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Category Archives: sparring partners

Part III [Part I here, Part  II here]       

Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

The studio is small and bare, with one mirrored wall directly parallel to a wall of windows, which lets in a thin, lazy light, as well as the heaving sounds of traffic and horns from the Chinatown street below.  The room’s hardwood floor and low ceiling send the noise all around the room, while Kru Natalie and I sit in the farthest corner, leaning toward each other when a particularly loud truck groans by.

It dawns on me in this little room, isolated from the busy New York crowd below, how remarkable it is just for the two of us to be here: two women, a generation apart, discussing our love for the art and challenges in the sport of  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”of “>Muay Muay “>Thai.  class=”mceItemHidden”> Kru Natalie has experience and knowledge; she’s made Muay Thai a vector point in her life and it is a large root that keeps her planted in the USA.  I have only just begun and I am each day making Muay Thai a bigger focus for myself; it is a passion that has brought great people into my life and it is a limb that reaches to take me out of the US.  She is a teacher, but she’s not my teacher; I am a student, but I’m not her student.  And yet these echo through the room as we move through topics that excite us, or issues that make us cringe.  Our voices jump and bounce off the walls, floor and ceiling, interrupting the cacophony that spews through the windows.  And I am filled with a sense of awe and gratitude that the overpowering voices in this room are women’s voices.

Kru Natalie is singular in many facets of her experience.  Not only did she begin studying and fighting Muay Thai at a time when she had very few female peers, but she became an instructor and in October of 2008 received the rank of Kru (a ceremonial and often certified title for teachers) at Five Points.  If female fighters are underrepresented in gyms, female instructors are virtually unheard of. 

I’m a big advocate of female to female sparring partners.  (I’ve often heard men claim that any woman worth her salt in the ring has sparred with men – it just makes them better fighters.  I agree that sparring with men is important, but I do question the validity of this statement.  Given the small number of women generally amassed in gyms, the number of female sparring partners a woman might have is probably between one and three.  The constant for this female to male experiment is therefore skewed and it’s not a matter of gender, but a number game: who does better, a woman who spars only with women and therefore has between 1-3 sparring partners; or a woman who spars with men and therefore has upwards of 20 sparring partners at her disposal?)  I can only wonder at the benefits of having a female instructor, whether the advantages be inspirational, aspiration, or sympathetic.  I don’t mean sympathetic in the stereotypically feminine sense of the word, but rather the notion that the instructor might have gender-specific experience that applies uniquely to women.


I don’t think of this at first as Kru Natalie’s advantage as a female instructor to female athletes; instead I experienced it as a woman standing at a parade and watching Natalie casually and confidently announce that the emperor has no clothes. 

Sylvie: I was reading an interview with you and I was so stunned because you are the first person I’ve heard mention menstruation for women athletes, other than that at high levels of athleticism one might lose it or something like this. I thought, my God, in a sport where making weight is so prioritized, how can it not be a topic.  And then you have women with this body hatred thing going on at the same time – I’m conflicted in my own mind whether it’s never mentioned because it is a male dominated sport and women should just know and men don’t want to hear about it, or whether it’s just that as a woman you don’t even think about. For example I know girls who won’t train while they are menstruating. I believe you should be able to make that choice for yourself and that’s great, so long as it’s a conscious choice.  But for me, as someone who’s dealt with it for 13 years, it came as an utterly unexpected obstacle when preparing and actually going to fight.  I mean, it didn’t even enter my mind as something I should consider when weighing in or having energy or anything!  It’s just never talked about.

Kru Nat: Well, that’s the other thing about male trainers vs. female trainers. Any female athlete that ever had a female trainer in any sport – I can assure you that it’s been addressed, because we all know how much it sucks. And you know, like you said the point is that in this sport you have to make weight, you can’t just show up and whatever. So, we all know biologically you put on a few pounds at a certain time of your period and because you can get weighed the day before, but then boom, you get on that scale… when you’re younger it’s two or three pounds, when you’re my age it’s five or six.

The thing about not training while you have your period, that’s really extreme; you deal with it. I do check on my cycle, I always know when it’s going to happen because I’m very regular and I need to know, especially going into a fight, because I’m going to have to adapt. If I’m in the middle, it’s fine, with the traveling and all that I might be a little off; but if it’s right to a certain day and it’s really heavy then I’m going to have to drop down, because otherwise I’m going to be in trouble. So it’s a real concern. I think, again, it’s a cultural thing. You know I hate to bring that up, but it’s true. Over the years I didn’t think that being from another country necessarily meant anything, just the fact that you are from another country, but it’s pretty amazing – the impact of culture in early formative years and what you take from it. You know I’ve been gone from France for 20 years and I have no intention of going back – I love France, but not to live or run a business, I’m very clear about that.  This is where I want to be, this is where I’m at, but culturally, those things, like any body thing –

Sylvie: Very hush hush.

Kru Nat: Yeah, here it’s very hush hush. It’s that all Puritan, repressive thing and over there people make fun all the time that we are nudists, or whatever; so there’s not that sense of being hung up on the body thing.  So for me it’s very easy to talk about it.  And, you know, my trainer is English – that’s the worst – because I would just bring it up and he would be blushing and I would just think: get over it.  It’s become a joke between us because we’re such an odd couple in that way, because of the cultural difference, but it is very important to address it. I’m sorry,  but this is a huge part of being a female athlete, you know?  You’re just not the same at certain times of your cycle. Not the weight, or even up here [motioning to her head/heart?]. At a certain time when I’m training, if it’s two days before I’ll be super focused and then the next day I’m not focused, I can’t really concentrate, or I’m not as powerful. I mean it affects you and that’s the way it is.

Another thing that I address is sexual behavior. Addictions of all kinds, drinking, drugging, all that is out the door; you cannot do that, and sex has to be addressed too. It’s one thing for a man, it’s another thing for a woman. And I talk about those things, believe me. When I start – most of my girls are from here [NY/the US] – and they’re like [looking shocked, smiling] –

Sylvie: [laughing]

Kru Nat: – oh, I’m very humorous about it, so they have a humor about it, and they are used to it by now, but I’m going to talk about it. I don’t care how you feel about it, I need to talk to you about these things, it’s part of it.

