities that are generally gendered male, and I am much more comfortable training with and around men than women.

As a feminist, however, I felt shame about my preference for male spaces for many years; it seemed to me to be a betrayal of my values. It took me a long time to really absorb the idea that we are all complexly gendered: some men feel more comfortable in feminine clothing; some women feel more comfortable with a masculine chest; and I feel more comfortable training my body in masculinized spaces and ways. This is not, I finally realized, a betrayal of feminism, a compromise of my female identity, or indeed any kind of normatively evaluable fact about me.

But for a long time, failure to grasp all this and a lack of imagination thwarted my various attempts to ‘start working out.’ I would occasionally try a yoga or aerobics or pilates class or something and feel deeply alienated; then I wouldn’t do anything for a couple of years. I now see this as a vivid example of how gender norms can limit our imagination, both through inculcating shame and through stifling creativity. When I was shown a few powerlifts in the gym, I discovered serendipitously that I love exercise when – and only when – it is a testosterone-driven outlet for aggression in a yoga-pants-free environment.

This discovery transformed me. Today, I box about 6 hours a week, run four miles a day most days, strength train three times a week, and am getting ready for my first powerlifting competition (in the under-105-pound masters’ class) in March. I ride my bike about 100 miles a week, and I’ve recently started dabbling in parkour. I’ve put on a ton of muscle and my body fat is around 16%.

RK boxing

I am interested in how different my relationship is with each of my main physical activities.

I bike as my primary mode of transportation, to socialize, and sometimes to relax and give my intellect a break; biking does not feel like exercise to me and I am completely noncompetitive about it. Getting on my bike is like hanging out with a dear and familiar childhood friend.

I basically despise running, but I know it is good for my cardio health and overall conditioning. I feel like I ought to be able to force myself to do some things that I hate, so I run partly because I hate it, to test my will regularly. As with biking, I have no competitive goals when it comes to running. I am content to survive it.

Powerlifting is the first physical activity I have ever truly excelled at, and it’s a huge rush for me. I lift two or three times a week, working with a personal trainer. Lifting makes me feel powerful and in command of my body and competitive like nothing I have ever experienced. This is the one physical activity I do where I am really working towards specific goals, which makes for a very distinctive kind of working out. Here’s me deadlifting twice my body weight:

I box about five hours a week, often with a private coach. I box because it pushes me to my limits on every front. Coordination, speed, strength, flexibility, endurance; boxing requires all of it and I love the challenge. I also love giving my aggressive side an unfettered outlet. But honestly, I think that what I love most about boxing is being included (however peripherally) in the culture, the history, and the aesthetic of the sport. I love being in boxing gyms and going to fights and hanging out with boxers and coaches. I love training in different cities when I travel and meeting local boxers. I have no metatheory of this love, but it thrills me, and allows me to be someone I usually am not.

One of the most amazing transformations for me has been the change in my courage. I am not afraid of people looking at my body, nor of what the scale says, nor – most importantly – of trying new things. This includes trying things that might hurt me, or that I might be terrible at. For the first time in my life I feel like I’ll try anything at least once; I have no fear of or for my body anymore. It has been an incredible year.

Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where she is also a Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.  She lives in Washington, DC and Tampa, FL with her 12-year-old son and her very old Shiba Inu.