MOUNT FOREST – When 14 athletes from Rise Combat and Fitness here competed at the Canadian Kickboxing Nationals in Niagara Falls recently, 13 of them won gold, silver or bronze, said coach David Reeves.
Cassandra Barbossa, who won a gold belt at the competition, said “to see a gym out of Mount Forest come together the way it did” was a “super incredible experience.”
Brandon Hart, who won a silver medal, added “we definitely made some noise this year … It was an honour to be part of it.”
The athletes also included 12-year-olds Weston Dirksen, Dalhia Johnson and Kieran Romanowski, and 11-year-old stepsisters Taylor Krueger and Kennedy Ray.
“We have some amazing coaches here,” Barbossa said, noting she was very nervous ahead of the Nationals, March 31 to April 2, but coaches prepared the athletes well and helped them stay focussed.
She said winning gold felt “incredible, it was quite the feeling.
“It’s a different experience, being in the ring,” she said.
“I thought it was a pretty close fight, so when that hand got raised it was like an ‘I did it’ moment.”
Barbossa has been kickboxing on and off for about eight years – since she was 21.
“I did Muay Thai before,” she added, “but not competitively.”
She said she loves kickboxing because “it’s a great stress relief; really zens me out.”
The sport is “so technical and calculated,” she added. “It’s an amazing sport; really develops you as a person.”
She said she especially loves the “mental and psyche part of it,” and “helping the younger members understand winning isn’t the end all be all, it’s getting out into the ring and facing your fears.”
Barbossa said she trained for months prior to the Pan American Championships last November, and then focused on preparing for the Canadian Kickboxing Nationals, March 31 to April 2.
Part of the preparation included dropping a weight class, she noted, and she hired a nutritionist from Rise Combat to help her do so.
There’s an international competition coming up that Barbossa is debating whether or not she wants to compete in.
For Hart, who has been kickboxing “recreationally for about two years now,” the Canadian Nationals was his first fight, so he said he had “a lot of nerves for sure.
“I’m the old guy in the group,” he said with a laugh, noting kickboxing “came a lot later with age for me.”
Hart made it to the finals but couldn’t compete due to an injury to his abdomen.
“I’m still in recovery,” Hart noted.
He said he feels he has “some unfinished business” – and once he is healed up his goal is clear: to win gold.
“I need that belt,” he said.
Hart added he’s “always enjoyed combat sports” and kickboxing was something he always wanted to do, but it was hard to make the time while working and raising a family.
He eventually decided to start kickboxing with his coworker Barbossa, because he “wanted to do it before I got too old,” he said.
Hart said it’s been a “fun journey” for him and Barbossa “to support each other through work and at the gym as well.”
Hart said kickboxing is “great for mental health and developing friendships.”
He noted the sport is “often seen as an individual endeavour, but we have an incredible team here, with everyone always supporting one another. I couldn’t be prouder to be part of the group.
Romanowski, Dirksen, Johnson, Krueger and Ray all admitted to feeling nervous leading up to the Nationals.
Dirksen said it was stressful “having so many people watching you,” and Johnson added it’s overwhelming, and “you don’t want to lose because you will feel embarrassed.”
Before her fight Ray “thought of all the ways that I could fall because the mats were so slippery.” During her fight she “actually didn’t fall, but there were times I thought I would.”
Krueger said the lead-up was stressful, but once she “got in there and started to fight, you zone out the crowd.”
Romanowski, who lives in Mount Forest, said he won his first fight at Nationals by unanimous decision, but got an ear infection that caused his eardrum to burst so he was not able to continue competing.
Romanowski said he has been kickboxing for four years, and took part in taekwondo for four years before that.
Dirksen, who came home from Nationals with a gold belt, said he won his first fight by unanimous decision too, won his second fight when his opponent was disqualified, and then won the third fight by unanimous decision again. He felt “very, very happy” after his success.
Dirksen lives outside of Harriston and has been kickboxing for just six months, though he too did taekwondo for six years before that.
“I wanted to try something different,” he said of switching sports.
Johnson, who lives in Conn, won her first fight at Nationals, and then lost her second when she got a broken nose, walking away from the competition with a bronze medal.
For Johnson, her favourite things about the sport are meeting new people and traveling, while Dirksen and Ray do not enjoy the travelling at all.
Krueger lost her first fight, noting in the second round she and her opponent kept going “back and forth.”
Ray won her first fight and lost the second, achieving a silver medal.
Krueger and Ray both live in Mount Forest, ten houses away from each other.
They’ve both been kickboxing for two years, since Ray’s brother (Krueger’s stepbrother) convinced them to give it a try.
“My brother made me do it,” Ray said with a laugh. “And I didn’t think I would like it, but I do.”
For Johnson, who has been kickboxing for five months, she decided to start because “it stood out in front of all the other sports,” she said, noting it was “more interesting.”
Dirksen said he likes the sport because “I like punching people,” and how it enables him to “hit people and not get in trouble.”
Krueger agrees – she likes “hitting people and sparring.”
Ray added “I like that I can hit someone without a reason,” noting she doesn’t dislike the people she’s hitting and “they don’t mind” being hit.