Sylvie: How do you address it with them? It terms that it needs to be a point of focus or do you actually give them this as part of the regimen?  I mean, clearly you don’t drink, clearly you don’t do this –

Kru Nat: Oh yeah, you have to. You can’t be seriously getting ready for a fight and being horny and drinking away, or worse taking drugs. You have to dry up.

Sylvie: It’s your body, and you’re using your body, so…

Kru Nat: Well, I mean you can do it, but you’re not going to be 100%, and never mind 150%. It’s just a fact of life: it’s your body and you need to get super healthy. You smoke and you’re going to fucking die; it’s intense. Again, you’re going to pay the day of the fight. You disregard that advice you’ll pay for it in the ring.

Sylvie: Speaking of sexual activity and health of a fighter, I was really stunned when I went to this gym in New Jersey. It was a couple of years ago, pretty soon after I started, so I was maybe 23 years old.  I watched the class just to see if it was something I wanted to supplement my private instruction with. And the teacher actually brought up to me that because I was so young I needed to take into account the fact that doing, I assume fighting in, Muay Thai might make me unable to have children.  I couldn’t believe that he had brought it up to me. I was actually really offended, as if my baby-making abilities were the primary concern of a young woman getting into a sport. And I couldn’t tell if it was that it was a combat sport, that it’s that you are getting hit so you are going to hurt your uterus, or if it was that of course that is supposed to be my primary focus, as opposed to me, as an athlete doing things.   Of course, I appreciate that it’s a legitimate warning for some people.  But I thought, you never say this to men; if a man gets nailed really, really hard, I’m sure they might have some kind of problem –

Kru Nat: Oh, sure.

Sylvie:  – but it’s just not addressed; ever. That was pretty shocking to me.

Kru Nat: That’s crazy.

I think it’s important for me to take a moment to explain this particular example and why it was offensive to me.  I’ve gotten to know this trainer over these years and his intentions are most certainly good, coming from a place of care and meticulous attention to health and well-being for his clients.  I’m not certain that he gives this warning to all his female clients, although he did point to one female fighter, perhaps a decade older than I am, and said she’d already made this decision for herself that children were not likely in her future and therefore it was okay for her to risk her reproductive health for the sport of Muay Thai.  There were a few younger girls in the class, none of whom trained to fight, and I reckon they likely did not receive the warning as training at this particular gym is not full-contact. 

To be fair, I do not train at this gym as a regular client and this man is not my trainer.  As such, I cannot say what other aspects of women’s health he would or would not have brought up to me over the course of training with him with the intention of fighting.  I don’t know that he wouldn’t talk to me about menstruation – keeping track of my cycle and working around energy crashes, weight gain, bloating, emotional challenges or mental fatigue – but I do doubt it.  I don’t know that any male trainer – outside of someone who trains a large number of women over many years – would be aware of or sensitive to this particularly female aspect of training fighters.  I wonder what it would do for my own training to be open about these issues – if I would be more forgiving of myself on bad days if I were more aware of the biological catalysts and my trainer knew when to work with it and when to push against it.  As it is, I’m always pushing against it and am generally unaware when it might be a hormonal change that’s making me exhausted or frustrated or totally unable to focus.  Or when it’s actually burn out.

Kru Natalie is open with her students about any issue, and she is individually able to address a number of possible challenges that conventional trainers may not have on their radar.  Her upbringing in western European culture leaves her unabashed in discussing sex and drugs and body functions, but her non-hetero orientation allows her to address sexual issues that non-hetero students might face; her gender-identity and biological gender allow her to relate to women, who are underrepresented in gyms; and her age, life- and fight experiences permit her to offer advice to students who face any number of challenges.

The sexuality of a trainer may appear to be an irrelevant factor in the quality of the trainer, but it has a direct influence on the quality of the dynamics and relationships within the gym.  With so few female trainers – or women in authoritative positions in gyms – the power dynamics within a gym setting are typically male dominated and, when sexualized, heterosexual.  In the handful of gyms I’ve visited over the years, the majority of them host a romantic relationship between trainer and student – something I’m not ruling out as a possibility for a female trainer – but it is noticeably a power structure between a male trainers and female students.  This is not a criticism of the romantic relationships themselves, but a question of how the power of that relationship affects the dynamics of a gym and – because in my experience it is uniquely women dating trainers – how it affects these women as fighters.

Sylvie:  It’s a difficult line. I train independently and I’ve noticed when I go to visit gyms it’s a stepping-in, stepping-out kind of thing, like a snapshot of each place. So it’s not an in depth understanding of any gym, but a number of places I’ve gone there have been very small groups of women – three to five, something like this – and the girls who seem to have a promising future or who have a kind of power with where their future is going are often times dating their trainers –

Kru Nat: [Nodding her head] – It’s all encouraged.

Sylvie:  I don’t want to say that there is something wrong with it, but this power is coming from romantic involvement, which is very weird.

Kru Nat: Yeah, and it goes out the door the moment the romantic involvement is terminated and then everything goes out the door, which is a shame. I think that there is –  I understand two people fall in love and all that, that happens – but there is also a total power dynamic, power-oriented dynamic, wanting to be the special one, the teacher’s pet, getting involved romantically. I just don’t believe it’s a great idea in a workplace, but especially when it’s a teacher/student kind of thing. There definitely need to be boundaries. I can see how easily – because I am a teacher, I can see the dynamic can happen between teacher/student = you come to this person with kind of admiration, an awe, you get that kind of romantic awe; but it has to stay on the Platonic level, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where the teacher has to draw that boundary. The student makes… the power dynamic is there, but ultimately I hold the teacher responsible for drawing that boundary.  The ego is getting stroked, but then it creates a whole wrong atmosphere and kind of defies the purpose of wanting to make this sport our own as far as the woman’s side of  it is concerned, and just progressing with our own power, and being sovereign women as I like to call it. With the whole dating thing, this is totally massacred.

Sylvie: I think it’s really difficult for a lot of women because there tend to be so few us in gyms at any given time. It’ll be one or two, maybe five at the most, kind of scattered, and because they don’t have consistent participation and their attendance can be spotty for whatever reason, some of the gyms that I have gone to I’ve notice that there is either a kind of near cultish or religious type feeling where women get so involved in their group.  Or maybe people in your normal life don’t understand you (as a woman) doing Muay Thai, and you kind of compartmentalize and find solace in the people who actually “get it” –

Kru Nat: Yeah.

Sylvie:  – So I can see how that happens. But, speaking about getting it, what is your approach with your students with advising or even directing women who train with you in how to have a healthy balanced training regimen with the rest of their lives? 

