It’s become a regular occurrence for Casey Lynn to have to argue with the doorman at the fights. No one believes she’s a fighter. A fighter’s girlfriend maybe, but an actual fighter? Never. It usually takes a while, especially if her picture isn’t on the program, but eventually she gets in.
Lynn is not your stereotypical Muay Thai fighter. She smiles a lot. She definitely doesn’t dress the part, and usually shows up to fight in her cowboy boots and daisy dukes. Her two daughters, ages seven and twelve, are always by her side, whether at the gym or cheering her on at ringside. The girls have had to sacrifice a lot for their mom, who has been living the life of Muay Thai for the past five years, but it’s a sacrifice they are willing to make. Muay Thai has empowered Lynn, and strengthened their family dynamic.
Muay Thai taught Casey what it meant to be part of something again—but that’s not what she was necessarily expecting. Lynn started Muay Thai as a way to understand violence. Violence that she had experienced firsthand, the effects of which have followed her through 15 fights and countless hours at the gym.
Lynn is a survivor of domestic abuse. Growing up on a farm near Arlington, WA, She recalls almost being killed by her then boyfriend in her senior year of high school. He was a cocaine addict, she says. Lynn was feisty and always fought back. Sometimes things got out of hand, causing the police to get involved. But nothing ever came of it. Nobody ever got arrested.
“You think you are safe, the police even knew us personally,” Lynn says. “But they failed to recognize the signs of domestic abuse.”
When Lynn finally ended things, she wasn’t aware that more than half of all violence occurs when the victim is planning to leave or has left the abuser. Going to his house to pick up her stuff, she found herself in the fight of her life.
“He had a gun, he beat me with it. Then he tried to get me to play Russian Roulette with him. He wanted me to beg for my life, but I refused to do it.”
He lost it and threw her out into a blackberry bramble. She was stuck, in pain, and helpless. After everything she had gone through, it seemed so trivial that a blackberry bramble would be her demise. She managed to pull herself from the bushes and ran down the country road to find her car and take off. But it didn’t end there. He threatened to kill Casey’s family if she didn’t get back together with him, still in high school at the time, she complied. Lynn was trapped by him for another two and a half years. She got lucky when he was arrested for armed robbery and went to jail. Only then, when he was behind bars, could she finally tell him what she really thought.
She went on to meet and marry the father of her children. She assumed that their nuclear family would stand the test of time, but, she says, “we just couldn’t make it work. We were both unhappy and the negativity flowed through the house. It was emotionally painful.”
The silent suffering continued for a long time, Lynn still trying to make it work, thinking it was best for her children. She finally left, never thinking as to how hard it would be to be raising her children alone.
“I never for one second thought that I would end up as a single mom. There’s no backup plan, no one that can take over for you. I’m left to provide all the emotional support and well being for my children, it’s no longer a team effort. But my grandma was a single mom, and it’s OK.”
At first, though, it was not OK. Despite being very athletic and having had grown up on a farm doing chores, Casey gained an alarming 55 pounds. That was when she signed up for Muay Thai.
At the beginning, she really struggled to be hit, and hit back, in sparring. She felt that by hitting others, even in a controlled environment, made her an abuser. Getting hit was like a flashback to her previous abuse. Many nights were spent crying in her car, with her children at her side, never hiding her emotions from them.
“Before Muay Thai I couldn’t even be hugged, and when I started training couldn’t be hit in sparring. I was afraid.”
But she refused to give up, and after about a year of training, Casey could remember what it felt like to be connected; she was part of a community again. People at the gym held her accountable for her attendance—she rarely misses a day—and her trainer had expectations for her. She had started training to initiate mental and physically healing, but quickly realized that Muay Thai had now taken the place of the relationship with her ex-husband.
And after three years of training, Casey, who played competitive soccer since age three, was ready to fight.
Today she can spar without going into panic and now enjoys training with other men. Her trainer, Tony Deva, now can massage her injuries, and she no longer turns her head away or blinks when getting hit. Walking out to the ring, something that at the beginning nearly crippled her with fear, is now a time of clarity and calmness.
“I wanted to understand why I was abused, and why someone would want to do that to me. I always fought back, and felt guilty for doing so. I wondered why I didn’t run away.”
Lynn is not alone. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 1 in 3 women are victims of some form of domestic violence, Casey has learned a lot through her years in Muay Thai. Fighting has taught her that you can and will be overpowered, and that men are in fact much stronger than women on average. She says that self-defence classes can create a false sense of security for women and that sometimes, it’s all right not to fight back.
“Self-defence isn’t a fail safe, because you’ll always meet someone bigger and stronger than you. Fighting empowers you but doesn’t make you a superhero. In certain situations you should just run.”
The journey isn’t over. Casey still can get overwhelmed in fights when her opponents rush in. It’s not the fight itself, but the scars of her past that cause her to retreat. But every time she fights, it gets a little easier. Muay Thai has taught her to better embrace her emotions and to understand that in life, we can’t always be 100%— a lesson she hopes to teach her daughters. She hopes they will learn that it’s OK to be afraid, OK to cry, and even OK to get mad.
“If a woman raises her voice she’s looked at as a bitch, but being angry is an emotion just like being happy or sad,” Casey says.
The sport, she says, has given her a safe space, even if it’s a safe space where you get hit in the head. It has taught her not to be a victim, and taught her that sometimes, it’s OK to not fight back.
After receiving a Muay Thai scholarship to train at a prominent gym in Northern Thailand, Watthanaya packed her bags at 19 leaving home with a one way ticket. She ended up however at a Bangkok street gym affiliated with Sor. Thanikul and married one of the fighters. They took off for Khorat and Watthanaya fought her way through Issan. Now, with a degree in tote, a four year old daughter, and a passion to fight again, she is back. Connect with Frances Watthanaya on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.