It's a Saturday morning in a small gym in New Jersey, as I watch a tiny but powerful woman dancing off of her feet at a rhythmic pace in front of me. She is making whiplash turns of the jump rope while holding a laser beam focus. Her body is compact and ninja-sleek. Other times I’ve seen her sending thunderous cracks of punches and kicks into heavy bags--- the kind that make everyone at the gym stop and look for the big guy making noise. Instead they find this 5’ nothing Italian woman with braids, red gloves and a kraken tattooed upside her thigh is serving up jaw-breaking blows.
We are both taking a mixed martial arts (MMA) conditioning-based exercise class. This is a strength and conditioning routine that takes physical endurance as well as mental fortitude to push through fatigue. After the warm-up, we progress through body-weight drills and crescendo into an all-out heart pounding adrenaline rush of punches and kicks on heavy bags and small bags designed to be thrown around as if they were a person on the floor. By the end of a five-minute round, lungs are filling to maximum capacity with air, trying to recover enough oxygen for the work exerted. The effort level in this class is nothing less than a 10/10. At the end of class, with hearts still pounding, sweat still dripping from every pore, and lungs still expanding at an uncomfortable pace, we all pack up our gloves in silence.
A handful of women and a few men return for this class every week. This is not a social hour. Each of us are there for different reasons, but the common thread is our unfaltering desire to be challenged. Grueling as it is, you have to want it to get through it … whatever “it” means for you. (This class is the creation of David Davidson, an especially talented trainer who has arguably changed countless lives, including my own).
Marie joined this circle about 2 years ago. She had been quietly observing the MMA class grind away from her spin bike (the studios adjoin with a window in-between). I assumed she had the background of a dancer or cheerleader because of her build. She is small-framed with olive skin, long dark hair and she is beautiful. Most girls never set foot again in this class after the intro class, but Marie kept coming back. In the beginning her disposition was serious and reserved. She stuck with it, added supplemental personal training with David that focused on sparring and grappling and she got good… I mean really good. The power that comes out of her kicks and punches cuts through the room with a threateningly forceful sound.
Over the weeks and months, I noticed a transformation of her body. Her back and arms became noticeably defined and her entire body: streamlined. She also started adding more ink to her skin. Exercise is powerful, and when someone achieves a body transformation I pay attention. What does it really take to inspire change in someone? I wanted to know so I asked her to lunch.
"I'm working on myself, for myself, by myself." -Marie
Marie is not the first to smile at you. In fact, you may think that she doesn’t like you. However, when you open up the conversation with her she is clear, concise and direct. And like-able. She shoots straight from the hip. My husband’s own observation “She thinks like a guy. She gets it.” Yet she remains guarded, as if her hands were up even while talking to you about the weather. Marie describes herself as a “nervous person.” It makes sense that a nervous person would choose spin class because you “can control the settings on the bike,” says Marie. She views exercise as therapy. At the gym Marie can “get whatever issues I had out that day. Skipping the gym is like skipping your therapy.” It's true that the fastest way to create a mind and body connection is through challenging physical activity.
Not many young girls are interested in wrestling, but Marie grew up watching WWE Smackdown and Raw on TV. Her youth was active as a competitive dancer and cheerleader. And she was always a high scholastic achiever, attending Kean University on full scholarship for two years and paid as little as $0.25 one year. All was smooth sailing until her weight climbed and fluctuated between an extra 15-20 lbs as she focused solely on her college studies not paying mind to her health. She soon found herself choosing clothes that would hide her body. She didn’t share anything negative with me about her deeper body image, but she shared that she gained a new awareness of how her body looked and felt. She knew she needed to change.
The picture below left was taken in January 2015, about 18 months before she started taking MMA classes. I asked her what she thought about this photo. She said she wasn’t happy or proud of how her body looked here, but this photo documents her starting point. The second photo is about one year later: happy and fit.
Marie is a high school biology teacher at Union High School, a particularly challenging student demographic. She is partly circumspect because she deals with unmotivated students and difficult parents day in and day out. Some of these kids are self-destructive. Marie was straight-edge through high school except for some self-destructive cutting behavior that her boyfriend quickly recognized and put to an end. The memory of that experience helps her relate to her students.
I imagine it’s hard to command respect from students when you can easily be mistaken for one. However, there is a clear distinction between her persona in the classroom and at the gym. The students take particular interest in her MMA skill set and joke about her using her skills in the classroom. Marie takes full command of her classroom, not taking fighting lightly and encouraging them to wait for tattoos. She sets up a positive example for students around taking care of your body for optimal health.