Kru Nat: I’m very much about that, because as a fighter I’ve never been the type to over-train or to be fanatic about anything, dieting or my training. I’ve always been very balanced about it, and it worked for me. I’m 42 and I can still fight because I have incredible balance in my life between Muay Thai as a passion.  But also I like to live and I have my relationship, my other business, you know, a lot is going on. I had to find a balance otherwise everything would be out of whack, basically. So I’m very sensitive to that issue, and anytime I train students, whether they be men or women, it’s kind of like the “over-achieving American” mentality here, and I’m not from here – I’m from France where we’re just more laid back about stuff and I can see how the quality of life is so important to us, in France, and just having a life outside whatever it is, so maybe that’s what it is, culturally maybe I’m more inclined to that; I think it’s easier for me to incorporate that into my life.

And for women, it’s even more intense because they feel that they have to perform, it’s so important for them to perform well and do everything; it’s that over achieving thing, over-training, dieting too much. And the nutrition thing – don’t get me started on that, because I can go on with that, you know, because women are really traumatized with that because of the culture, everything they see in the frickin’ magazine – everything about training is reinforcing that garbage and lacking that understanding that the woman’s body is very different from the male’s body, and there’s something you can do with a man that doesn’t work for a woman, it’s out of control. 

With me, all these things are addressed, that’s the first thing. Anybody who wants to train with me, and especially competitively… I sit them down, and I tell them exactly what they are going to get. Are you down with the program? When I tell you that you run three times a week, don’t do it five times a week. Whatever I tell you, just get down with the program. It works.  I have been piloting it for ten years, I’ve been training other people, and it worked in general, it’s just common sense. And yes, it is a case by case basis because not everybody is the same, like no women are the same, but there is a certain regimen that the body can take and will be enhancing your performance and you’ll be totally a 100%, or even 150%.  But then there’s a whole other thing, you think ‘oh my God, I didn’t do enough’, and you think, ‘ I’m going to do a little bit more over there,’ and when you do that little bit over there you can just erase everything else you are doing, because then you are on overdrive. And then you injure yourself and that’s way it’s going to catch up with you – not before, it’s never that, it’s the day of a fight and you’re going to pay for it, in the ring. As a trainer I take this very seriously, and as a coach and as a Kru, I take this very seriously. It’s all about safety, and I’m all about the responsibility I have of looking after somebody to make sure they are completely ready to get in that ring. So I am very sensitive to that, they need balance in their life.  You know, do your thing, get out, get a life, go get together with your friends, go to a movie, because people get obsessed, people get manic, they really do. And yes, there are worse addictions, but an addiction is an addiction, and an addiction is never healthy. 

I’ve personally been advised by more than one female fighter that women are prone to over-train.  I question whether this is an aspect of female psychology, that we are more willing to ignore physical pain or fatigue, or at least to use our minds to override these stresses when our bodies are telling us to slow down.  But I wonder too if this is true of female athletes in all sports, or whether it is a feature particular to sports where women are greatly outnumbered by men and generally not surrounded by experienced female peers.  I assume it’s not only the latter.

When women of Muay Thai do get together, in gyms or across gyms, there is a prevalence of positivity and support among the group.  A few months ago I organized an all female sparring circle for women of boxing and Muay Thai in New York.  The idea was that women who either don’t have adequate sparring partners in their own gyms, or who have grown accustomed to sparring the same two or three girls in their gyms could get together to have sparring experience with more and different women, and to foster support among women across gyms.  The group came together quickly (after only a few weeks’ planning) and was met with great enthusiasm from many members, as well as the generous offer of weekly space for the group – for no fee – by a gym owner in Brooklyn.  As women have joined the group and attended the weekly sessions, I have consistently been impressed by how cool women who train Muay Thai and boxing are.  I don’t know whether it is something about the sport which attracts an independent and strong type of woman, or whether the act itself – and our getting together – brings out the best in us.  There has been some resistance from trainers to encourage their female students to attend the meetings, but many women come without ever requesting permission from their gyms.  (I respect the commitment that women have to their gyms and like very much when the circle is discussed between trainers and students, as I think there is strong community and a great deal of trust between students and their trainers.  That said, a few girls have remarked what a relief it is to spar without having their trainer over their shoulder, as it subtracts a degree of stress from sparring – the circle is not training per se, but is just independent and very informal practice.)

Kru Natalie just recently attended our female Sparring Circle for the first time, bringing with her a number of her female private clients.  I was most impressed that Kru Natalie got in the ring and enthusiastically sparred with everyone for a continuous hour and a half, while giving small pointers to her students or other girls in the group. There were twelve of us total most of whom she had not met before. She was the last one out of the ring, with a smile, and seemed to give everything of herself.  As a woman who began at her gym when there were so few woman students and who has grown with that gym over the years, which now boasts the ratio of female students to be 50%, I wonder how Natalie feels about the inter-gym organization of the Sparring Circle.

 Sylvie: Do you see a benefit of, for example the sparring circle of a bunch of girls getting together even outside of their individual gyms just as a group, and sparring each other?

Kru Nat: Awesome. I mean, I love it! I commend you for doing that. I think it’s really great. I responded right away because I was so excited when Deb told me about it –

Sylvie: [laughing]

Kru Nat: I don’t come from a separatist mind, but I really believe in women working together.  Even as a gay woman I never want separatism, and it may surprise many men but I don’t have that. I believe in working together, as a woman and as women, I think it’s great.  And then also to train all together, which is equally important for me.

I do think it is good for women to spar with men, I think it really helped me a lot, but I can see that for smaller girls it’s hard. At my weight, actually, I think I benefited a lot. Not that I didn’t spar with smaller girls, because that works on your speed and that’s good for me. Just working with different people, different sizes, different experience, it’s all good, I’m for that and you have to do it. You can’t be just one way or another, that’s stupid.  You need both. 

Kru Natalie has a vision for how she wants to train her students as she has just recently left her Muay Thai alma mater, Five Points and has charted out to start her own gym and form her own team, which she calls Chok Sabai (transl: fight happy/relaxed)

Kru Nat: I’m really looking forward from this point on to more of everything I’ve told you today, to create a space where everybody works with everybody no matter what. That’s going to be my motto, my agenda. And I offer zero tolerance for anything that’s not in line with bringing a good attitude, you have to check your ego at the door and just work with everybody; just a happy place. You don’t come from a fulltime job to be harassed or bothered, you know? It should be a happy place, a place you look forward to going to, and have fun and learn something. And I can do that. This is who I am, so I want to do it, not just for me, for everybody – a real community. And I really love creating community, this is really a good thing, and teamwork is a huge thing of mine which I haven’t completely experienced, honestly… So I’m going to do it.

