3-2-1 Impact

How I learned to kick like a girl
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culture@sfbg.com

I can kick your ass. Not euphemistically, not theoretically, but literally. If you were to attack me in a dark alley — or anywhere else — I could break free, knock you to the ground, and kick you into unconsciousness. I'm five-foot-five, 135 lbs., and not particularly athletic, and I've been in exactly one fistfight in my life, which I won mostly by default (I was eight). But as a graduate of Impact Bay Area self-defense training, I am confident in my ability to fight for my life — and win.

I'd heard about Impact for years — how students are taught to set and assert boundaries, identify unsafe situations before they escalate, and defend themselves against an attacker — but I only recently decided to try the program myself. I knew advanced courses were offered in defense against attackers with weapons and multiple assailants, but since the majority of assaults are perpetrated unarmed (according to the National Crime Victimization Survey), I decided to start with a basics class — 20 intensive hours of physical training and emotional strengthening in preparation for handling a single unarmed attacker.

TRAINING DAY

Impact training addresses a woman's weaknesses and her strengths: how to minimize the former and capitalize on the latter in the event of an attack. Although developed in the 1980s at Stanford by martial artists, Impact training doesn't much resemble the controlled sparring and structured techniques you'll find at your local dojo. Instead, women are taught to fight primarily using their leg strength and lower center of gravity, often by dropping to the ground (or remaining there if they've been tackled or pinned). Since men are more accustomed to fighting on their feet, any advantage their upper-body strength might afford them decreases exponentially when they're forced into ground fights.

Encouraged to fight by any means possible, women are also trained in the finer points of eye gouging, choke-hold breaking, foot stomping, testicle smashing, and weenie whomping, all while vocalizing vociferously. The intent is to be as uncooperative and squirmy as possible. The point is few attackers expect women to fight back — let alone know how.

But on our first day, my 15 classmates and I started off slowly, our moves painstakingly choreographed by our tag-team instructors: coach Naomi (last name withheld according to the Impact anonymity policy) and the padded assailant I'll call Theo. With the practiced, upbeat demeanor of a summer camp counselor, Naomi first demonstrated the moves we'd use in each fight, then walked each participant through the scenario step by awkward step. She was both guardian and ringleader, facilitating the sometimes emotional minisessions with which we started each class and goading us in every fight. It was encouraging to note that Naomi is no superathlete. She is short and soft bodied, but her moves were executed with a precision and speed she promised we'd all achieve by graduation. The back of her T-shirt read, "Caution: I kick like a girl."

The unenviable role of attacker was played by Theo, whose average-to-large frame was made to resemble the impossible physique of a cartoon weight lifter by the custom-made body armor he wears. Encased in supersize denim overalls, Theo wore padding constructed of three separate layers of foam and hard plastic, which turned his shoulders and torso into those of an NFL linebacker and extended over his thighs and genitalia. It was the helmet, though, that turned soft-spoken Theo into the unrecognizable alien we referred to as Random Creepy Guy: an enormous dome of foam and duct tape wrapped around a hard hat, with mesh "eyes" larger than the palms of our hands. This outfit ensured the physical safety of the man we were going to learn to kick, bite, gouge, jab, stomp, and generally beat the shit out of with full permission — and full force.

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