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Widening the Doors for Fighting Women: Interview with Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

Sylvie von Duuglas-IttuSylvie von Duuglas-Ittu’s fight power just keeps growing.

And I don’t simply mean in the Muay Thai ring, although that’s true too, since she’s had 35 fights (hurry, that number’s about to change) and she’s aiming for a hundred.

Most recently I’ve been captivated by the way she’s told the story of being invited to Isaan, which is not far from Chiang Mai where she’s been living and training for the past 10 months, for her most recent fight, which was televised in Thailand.

But her real dream is far bigger than one hundred fights, and she’s reaching it even faster than she expected…

Sylvie, who is 29 and has been training in Muay Thai for the past 5 years, slowed down just enough recently to answer some interview questions about her fighting life.

Share a bit about your fight sport beginnings.

I’d never much thought about fighting sports. We didn’t watch them in my household growing up and my only exposure to Martial Arts was Van Damme movies and maybe the occasional Bruce Lee marathon on TV that I barely paid attention to. In college I took kickboxing as a physical education credit but that was pretty much freestyle punching and some kicking on a WaveMaster without much technical guidance.

Ong BakWhen I moved in with Kevin, who would become my husband, he had me sit through a million Kung Fu movies until I couldn’t take any more. (I have since developed an appreciation for them.) So he convinced me to watch one more, the movie “Ong Bak” with Tony Jaa and that was it for me. I guess my first exposure to Muay Thai was actually more Muay Boran, but I loved the movements and decided I wanted to learn it. Once I met Master K, who would become my mentor and a part of my family, my love for the art of Muay Thai just kept growing.

What sort of responses did you encounter when you first started training?

My husband has always been incredibly supportive and has pushed me to do more, involve myself more, and take greater risks. I’m very grateful to have him on my side, in my corner and in my heart. My family, not being familiar with Muay Thai or combat sports in general, were not really “into it” although they have been supportive. After my parents came out for a visit and sat in on one of my sessions with Master K they started to get excited about my training and fighting – they “got” my relationship and inspiration from Master K and they actually came to one of my fights a couple of years later, which my dad really loved. Two of my brothers were at my very first fight and the one who didn’t make that first fight was at my first fight back in the States after my first trip to Thailand.

Other than my family, I didn’t talk about it much to anyone. Nobody at work knew until I started showing up with black eyes.

How did you decide to train in Thailand and what new dreams have you found since going?

(Sylvie filmed a video, during a break on a morning training run, to answer these two questions. She routinely posts these beautiful updates, which showcase the lovely Chiang Mai in the background, on her blog, 8Limbs.us.  — Lisa)

What does your daily routine look like?

Hip flexI wake up about 6:15 am, and get to the gym by 6:30 am. I drop off my equipment bag then hit the road for a 5k, 8k, or 11k run (most days are 5k). When I get back I do 200 knees on the bag, wrap my hands and begin shadowboxing for 5 rounds. I usually get called into the ring for 5 rounds of padwork, then do 5 rounds of bag work and finish with conditioning (push ups, pull ups, sit ups).

In the afternoon I might have a boxing lesson with Neung or do an hour of work in the ring (a mix between sparring and padwork) in with my husband. In either case it’s 60 minutes.

Afternoon training begins at 4:00 pm with another 5k run followed by 10-20 minutes of skipping rope. It’s the same routine that I do in the morning, but I add in sparring or clinch, and drills on the bag in addition to bag work, and more conditioning.

How are you different from the other fighters in Thailand?

Sylvie trainingI’m different because I’m not Thai (which most fighters in Thailand are) and because I’m a woman. In addition, female Thai fighters are rarely full-time fighters. It’s harder for women to contract with gyms in order for this to be a full-time job for them, so they’re also students or have jobs outside of fighting.

I’m smaller than most westerners who fight in Thailand, I’m older than most Thai and western fighters, and I workmuch harder than both the westerners and the Thai boys at my gym, and I fight more often.

But I’m diligent in training. I show up every day, train hard every day, listen to my coaches and do what I’m asked or told, I sleep well, eat well and fight as often as I can, all of which are seen as respect-worthy qualities in any serious fighter. So I think my trainers see me as a good fighter (worker) in that respect, rather than noting all my differences.

Do you feel accepted and welcomed into the fight circuit? Have you encountered prejudices as a woman or an outsider?

I’m an odd egg everywhere I go. In the States I didn’t belong to a gym, so I didn’t really have a built-in support system that fighters who come from gyms enjoy and definitely benefit from. There’s an automatic “insider/outsider” method to treating people when you come up against a gym that has this support network and I don’t think folks on the inside even realize how heavily they draw those lines.

I was welcomed in the States to the fight circuit becuase I wanted to fight, but productions on the East Coast (and many other places, but that’s mainly where I fought) are promoted and put on by gyms, so there’s a distinct “inside/outside” mentality built into the program.

Sylvie-After-the-FightWomen have an uphill climb in fighting anywhere in the world – we like to think we’re really progressive in the west and promoters are definitely starting to showcase female fights more now than before, but there are still difficulties and prejudices against female fighters.

In Thailand there are prejudices toward women in the ways that fights are produced. We have shorter rounds, we have to enter the ring in a purposefully demeaning manner, we don’t have access to big stadiums and even less access to televised events and promotions that men get simply by being men, not because they merit it.

But I’ve felt very welcomed as a fighter by the promotions and promoters I’ve worked with here in Thailand.  They’re interested in having me fight as often as I want and my being unusual sells tickets, so it’s embraced in a nice way.

Talk to us some about how what you’re doing now relates to life. Are there “transferable principles”?

There are a lot of transferable principals between training/fighting and life, especially when training and fighting is one’s lifestyle.

Aeem-Witit-Muay-Dee-Wit-Tee-Thai-TV-Sylvie-von-Duuglas-Ittu1Mostly I’ve learned from my experiences that you have to work really hard for the kinds of dreams our hearts dare us to dream, and that in many cases when you’re in danger or against great odds the safest move is a step forward, even though we are inclined to back away.

Courage isn’t an inborn trait, it has to be practiced in order to become a strength and that’s both in and out of the ring – you must practice it all the time.

Any advice for people interested in following in your footsteps? Or for people thinking of taking up a fight sport?

You’re always stronger than you think you are, whether that means getting in the ring or getting in the car to get to practice. If you dream of something big, like moving to another country to pursue a full-time fight career or just trying an amateur fight once to see if you like it (or even just try sparring), then you are absolutely entitled to that dream.

There are countless names we give to the things which make dreams seem impossible — responsibilities and financial obstacles, for example — which are absolutely real, but they are only truly limiting if we allow them to be. The thing that makes a dream possible or impossible is your belief in it.

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Even more…

You can follow Sylvie’s blog at 8Limbs.us and find her on Facebook as well. I hope you’ll leave her a comment, cheer, or question below; she’s great about responding when she can grab a moment between fights!

Top image credit: Jérémy Pilain on R-Awakening.com; the others are Sylvie’s.

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One Response to Widening the Doors for Fighting Women: Interview with Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

  1. Niamh November 6, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    Hey, once more you have one of my favourite sporty-women on here! Sylvie plays down how hard what she’s doing is, and mostly I notice she doesn’t mention how incredibly successful she is 🙂 It’s so hard pumping out the fights as often as she does, to heal and get back in there still carrying bruises from the last fight. Great to see some more exposure for her here – thanks Lisa!

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