What is most inspiring to me about Kru Natalie and what I feel most strongly in her presence is that she makes things happen.  She comes to a river and finding no way to cross it, she builds a bridge.  She is a woman who makes opportunities for herself and through her strength and generosity she has passed opportunity to the women who have come after.  But she is not an absent architect; she is with us as we cross these bridges and build new communities.  She is a vital part of we for women of Muay Thai.


A Muay Thai Sunday In Brooklyn

Sunday was a unique experience for everyone at the sparring circle.  Kru Natalie called me a few weeks ago and asked if we could put something together on this weekend with some of her girls and I was immediately excited by the opportunity to bring new women to the group for a special meet.  Greg generously – and in Greg fashion – offered to open up the gym for us.  And I was amped to hear that Jess and Nicole from Fighthouse would be returning.

Upon parking at the end of the block we immediately met Kru Nat and Wendy and walked around the corner to find Nicole S. standing outside of the gym. The weather leaned more toward mid-November than mid-October and we all stood, bundled and huddled but excited and friendly as we waited for the doors to open.  I was happy to finally meet Wendy, who I’d seen fight at the WKA in June – back then she’d impressed me as a fighter right off the bat in the first round, but I had been mostly happy to watch her warm up (a late fight after a long day of eliminations) by dancing to music pumped out by a lonely DJ at the far end of the gymnasium.  We all happily stood there in the cold and talked a bit about fighting, opportunities and experiences: serious minds, but peppered with humor and a sincere joy for the sport. It was a happy 15 minutes in hiatus.

When Greg came and opened the doors we all marched upstairs and piled into the dressing room – all of us into the women’s side, regardless of the obvious absence of any men in the other locker room – and were joined by more members filing in.  The gym was chilled and Greg turned on a small space heater in the corner by the women’s locker room where various girls stood to warm themselves as they put on wraps or stretched.  There was a definite gravitation of those from the same gyms sitting together or warming up near one another, but everyone was open and quick to introduce themselves, or ask each other questions about their different gyms.

We spent a good 30 minutes warming up, and the room itself got a little heat going from our activity.  When we began many girls still donned sweatshirts and first rounds were light and a bit slower in order to ease into the sparring.  In the middle of my second round, I could feel the energy of the whole room and looked up to see that EVERYONE was sparring – in the ring, on the floor, and Angela was hitting the bag before finding a partner (odd number of girls at that point).  It was a wonderful image and the energy in the room was very high and focused (you can see a short vid of it up on the Facebook events page).

In my first few rounds I met up with Nicole S. and Lucy, neither of whom I’d seen in a long time.  Nicole got me all worked up, kicking my legs and smacking me pretty good as a warm up, which is great, just what I like.  Lucy was a tactical difficulty. I’d not seen her since she was recovering from jaw surgery, as she had then come only to kickspar; now she was able to use her hands – which she’s very good at.  I only got one round in with Peelo, but I especially liked watching her go against Kru Nat with long kicks and teeps.

I was eager to spar with everyone, and I managed at least one round with every girl except Wendy, who somehow I missed.  Nicole S. commented to me that I ought to spar with Wendy as she felt she had learned a lot in their round together.  She was especially excited that Wendy had nearly teeped her in the face; exactly the type of thing girls like us get excited about.  Jess and I ended up in the ring together at least 4 times, which was terrific practice as she is one of the very few girls I know who is actually my size. I felt like we both made a lot of progress in figuring out each other’s patterns and working around them (or plowing through them; Jess has a great hook!).

Deirdre from Fighthouse, Audrey from the Krav Maga Federation, and Angela from Kru Natalie’s private instruction (aka Chok Sabai) made their first visit to the group and were all a great addition with a variety of technique and energy to offer their sparring partners.  And Kaori from Sweet Science made her second visit and gave us all good practice with boxing – it makes me so happy when she’s there.  Nicole R. arrived in the last half-hour of the session and jumped right in the ring, stirring it up. When Deirdre matched up with Nicole she couldn’t get over how nice it was to finally spar with a girl her approximate size and weight. This is one of the wonderful things about the circle. Women come here and unexpectedly experience a match up they haven’t had before.

Kru Nat was constantly making rounds, hardly ceasing, full of serious joyful energy, sparring with everyone and more than once giving me a look from across the ring that invited me to jump in.  Our first rounds together were ridiculous, with Kru Nat basically dancing around and taunting me without my being able to hit her even once; but as we got in the ring together again and again I found my pace and confidence with her, ultimately feeling like I’d dropped some of my inhibitions of getting close enough to actually reach her.

In all we sparred for about an hour and a half, followed by some clinching practice with Kru Nat in the ring.  The energy remained high all the way to the end and when I removed my shin-pads just out of the ring, my legs were steaming.  Brilliant.  Some of the girls had to leave at different times during the session, but everyone seemed to have genuinely enjoyed their time there. What a way to change a rainy Sunday.  Before we all headed out Peelo had the great idea to take a group photo – lots of smiles.

ALSO: A Visit From Florina

Last Tuesday was a truly unique experience as well.  Florina Petcu came to the circle and gave quality time to the few of us who happened to be there for this unexpected visit. 

I was particularly touched by her generosity – she’s gearing up for a tournament in BJJ and had missed practice to come by – and her very earnest and kind advice to me, as a fellow small fighter, and advice to Laurel and Nicole as well.  I’d been in contact with Florina before my fight and met her at the actual event in Virginia. Her kindness and support have made her an important inspiration to me.  But this was the first time I’d actually seen Florina’s Muay Thai.  She has such beautiful technique.

Natalie Fuz asked us if we could organize a non-Tuesday sparring circle for her and some of her girls, and it seems that this is just what many of those who haven’t been able to come regularly might be interested in. Sunday was the best day, and we asked around for places that might want to host us, and once again Greg came through and said that he would open up the gym for us for a few hours. Much thanks to him.  Natalie says she can bring 3-5 women with her and several others have said that they can come as well.