The more I get to know Marie, the more I like her. She knows what she wants and is organized and unwavering in her beliefs. This is a woman who makes me want to get my sh*t a bit more together. And I definitely have respect for a woman who isn’t afraid to challenge norms. I want to highlight Marie as a young teacher that shows her students how to be individualistically expressive yet thoughtful and measured decision-makers.
All of Marie’s tattoos are chosen out of the passion for her calling: biology. Scientists are nerds (in the best sense). They are enthralled with things we cannot see. They truly appreciate the massive significance of even the smallest structures on Earth. Falling in line with her type-A personality, all of her tattoos are completed with realistic accuracy. Artist Bryan Lee of Skin Deep in Long Island is her primary tattoo artist (with the exception of two small pieces).
Marie says she “makes a teachable moment” out of her tattoos. The perfect example of this: the double helix strand on the inside of her right foot is an accurate representation of the code of life. What I find interesting is that her pieces are neither typical nor feminine by most standards. Some of them cover an intimidating amount of skin and that’s a decision she expects not everyone to understand. With courage and conviction in her choices, what matters is that she loves each piece of artistry.
Her largest pieces cover the skin on both side thighs. At quick glance, her left thigh appears to be a collage of various natural items. The pea plant is a reference to Gregor Mendel. The flower and ants are from the acacia tree. The ants live in and protect the tree from harm representing a unique mutualistic symbiotic relationship. A light and a dark moth border the edges of this rich green scene, a tribute to natural selection. Look a little closer and you’ll these elements make up a skull, tying together the human species with everything else in nature. Marie selected all the elements with a clear vision as to how they would tie together.
A sprawling kraken octopus floats on her opposite thigh. This sea creature’s ability to camouflage itself is essential to its survival in the depths of the ocean. I feel this relates to Marie’s own transformation of shape. It also came to light that this is representative of her love for the gym. Back to that MMA conditioning class, there is a specific boxing move our instructor calls “unleash the Kraken.” It is a double hook punch into a heavy bag from a sit-up position. This is Marie’s favorite because you can hear and feel the power in these punches.
A delicate seeded dandelion dances across her right side ribcage. Marie chose this unassuming flower because it is widely considered a weed however proves its value because it self-pollinates (relating to her strongly independent nature). The initials of her grandparents are hidden in the seedlings of the flower that have broken away from the stem, floating across her skin.
I love that right in the middle of her smooth and sculpted back is a piece that purely exists for beauty. It was artist’s choice for the geometric fine linework design resembling a chandelier placed at the center of her back. The only piece that she did not dictate direction is her favorite piece.
Her feet are sprinkled with a few more: an anchor (her very first piece) and a spiral conch shell (added at LA Ink by artist Khoi). Marie has since added a small seahorse to her thigh and a scallop shell to her ankle.
As for piercing, Marie has pierced her belly button and has 7 piercing on the right ear, 4 on the left and a collection of silver jewelry throughout.
Marie’s style: youthful, cut-up and a lot black! She keeps it professional at school, but this woman is not afraid to show a little skin outside of the classroom. She feels best in gym gear and dresses for herself (my kind of girl). Lululemon and Athleta rank at the top of her list, but she is an avid bargain shopper as well, often times customizing her clothes with a pair of scissors herself. I like that she mixes in leather with sporty elements and the occasional bit of pink; simple and sporty with a little bit of femininity.
The group of women in this MMA class is an unusual one. There are a handful of women over fifty that push themselves harder than most women half their age. It’s a rigorous sweat-dripping workout that involves punching, kicking, crawling like an animal and rolling around on the floor (in other words, it’s not for those too concerned about their hair). In Marie’s words, “finishing any class is a personal victory.” That said, the return is a total sense of self-empowerment.
Marie sites Barb, Nancy and me for giving her inspiration. Barb for her relentlessly positive attitude, Nancy for her encouragement and reassurance and me for my drive. The creator and instructor of this class I mentioned earlier, David, inspires us all. It may be the fact that he never quite makes you feel like you are good enough (intentionally so you continue to push yourself). There is always more to learn and we all have that desire for approval. The gym that held this class has since closed. I don’t think any of us can express the loss of community tied to that location that we feel. This group of women is so strong that they all moved to a new gym together, continuing the camaraderie that keeps each other inspired.
Other role models Marie names are retired fighter Urijah Faber for his entrepreneurship, and female strawweight fighters Claudia Gadelha, Thug Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres for their accomplishments as female pro fighters. In fact, if she hit the lotto, she would consider training to fight professionally. If that never happens, Marie will continue to inspire young minds to challenge their own limitations inside and outside the classroom, for life. As she says, "be stronger than your excuses" and invest in the growth of your mind and body for yourself.
Photography Credit: Christina Lilly Photography
Written By: Elizabeth F. Murphy
Clothing: Model's Own