Yes, you can teach this old dog new tricks

In the ring again for heart, to build stamina and for kicks

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In March I stood in front of the old mill and listened to the Pawtuxet River churning just beyond the brick building. Then I reached for the door with the sign, “Throat Punch Nation.” (This must be the place.)

The owner, a soft-spoken woman, approached and offered her hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Donna.” Unknown to me, I’d arrived on kickboxing level testing day. Donna introduced me to three students of different ages, who each shook my hand. Then she suggested a tour of the gym, as I glanced over my right shoulder at an actual boxing ring. (You know, as in “Rocky”?)

* * *

Thirteen years ago, a coworker had encouraged me to try my first kickboxing class. It was located in a small studio with a mirrored wall, and a glass wall which fogged up during class. (During my introductory class I stepped out for air and made a mental note: “do not have a hearty breakfast beforehand.” Then I climbed the steps and went back inside. I was motivated by the lure of an additional free class.)

As recently as eight years ago, I considered taking up kickboxing again. Was I too old? (I’d recently turned the f-word.) When I arrived at what I’d always known as a Hallmark store, I entered the space reimagined as a kickboxing chain franchise. A young man met me upon arrival, pencil and clipboard at the ready, and asked me to name three things I was hoping to get out of kickboxing. I answered, “I’d like to take care of my heart; I would like to increase my stamina; and I would like to build my confidence.”

“And you’d like to lose weight, right?” he added with an over-eager grin. I glowered at this jackanapes, whose mission was to ensure every woman over a “Certain Age” lost five pounds. Then he turned and yelled to the group, despite his headset with a microphone, “Let’s kick some ass!” as the women began wildly pummeling the heavy bags with abandon.

* * *

After seeing the boxing ring I immediately believed I was out of my league. (I’d recently turned the s-word.) But Donna’s welcome encouraged my curiosity. Heavy bags and speed bags lined a wall, and a chandelier hung above me. Donna smiled and said it was from her wedding to Rich during Covid. They couldn’t book a venue so they decided to get married at the gym. What appeared to be a bar at the far end of the room was the weight room.

Almost every available inch of wall, from floor to ceiling, was covered with photographs of students, competing in the ring, participating in a tug-of-war contest, holding a championship belt, or brandishing their gloves in stunning professional portraits. Banners of Hawaii adorned the rafters. A pair of black boxing gloves hung in a large indentation in the brick wall. A barrister’s bookcase housed championship belts behind the glass. On the top was Mattel’s “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots” game (with “Red Rocker” and “Blue Bomber.”)

Donna asked if I had time to stay and pulled up a chair for me. In her gentle voice, she said, “It’s going to get a little loud in here.” She removed her outer layer before strapping on her pads to join her student as she shouted directions.

This was not studio kickboxing. It certainly wasn’t a boutique kickboxing chain. I was in a real MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) gym.

The young woman was well prepared for her kickboxing combinations. Spinning with power and precision, over and over again she met Donna’s hands clad in pads with a fierce backfist. Her teammates cheered. I soon joined them.

Oops, I hit the instructor

I literally joined them. My first one-on-one training session was with a young man wearing glasses. He asked me to hit a jab, cross, jab, cross. In my eagerness, I didn’t make contact with the pad, but accidentally made contact with his face. I apologized profusely but he assured me with a smile that it was OK, but I made a mental note not to hit a trainer. (I had a flashback of a young boxing instructor who encouraged me to hit him, assuring me it was part of the sport. Immediately, I accidentally clocked him in the face. He said it came with the territory.)

My second session was circuit training with Rich. I jumped out of my skin at the first bell. When it rang again I stopped exercising to grab a swig of water. Rich asked if I was OK, which I found quite thoughtful, and replied I was. Then he said with emphasis, “The second bell means 30 more seconds…”

When I felt prepared to try a class on for size, I showed up on a Sunday morning when the gym is open from 10:00 AM until noon. My first trainer was there, dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and his sweetheart was dressed as a fairy ballerina, carrying a plate of pink homemade cupcakes. The instructor, a petite woman named “Spit” (short for “Spitfire,” I concluded) was dressed like Jane Fonda, adorned in turquoise and fuchsia like on the cover of one of her aerobic exercise videos, complete with wooly leg warmers. I whispered to someone, “Do you have to dress up for class on Sundays?” It turned out to be Spit’s birthday. Everyone earns a nickname. I’d have to be careful.

My head was turned backwards as I attempted to emulate Spit, who was suddenly behind me. I continued to proceed forward, my arms and legs surely out of sync. In a moment she was by my side to show me an overhand hit, with an aside, “We little gals like these; they give us height.” When class ended the Ninja Turtle called from across the room, “Good job, Erin!”

Level testing day

A week and a half ago, about two months after I’d first poked my head in the door of Evolutionary Sports, was my level testing day. Level one is rated Amateur, which sounded good to me. Recalling my farmer’s breakfast the morning before my very first kickboxing class 13 years earlier, I kept it light with a half a cup of tea, a bowl of fruit, and to tie me over before I left the house, a piece of toast.

I arrived early to wrap my hands and survey my surroundings. An advanced class was in progress and I watched the students, including Donna and Rich, leaping, kicking, spinning, and striking, in choreographed dances.

Testing commenced with conditioning (read: boot camp.) This required jogging, jump roping, and calisthenics, including two-minute rounds of sit-ups, push-ups, and leg lifts, then punching the heavy bag. This was followed by eight combinations.

I donned my red boxing gloves. I was fortunate to have Rich as my pad-holder, not only as a familiar face, but because he reminded me to angle my foot for a roundhouse and caught my hook which should have been a jab in the split second I realized my mistake.

The last phase of testing was knowledge of Kenpo strikes. We students stood in a line facing the instructors, as they each called out a stance or strike, and we imitated them. This was the non-strenuous part. This was also the part when my knees buckled. I’d assumed a crumpled position which I hoped would pass for “child’s pose,” before calmly standing up as if nothing had happened.

During the last few minutes we watched an advanced student. Her focus never wavered though her stamina was tested, as she summoned her strength with a deep breath. I watched in awe as she precisely placed a perfect roundhouse or hook kick each time, squarely on Donna’s pads.

Afterwards, Rich sat down beside me on the bench and quizzed me about my breakfast menu. When I mentioned the tea he said something about “starting the day with a diuretic…” and inquired as to how much water I’d had before I’d arrived. He asked if I’d had an egg, but I confessed I really didn’t care for them. He asked where my orange slices were but I’d already eaten them. “She needs protein,” diagnosed the trainer whom I’d accidentally struck in the face my very first day. He briefly disappeared and returned with one of his own protein bars.

No, this definitely isn’t your run-of-the mill kickboxing gym. It’s a welcoming and safe space, a nurturing learning environment. I’m old enough to be the aunt of quite a few of the students, and no one has asked me my size, except to give me the club t-shirt.

I’ve accomplished everything I listed for the zealous young dietitian at the boutique kickboxing studio that I wished to accomplish: I have taken care of my heart. I have improved my stamina. I’ve increased in confidence. And as a new college-age student observed when I did a roundhouse kick, “You look like a badass when you do it!”

Evolutionary Sports is located at
71 Manchester Street, West Warwick
(401) 222-9343
www.EVOSPORTSRI.com

Pick up a pass for a free class at Evo Sports or at the Beacon Media office at 1944 Warwick Avenue, Warwick.