For those that don’t know Natalie – and only recently have I gotten to know her – she’s a long time female muay thai fighter, coach and Kru, and is formerly of Five Points having just left to start her own gym which is now in the works. In fact just this Summer she fought Julie Kitchen, who is probably now considered the best female muay thai fighter in the world (Germaine de Randamie has retired from muay thai), for the third time.  It will be cool to get in the ring with her, and the chance to mix with other Five Points fighters really seems to embody what the sparring circle is about: bringing the diverse New York women of muay thai together, to broaden the community and open up the opportunity to share sparring experiences and techniques beyond any particular gym.

Natalie said that her ideal times were between 10 and 2, so we were thinking of meeting up at 12:30 at Sweet Science, and maybe in the ring at 1:00. The time is not locked in just yet, so what is the most convenient for you? Feel free to bring friends, and as usual for the circle the cost is free.

Any maybe some of us can head out for a Thai food late brunch afterwards. Any suggestions? Email me at or on message me on Facebook.

If you missed it, I’ve been posting parts of an interview I did with Natalie, the first of which is here.


It was really one of those nights that always surprises, they way that just a few girls generate so much good will and variety when they come together for sparring. The group was small, but the energy was very high. Laurel Holloway came for the very first time from Progressive Martial Arts in Queens and her presence was wonderful. She fights at <140  (3-0) and matched up really well with Nicole, and the sparring had a really sharp “game” energy that drew the attention of the whole room. Laurel was great with me too, giving me the pressure I need for this next fight, so the three of us rotated in and out of the ring. But then Lisa West stopped by, which is really a treat for me because she is the only girl I have ever sparred (0r fought) with that is exactly my size. As I mentioned before, she fought at the Golden Gloves last year at the 101 weight class, and she really brings it. I loved my three rounds with her (I was really pushing it in that last round; girl got me tired!), and wished we’d had more! So it was just the four of us, but it seemed just right, and I can’t wait for next week. Laurel says she’s going to be there next week and most Tuesdays if she can make it, so the new blood keeps coming in.

I felt a great spirit of support at this session, from the entire room.  Nicole is always good at giving me advice on how to keep my head up, or straighten out my punches, and she took the time after the session to show me a few exercises to practice this.  In our later rounds, Laurel stepped into the ring and asked me straight out, “What do you want to get out of this?”  I think this is the ideal question to ask a sparring partner, as it realizes that there is something to be gained from each round, a lesson to be learned; and it can be a choice.  And so we focused on her pressuring me and I did my best to avoid backing up.  Laurel and Nicole did some good clinching and got heavy in their sparring, but they helped each other up after spills and Laurel came out of one particularly energized round saying, “I needed that!”  I had the same sentiment when the final bell sounded on my rounds with Lisa.  There is something unique that occurs when one encounters a sparring partner who matches her – for me and Lisa, because she is a boxer and I train Muay Thai, this is an exact match in size, rather than training.  I was able to keep her at a distance with my jab (which is greatly difficult with larger opponents) and she landed a beatiful hook straight to the tip of my jaw that knocked me off balance for a moment.  When this kind of hit is delivered by someone my own size, I feel almost proud, like I want to shout, “Nice hook!”, whereas the same shot from someone larger makes me feel like I should have blocked it or I’m outmatched in general.  There is a built-in excuse when one spars someone bigger or more experienced, that when a nice shot gets in it’s because you were deficient; this is how I feel, anyway.  And what I needed out of my sparring with Lisa was the acknowledgement that there is a path forward – the next time we spar she might have an advantage that she has trained and developed, rather than a permanent advantage like size or reach.  And I might finally use my uppercuts.  Hopefully others have this experience when given the opportunity to train with different women at the circle.

The circle is such an interesting thing. It only exists if you donate yourself, (your time, your energy, your spirit) to it. And it keeps morphing as it goes and as our members get pulled in the many directions of their lives. But somehow the idea of it, which belongs to no one of us, keeps it going. Last night was a perfect example of how the energy just comes out of nowhere when people come together. It makes one realize that Muay Thai is not just about training skills, or even coming to fight; it’s about sharing yourself, what you’ve learned, and your heart with other people. It seems that this is what the circle is about.  Good times.

Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

I arrive at Five Points Academy a few minutes early for my interview with Kru Natalie Fuz.  After announcing myself at the front, I sit on a bench and have a semi-obscured view of Kru Natalie wrapping up a personal training session with an older man.  She helps him off with his gloves and wraps, wipes his face with a hand-towel, and then fans him with it, in long, vertical sweeps about a foot from his expressively fatigued face.

As I watch her in this gesture, I wonder if I would find it as charming in a male trainer.  I question my own gender biases, pondering if this kind of physical contact, though certainly not affectionate, is demonstrative of a level of care that feels intimate in a particularly female way.  

She coaches him in push-ups, which I can’t see him perform from behind a knee-high wall, so I concentrate on Kru Natalie, who is so focused on her client I am a little surprised when she looks up and acknowledges me.  I smile and wave, hoping she’ll know who I am and understand that I’m happy to see her in her element, rather than trying to rush her toward our appointment.  She understands, continues winding down her personal training session.  Her client stands and I see that he has impressive muscle definition in his arms – hard earned, I have witnessed – and a kind of confidence in his body that is not overt, but distinct: the confidence that divides trained and untrained.

Once her client has headed off to the locker rooms, Kru Natalie approaches me and gives me an enthusiastic smile and an equal handshake.  She invites me back to a studio in the rear of the gym, where she perches on a medicine ball and pulls out a tall noodle-soup, asking me where I train and for how long.  She strikes me as a very steady woman and her questions feel to me like a means – if unconscious even – of gauging me, figuring out my levels.  Levels of what, I’m not entirely sure – intelligence, honesty, experience – but it doesn’t feel like a test; more like tapping gloves.

I set up my recorder and take my turn at posing questions.  I wrote four pages of questions and only asked the first one as a direct inquiry.  All else was covered in the steady progress of discussion during our time together.  One can tell a lot about a person by how s/he answers questions; more so even than what they answer.  Kru Natalie answers with a thoughtful and casual honesty that encourages the succession of questions to be equally considerate. 

