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Around the World in 80 Sports: Lightweight Female American vs. Heavyweight Muay Thai Boxer

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I embarked on a little project in 2010, though I didn't know it yet. When I climbed into an open air boxing ring in sultry Bangkok to take a Muay Thai lesson (battering, more like), so began a series of adventures I'm retroactively dubbing Around the World in 80 Sports.

I used to take cooking classes when I traveled. And sure, that's still fun. But you know what's more fun? Clinging to a crumbling rock 60 feet off the ground in Vietnam on your first 5.9 climb, with a 20-year-old guide who's been climbing for about a minute longer that you have. Taking on your first white water rapid on the Rogue River in Oregon. And all the other sporting endeavors around the world I'm jonesing to get started on. When an injury forced me to give up my powerlifting love, I decided to find myself a new sporting love. And since I'm also a fiend for travel, a new obsession was born. I'm a serial learner of sports around the globe.

Here then is the tale of the sport lesson that started it all -- November, 2010, I'm brand new to working out and in Asia for the first time:

Sor Vorapin Gym #1

I often think of things from the comfort of home that sound like they'd be exciting in far-flung lands. They tend to turn out slightly different in reality than in my imagination. Like picturing an invigorating workout in Bangkok, then finding myself wringing in sweat, a muscle-bound Thai boxer pouring ice water over me and rubbing ice down my battered legs and knees. And a little trip later to Surawongse Medical Center (a Patpong clinic that specializes in "erectile dysfunction" but only charged $12 to bandage up a sprained wrist).

When I decided that because I couldn't keep up my gym workouts while traveling I should find something just as challenging in Bangkok, Muay Thai sounded perfect. Of course it did. A bloody, violent sport practiced by powerfully strong fighters who begin training as children is a great idea for a lightweight 30-something American female tourist who can, barely, do one pull-up, and eek out a few jump ropes.

I booked a private lesson with a Thai kickboxer at Sor Vorapin #1, much to the amusement of the hotel staff, my guide earlier that week, and the taxi driver who drove my husband and me to the gym.
The open air gym made my no-frills gym at home look like a spa. A ring and four punching bags. And some jump ropes. 9,000 miles I'd come, excited for my kickboxing class, and I start with a jump rope. Which I hate. Immediately sweating, I huffed through them until Phol told me I could stop.

Into the ring

He bound up my wrists, gave me my gloves, I kicked off my shoes and we climbed into the ring. And I learned what his English included. Jab, left, right, knee, elbow, kick, block, up, power, good and break ("blake"). For an hour and a half, I battered my legs, elbows, knees and hands against this powerhouse. Comical quantities of sweat poured off me. I jabbed, the force of the impact against his iron stance reverberating through me. I slammed my elbows into his hands, jarring my skull. I kicked, trying to mimic the natural grace and elegance with which Phol moved about the ring, wincing at the slam of my shin against him every time. But "power!" he said so I slammed with all my might, thrilled when I got a "good!" I drove my knees at his stomach, stopped short by his a brick wall, well, his hands actually. Over and over until blake, when I chugged water.

We moved to the bag and despite my clumsiness at the work, smashed my elbows, knees, hands and shins into it repeatedly. Displaying my lack of a fighter's grace was humbling. During one particularly pulverizing move that seemed would never end -- holding the bag, driving left knee in, hopping straight to right knee, repeating -- I called on all my willpower not to stop, not to fail. Dying to hear blake I pounded, hopped, pounded, far longer than any gym work I've ever done, more determination than actual strength or endurance getting me through.

Seeing the condition of my knees and shins, Phol took me to the ice bucket. I hoped I wasn't meant to drink out of the bucket. Instead, he put my foot on a bench and dumped freezing water and ice cubes on my leg. He rubbed in the ice and I could have swooned with relief. Both legs done, back to the ring and round after round we went. I'd arrived early, but Phol didn't seem to mind that we were going into overtime. An hour and a half of the most insanely difficult workout I've ever subjected myself to and at last we stopped for stretches and a cool-down set of sit-ups.

I emerged from the ring as drenched as if I'd come from a swim, and was intrigued to see how furiously my hands shook after he unbound them. I had an immense new respect for the work and skill of the fighters. Never mind that a few hours later my husband had to ask me to stop screaming as he helped me with an ice bath, and my legs, arms and knuckles were rapidly turning some fascinating shades of purple, red and blue -- I could now tell the story of going into the ring with a Muay Thai fighter!
Slam!