Fit to fight

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When Rebecca McHugh’s husband physically attacked her in front of her 15-year-old daughter, she knew something had to change; she didn’t want her child to grow up thinking it was acceptable for a man to abuse a woman.

Doing Krav Maga changed my life, McHugh says. I was able to leave him and move on with my life.

Developed by Israeli Imi Lichtenfeld, Krav Maga is a self-defense and physical fitness system for men and women (ages 14 and older) that teaches instinctive movement and practical techniques using intense lifelike training scenarios. Students learn to respond quickly — physically and mentally — in life- or safety-threatening situations. Lichtenfeld began developing what became Krav Maga in 1948 while serving in the Israel Defense Forces and has roots in his boxing, wrestling, gymnastic and military training.

Elisabeth Green, 26, general manager and instructor at Krav Maga Maryland, says she is inspired each time she witnesses “the change” in her students.

As girls and women, it’s as if “we’re taught to apologize for the space we occupy in life,” asserts Green. The transition that happens during training, she says, comes across in a physical and mental confidence, even visible as a change in someone’s posture and often noticeable after a single class.

It’s when a girl or women internalizes the belief that “I’m valuable, and I’m worth my own effort to fight for, and knowing, for a fact, that by myself I could do whatever it takes to get home safely.”

Green is leading the four-hour eighth annual Rape Prevention Seminar for women only on June 6 at the Columbia training facility. All proceeds from registration go to a scholarship fund for women who have experienced violence and want to train but are unable to cover the costs.

The seminar will focus on some of the most common dangerous situations in which a woman might find herself. There will be discussion of how to avoid those situations and to identify risk factors that will improve one’s safety. “People are surprised” by some of the simple tactics they learn, says Green. “They don’t think on these terms on a regular basis.”

Physically, the seminar will cover punches, palm strikes — a safer way to strike without using knuckles — elbow strikes and kicking.

Self-defense, says Green, means “having to respond to someone’s violent attack on you.” So the training will also cover choke defenses, headlock and groundwork. “We’ll spend a lot time on this, I want them to know how to do it in their bones.”

Class size has been about 75 people, from teens to seniors and all fitness levels. The seminar, as well as the continued Krav Maga training, includes realistic scenarios and high-paced drills to increase the stress level of the situation. Attending the seminar will give participants proficiency in techniques they could use immediately if necessary.

“Toward end of class, people are more tired,” says Green, “so they must rely on training and the reflexes they’ve built. What comes out of you under stress is what we’re looking for.”

For continued Krav Maga training, Green emphasizes that instructors meet the students at their level and pace. They want to make participants feel safe, comfortable and successful, but they push the edge too. Even though the 50-minute classes are physically and mentally intense there are breaks, time for questions, discussion and plenty of support from teachers and classmates.

McHugh, who has trained for 6 years and is now married to a firefighter and Krav Maga instructor, remembers a class where she was dragged out and thrown into the back of the van.

“It’s terrifying even though I know everyone there. You still have a primordial response when your body recognizes that this person isn’t friendly and I have to do something now. It’s instinctual.

“But [it’s about] getting that feeling and then you know inside, you’re not going to lose your mind if something were to happen for real.”

McHugh grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Baltimore and says she had many scuffles growing up, even into her 20’s “where people wanted to hurt me. That fear, that feeling, is the same as you get when you’re training. I don’t think you can control that response.”

Krav Maga is about defense, but many men and women also train for fitness.

“You don’t have to be in great shape,” says McHugh, 40, and a high school teacher. “At any fitness level you can defend yourself, but your tail is going to fit get doing it. So fitness is a byproduct of the training. In order to fight you have to be fit, you have to be able to finish the fight.”

McHugh hasn’t used Krav Maga in a real defense situation, “but what it has done for me is to become aware of what’s going on around me. It’s given me the confidence and situational awareness to follow my instincts and to understand when something is wrong.”

But at 5 feet and 135 pounds, she says, “I feel sorry for anyone I’d have to get ahold of, it’s going to be a bad day for them. I’m an old lady that can whip your ass, whether you’re male or female.”

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