I read an interview with Kru Natalie in which she had said she’d always been interested in martial arts as a kid, but did not state whether or not she’d studied any.  When I ask her if Muay Thai was her first martial art, her answer sets our path for the rest of our conversation:

Kru Nat: Muay Thai was not my first martial art. I did karate and a little bit of Judo back in the day. When I had said that martial arts was an interest of mine since I was very little it actually really was, but my mother who is very gender-oriented didn’t think it was a girl’s sport so I was not allowed to practice.

I ask if she had to wait until she was out of her mother’s care before she was able to practice any traditionally male sports.

Kru Nat: Way past that. But my father – my parents were divorced since I was a little kid – my father was a Karate black-belt actually, a Judo brown-belt, so when I was on vacation with him the first thing I would do is put my Gi on and I would live in my Gi for the time of the vacation. And then I would practice stuff with my dad, so my dad was okay with it. My mother, no way; she just wouldn’t have it.  So I did a lot of sports as a kid, but I wasn’t allowed to do martial arts.

So when I was a teenager I tried Thai boxing actually, in France, back home. I didn’t really get into it because I was so into Karate at the time. I was obsessed with it, so I really didn’t pay attention. It was fun but nothing else. And it wasn’t until fifteen years later that I discovered Muay Thai, here, after I moved back to New York, and that’s maybe 12 years ago or 13 years ago. And, the first time I tried it here I fell in love with it. I took a general class with Steve actually, and I felt ‘I really want to do that’. I talked to Simon and said ‘I want to train private with you, one on one’ because I knew I just wanted to do it right, to get into it right away. So I didn’t even want to bother with classes. And so that’s it, I’ve been doing it since.

There’s a kind of quiet in the way Kru Nat relays these facts.  She does not sound condescending to or vindictive of her mother, or even pretend that her gender-oriented bias that kept her daughter from her interests is “old fashioned.”  She does not excuse her mother, but I don’t feel that there is any question of whether forgiveness is in order.  Maybe this is an American concept: the wounded child finding solace in adulthood by confronting and “processing” childhood trauma.  Rather, Kru Nat draws a direct line between her forbidden passion as a child and her fulfilled passion as an adult.  The question for her is not how she was stuck, but how she got out, how she made it here.  She hints at no inhibitions when she began at Five Points; instead, she was confident and focused and knew how she wanted to learn – one on one.

I find similarities in her story and mine.  My mother is not really gender-oriented, but my family is almost entirely men.  Growing up with three older brothers, I was expected to be able to keep up, but discouraged from blurring the line between me and “one of the guys.”  I was, and am, expected to be feminine, but never in a noticeable way – like, not wanting to watch football on Thanksgiving, unless it’s to help Mom in the kitchen.  When I came to Muay Thai, I began almost immediately with private sessions because that method felt right and I’m pretty sure this practice both feeds and comes out of obsession.

But Kru Nat is talking about 12-13 years ago.  We’re not living in a gender-equality paradise now, but Kru Nat was coming to this sport without ready names of female Muay Thai fighters.    It is not uncommon to be the only woman in a gym, even now, and even more unlikely that more than a few women at any gym will be very serious about the sport of Muay Thai.  But women now can look at Germaine de Randamie, Julie Kitchen, Angie Rivera Parr, Gina Carano and the other girls of Fight Girls, and Kris Cyborg.  Back in Kru Nat’s day there were (and still are) numerous women fighting in Holland and England, but they weren’t (and often still aren’t) really known in the US.  Funny thing, too: Kru Nat has fought Kitchen three times and knows Carano personally, from training with Master Toddy and was actually at Carano’s first MT fight.  Natalie Fuz is right there on the list of women of Muay Thai who have opened doors – or kicked them down, anyway.


When she first began Muay Thai, she just walks in to Five Points, takes a class, and then tells the trainers she wants to learn one-on-one; and when she’s there at the gym training there are very few women – and almost none who were there for the sport – and she’s just going for herself, because it wasn’t even in her mind to compete.  She says it was all guys sparring there at the time, and I get this automatic reaction in my body that feels like something between frustration and excitement.  For a while I was myself sparring only with men – always significantly larger than I – and I had to keep telling them that it’s better for me if they don’t tap me, to please just hit me harder so that I can respond and get some semblance of that pressure and rage one gets in a fight.  Without expressing any of this aloud, Kru Nat relays that she experienced the exact opposite, which she attributes to her size:

Kru Nat:  [B]eing a bigger woman… what I found is [that it’s] different when guys spar with smaller girls vs. women that are their size or closer to their size. They get very threatened.  God forbid you should have better moves or you should be in general better than them. This whole ego thing starts happening and they start hitting really hard. But with smaller girls they are much more cautious, that I notice right away. When smaller girls started coming around there was a different approach, they were careful not to hurt them, while with me they didn’t really [punching her own hand]…you know, full on. That’s the only thing, I thought ‘hmm, that’s kinda bizarre’, I said to myself ‘But I can take it, it’s good for me, it’s not going to get any worse than that’. You know, a 160 or a 180 lb guy is hitting me really hard, when I get in the ring with somebody my size, a woman, it’s not going to feel like anything.

The male vs. female sparring response is far more complex than just a size issue.  What isn’t taken into account by size alone is that the size-aesthetic of women who practice Muay Thai directly affects the hetero-male dominance factor of training Muay Thai in gyms.  Women training today have an aesthetic difficulty in that the “hot female Muay Thai” practitioner has become the dominant image for American audiences.  The female fighter is meant to be physically feminine and attractive to the hetero-male eye; her body is not judged by its ability to perform Muay Thai, but her ability to look good doing it.  The recent MMA bout between Brazilian contender Kris Cyborg and American icon Gina Carano is a lucid example of this disparity.  Both women are – simply put – big, fighting in the 140+ lbs weight class.  Cyborg came out looking incredibly built, with bulging muscles and a strong, square jaw; hair braided in corn-rows and an aesthetic that generally expressed strength.  Carano came out looking like she works out – toned rather than built – with curves and areas of softness, a heart-shaped face framed by pig-tails and an aesthetic that made me think she looked “cute.”  (That said I still wouldn’t get in the ring with her.)  Thing is, both women entered the ring wearing makeup – lipstick on Cyborg, mascara on both.  The fight was brutal and Cyborg dominated the whole thing, but I don’t know that if it had been reversed that Gina would be called a “beast” in the way that Cyborg often is.

Kru Nat does not groom herself to a heterosexual aesthetic.  She’s unmistakably strong and clearly puts work into her physique, but it’s one of usefulness – taking care of her body so it takes care of her in the ring – rather than one that is sexualized by a heterosexual male gaze.  I’m not offering that Carano does not train “right” or that she’s in any way wrong for her image; but I do suggest that if you put Cyborg, Kru Nat, and Carano in a ring with a group of guys for sparring, Carano would be hit the lightest, weather this is conscious or not.

Kru Nat is not unaware of the “hot girl” image of current female Muay Thai fighters.  She sees the difficulty in it, the unfortunate obstacle it presents, and acknowledges that she has not personally felt pressured by it.  But she’s not prepared to absolve sexualized women from all responsibility.  I asked her how she regards this problem in the story of female Muay Thai:

Kru Nat: It’s not going to be [easy] right away because it’s still a male dominated sport, and running into that whole spinning the sexy thing drives me absolutely crazy… I was really outraged the way we’re not taken seriously as athletes sometimes, and it’s still going on. I was just thinking, like, Gina is a perfect example… I know Gina personally. I saw her first fight in Vegas, when she first started I was training with her… it’s just like, you know, just so disturbing.  Or even Julie [Kitchen], I totally respect her, but you know, […] we can blame the men for doing that to us, but you also have to take responsibilities. Then they make a choice to be presented that way, you know, and there are repercussions, it’s not just about you, it’s about also all the other women around. I didn’t get that, not being put in that bag.  Because of who I am I think it’s a little easier, you know. I don’t fit the profile: young with long hair and make-up and all that. And my sexual orientation is different, I think that is a huge part of it. My approach is a bit different because, I’m just so tired of it, the fact that that comes first before a woman is a frickin’ great athlete – being a sexy girl.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but like, where are you drawing the line?

Part II here, Part III here

Yesterday, on my drive down to the sparring circle from my house up in Orange County, my car threatened to drop a wheel, break down, or otherwise leave me and my husband stranded on some stretch of the 60 miles between home and Brooklyn.  After some deliberation, we decided to turn the car around and accept the disppointment of missing the sparring circle, rather than risk the total destruction of the car, upon which we are utterly dependent.

I emailed Greg, called Nicole, and sent a Facebook message to Peelo, asking her to head the group and look out for a few women who had contacted us, saying that they were planning on checking out the circle that day. Lorena, who attended our first meeting but had been unable to spar due to an injury was making her first appearence at the circle for sparring, something which I was hoping to experience.  And  I was especially disappointed that I would not get to meet Hanna, a mutual friend of Peelo’s and my friend Sylvie Charbonneau in Chiang Mai. She has trained in Thailand and has a distinctly Thai style of fighting.

As it turned out, the sparring session went great.  Nicole brought two friends from another group taught by her boyfriend Rich, who have little experience with sparring and not a great deal of contact with other women in these martial sports.  The girls got in the ring after the sparring session and “rolled”, practicing Jiu Jitsu and Lorena jumped in with them! And Hanna was a great addition, demonstrating her powerful and effective clinch, and Peelo said that Hanna and Nicole matched up very well in the ring. 

Photo by Peelo

The women who came to visit were, by and large, very impressed and interested in returning to the group.  Kristine Finn, a triathalete (!) seemed very happy to see the group and, from what I heard from her, Peelo did a great job of heading the group and introducing the visitors the the circle.  Kristine will return in the future for sparring.

Two more visitors were Audrey and Judith, who train in Krav Maga at the Krav Maga Federation.  They watched the circle and wanted to see if their training in KM would translate to sparring with MT fighters.  Audrey tells me that Judith is excited to return and try it out, and Audrey is considering trying it out as well.

In all this was an unique and fun experience for everyone in attendance.  I’m incredibly disappointed that I missed it (and sorry, no pictures!), but very happy that it went so well and that everyone shared such a positive experience.  I’m excited at the possibility of seeing Lorena and Hanna at the circle next week and I have really missed sparring with Peelo.

This is what Nicole R. wrote. I have to say I can’t imagine a better feeling or experience. It’s what the circle is all about:

Some of the girls that train with my boyfriend in staten island on the weekends came down, i asked them to check it out; perhaps give them something to aspire for. i wanted them to see that there are more girls out there that train, and to see some girls who were at higher levels in technique. we rolled after sparring, and lorena jumped in. it was so much fun. hanna was great, she is very strong and has a great clinch, awesome set up for kicks. it was great. we might start rolling after if some girls are up for it too. this was such a fantastic idea, i look forward to tuesdays, its not about competition between girls, its like networking; we share our ideas, and trade techniques. i feel so blessed to be apart of it.

Photo by Peelo

 A little post-Labor Day sparring was just the way to forget the imminent end of summer.  It was a solid turn out and the energy was good and each of us spent a lot of time in the ring – at one point we even had three sets sparring at once(!)  Heather returned after an injury, Sarah was back with Chris and we were all introduced to Kaori, a (125 lb) boxer from Sweet Science, who was a wonderful addition to the group and a really good partner in the ring.

My personal experience was, unfortunately, flavored by a negative attitude about myself, which was definitely a poor influence on my overall performance in the ring.  I know that I do best when I have a few things to focus on and, for whatever reason, I failed to focus myself.  As a result I did not make much progress of feel good about my technique, but regardless of this, I felt a great deal of support from the other women in the group and I know that just being there was good for me.  These frustrating days are definitely useful exercises in discovering where most work needs to be done or what foundational elements are weak.  After we’d all stepped out of the ring for the night, Chris took a minute to go over some footwork with me, and Greg offered sound advice on parrying and slipping, which has been motivation for me to strengthen my basics in the coming week.

For all of you thinking about coming next week, Lisa West (100 lbs Golden Gloves competitor) will return; Kaori says she enjoyed herself and hopes to return as much as her work allows ; Eliana will be back from her business trip (after having experienced a class with Master Toddy in Vegas); Laurie’s fight at Friday Night Fights on the 25th will be imminent; and Alanna and Heather will be getting ready for fights in October.  It should be a great time!

p.s. As we didn’t get much feedback on the experiment of filming our rounds, and it wasn’t clear that anyone loved it we decided to shelve the idea until another time. If you have any thoughts on how it went for you, please let us know.


[Sparring Circle member Peelo offers some of her views on the importance of female sparring, and sparring in general. Peelo was my first opponent, as we met and fought at the WKA in Virginia – where she won her division. She is currently preparing for her third fight.]

I have been to quite a few gyms and have had different experiences at all of them, sometimes positive or negative.

All sparring is good because it gets you used to fighting different people and styles. But we do fight women and yes I agree that we should spar women. Unfortunately in most gyms there are not enough girls of different sizes. This is why i enjoy attending the sparring circle because i get an opportunity to spar with different girls of different levels and sizes. I feel more prepared and confident for my next fight because I know that I am used to the power and technique of a variety of female opponents.

I believe females should spar their male counterparts though and not discount the benefits because you can hit harder without as much guilt. Some people I have spoken to expressed concerns that girls all getting together from different gyms would come with attitudes and I have in the past sometimes experienced mild cattiness from girls at different gyms but I have not found that in this particular gathering. But if you want to fight and/ or have realistic sparring then you should spar with other girls.

Sometimes I find that some girls don’t want to go as hard as me or if they are smaller or less experienced I feel guilty if I hit them hard. But I try to be as communicative as possible and I try to remember when I first started sparring and the great people that were there that encouraged me and boosted my ego when I needed it. So far this has worked for me.

There is no substitute for being around other women. You are encouraged, inspired and motivated to keep training in ways that your male counterparts won’t be able to. I always try to encourage other girls to fight and to get more ladies out into the sport because that is the only way we can all get better, together.


There are benefits to sparring with men:  in general, men are larger than the women they spar, giving women the challenge of going against taller, heavier opponents; this also allows women to strike with a greater percentage of full force, as it will not impact a larger opponent as much as it would someone her own size and, in the same vein, men might hit back harder than a woman might expect or otherwise experience. 

But there are drawbacks as well.  Always having a larger opponent is not going to “toughen” women in a way that is necessary for success.  Muhammad Ali did not consistently spar men much larger than himself; Buakaw is not trading blows with larger opponents.  Personally, at my size, it is difficult to find someone to match me in stature and weight, but consistently being outsized can be frustrating and discouraging – always being overpowered and outreached.  There is also an unfair assumption that men are always at an advantage over women, that sparring with any man is more beneficial than a woman.  This assumes that any man knows more, is stronger, has more technique, and is tougher than any female counterpart.  I disagree.  I’ve sparred with men who have no idea whatever of what they’re doing.  Further, men will often (and maybe this is due to my size and is not universal to sparring with women) act the part of a punching bag and coach, as if all I need is to “work it out” and be encouraged to keep punching without ever hitting back, crashing through my windows, or punishing me for sloppy strikes or bad decisions.  This is more insulting than constructive.  Finally, men and women actually do not fight the same.  Training counters and strategy with a man who is not your size does little to prepare one for trading blows with someone who will not strike, think, move, or strategize in the same manner.  (After watching the fight between Carano and Cyborg, my husband and I postulated that the defeat was a matter of not having trained hard enough, or at least not right.  We considered the possibility of Gina having likely sparred with a great number of men – giving her a taste for power – but I suspect nobody charged her the way Cyborg did in the fight.  I don’t know that a man would train with Carano like this, rushing her, pummeling her.)

All this is not intended to be a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” argument for the disparity among the sexes.  Rather, it is intended to point out that the assumption made by so many gyms that a woman must spar with men in order to be great is fallacious.  I am not advocating for the abolishment of intersex sparring.  I love sparring men and I have great admiration for my male sparring partners.   I know exactly what I learn from each of them.  What I am arguing is that sparring with women is equally important.  After all, we fight women.  When you step into the ring with a woman and look her in the eye, there is something to be said for having experienced this – many times – before.  And when you spar with men, you are often training with a built-in excuse for why you didn’t do well, or why you couldn’t overcome the various problems one inevitably encounters, with any sparring partner.  When I spar with my male partner, de Jesus, I get incredibly frustrated that I cannot defeat him.  When I spar Nicole Ruiz, who is de Jesus’ same size, I am inspired and encouraged that, though I’m getting my ass kicked, I can aspire to be like her, to be calm and fluid and strong.  I see her qualities, not her advantages.  In the 6 weeks of sparring with women at the NYFSC, I have witnessed countless examples of why a female opponent, my size or not, is an invaluable lesson in learning to fight and an under-used tool in female training.

Last night was our first small turnout, which is pretty amazing. Usually there are 7 or so girls, and different ones each time, but this time it was only Nicole and me…at least in the beginning. But as seems always to be the case, wonderful things happen when female muay thai gets together. First of all we were visited by Chelsea and Sandy, who have been out of muay thai for about a year, and got to talking. They stayed all the way until the end, and are seriously considering taking up muay thai again (they had been at Five Points), and joining the circle soon. They spoke with Greg and it seems are planning to come in for instruction from him, so there was a nice feeling that even though the group was low on numbers, it was still having a positive effect. One of the points of our circle I think is to inspire female muay thai in general, outside of the very specific gym cultures everyone is part of. It’s about making connections, at least for me.


And then a really special guest came, Lisa West. Personally I have to say that one of the reasons for the circle was to help me find girls my size, and I think Lisa is the very first person I’ve sparred with who is exactly my size. (For those who haven’t met me, I’m 5’2″ and about 100 lbs.) Lisa is a boxer, and she fought in the Golden Gloves last year, and will this year, and it was really exciting to have her come at me hard and relentlessly. She’s coming again not this week, but the week after. And for the other 100 or so pounders we have, you should be excited. She’s a lot of fun.

So, all in all, a very small group, but still very special things were happening. I met three new girls, and Nicole was wonderful giving me pointers on my boxing, like how to get out the corner better and not get bashed in the face every time she throws an uppercut.

Below I list an update of our Interest List. It includes everyone who has expressed interest in the group, and the majority of these women have come at least once. It’s meant to give those who have not yet come a general sense of the experience and size level of our circle, so if anyone can fill in the blanks or correct any information, that would be great. But the list is also meant as a lasting network list of women in the New York area that are genuinely interested in muay thai to the level of seriously sparring. This way you, as a circle member can keep track of others in your sport, and if you like make your own connections apart from the circle

Also, as the sparring turnout was not high and we have entered into Fall, I’d like to put up a chart of everyone’s extra-curricular availability. This way if we think to change the meeting day we might be able to find a day that is better for everyone. Or, as we have always planned, if we have an impromtu meet up at a park we’ll know who might be available. So, if you can tell us what days and times you are not committed to work, school or gym for the week that would be great.