Armed and Capable: Women in Combat Sports

The Women in Combat Sports panel on Friday morning offered a discussion of women’s participation in different sports involving physical conflict. Morgan Hampe moderated a panel that included Amy Graham, Kristin Story, Dawn Assumma, Jayelle Barnes, and Christine Napolitano.

The panelists began by explaining the different sports in which they’re involved. Story engages in historical European martial arts (HEMA). Her love of swordplay drew her to the sport. Those involved in HEMA take old combat manuals and use them to practice, a tricky strategy because the old texts have to be reinterpreted. In Europe, swords fell out of vogue when guns became common. By contrast, sports like kendo, where everything is passed down, have a continuing stream of knowledge. She added that tournaments are often open, with women and men competing against each other.

Assumma’s sport is roller derby, which she said had been described as “speed chess with people throwing bricks at you.” She added that she participates in Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) events but not heavy fighting, placing herself “at the modern end of the spectrum, where the body is the weapon.” Her sport also involves women and men competing against each other.

When asked what drew her to roller derby, Assumma replied that she was going through a lot of stress and was immediately engaged when told “you can hit sh!t and it’s legal.” She described the sport as inclusive and said she competes on an international level with seven years’ experience. Interaction among players makes everyone better.

Barnes indicated that she had been fighting since she was four, thanks to lessons from her father. Martial arts, she said, are part of their family life. A self-described history nerd, she picked up a sword, got her armor, and started going to events. Noting that combat requires strength, she explained that it can be difficult to get into if one is not very strong. It takes a lot of training and involves dealing with a lot of bruises. She trains with men who are working toward melee participation. She said the participants in medieval combat have a great sense of community and that people help each other learn.

Napolitano said she fights with sword and shield and got into medieval combat at a con. Two years ago, she participated in the Battle of Nations in Barcelona.

Graham indicated that she has been participating in full steel combat for five years. She was the captain of the first female team in the International Medieval Combat Federation competition in Spain. Her sport is about 10 years old. In 2017, she was captain of the first female team at the Historic Medieval Battles (HMB) Battle of Nations. She retired in May after four concussions and worsening arthritis in her hands. While she still fights in the US, she is making the transition to triathlons.

Graham noted that we identify as what we do and shared her frustration at being semi-retired. There are now hundreds of female fighters, she said, while there were only about 10 worldwide five years ago.  The weapons she used were blunted to 2mm.

Story showed the audience the rubber stopper duct-taped to her sword point. The sword is modeled after a style from the 1500s, a dueling sword not intended to be lethal.

Graham described using a poleaxe in a tournament and said there was no thrusting allowed in her sport. Using that move can cause a combatant to receive a red card, which signifies ejection from the tournament.

When asked how people choose their weapons, Napolitano pointed out that the weapons must match the style and period of a participant’s armor. Her armor is Mongol, so she uses a curved saber. She added that falchions are great in melees, and that axes and maces are also popular.

Graham pointed out that a punch shield (a box-like or teardrop-shaped shield) can deliver an effective blow. Some combatants put the shield on their dominant arms and punch with it while using a falchion or other weapon in the other hand.

Story said a lot of her armor is hard plastic. Longsword and daggers or rondels (with blunt tips) are popular. Assumma added that covering the joints is important. In roller derby, there are helmets, often regular skating helmets, elbow pads, and knee pads as well as a mouth guard. After taking about three hits, a helmet generally has to be replaced.

An audience member asked the panel for their favorite techniques. Graham said she likes using a direct punch to the face, which can shock an opponent long enough to give her an edge. Story likes wrestling. She noted that she’s smaller than many people and so has to get close anyway, preferably with a spider monkey attack. If you’re small, she said, you have to be accurate. If that doesn’t work, she has to keep her distance and think strategically.

Assumma favors a tomahawk turn, hitting quickly and then pulling back. Barnes said she’s still working on building her strength, so she ducks a lot. She uses a one-handed sword with a shield and likes getting in close, planting her feet, and using her opponents’ weight against them to take them down. “As a small person, that just fulfills me,” she said. The comment drew laughter and applause.

Asked whether they found media characters like Xena and the women of Game of Thrones inspiring, Napolitano cited Wonder Woman and stood to show off her Wonder Woman tank shirt, to applause from the audience. Barnes described Brienne from Game of Thrones as a badass and said she also loves Arya.

Story cited Brienne and Agent Carter because of their power, independence and confidence. Without confidence, she said, one can’t engage and win. Graham chose Vasquez from Aliens, Linda Hamilton from Terminator, and Xena. Graham noted that men will sometimes try to turn powerful female images to a negative, in ways such as sarcastically saying, “Here comes Xena,” to which she responds, “Thank you.”

The panel also discussed feeling confident about self-defense in everyday life, knowing they can take care of themselves. They also have learned to analyze situations and decide how they will react if problems arise.

Sports the panelists enjoyed prior to taking up their combat sports activities include tae kwon do and competitive swimming. Napolitano had lifted weights as exercise but not participated in organized sports, while Barnes started martial arts lessons with her father at an early age. Graham said she was a band geek and “a fat girl” and avoided sports until friends’ participation in historic steel combat inspired her to take up the sport.

Training the panelists described as helpful included wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, boxing, and tai chi. Running, they agreed builds endurance. Napolitano admitted she hates running but finds the endurance it develops, both physically and mentally, helps her keep going even when she wants to quit.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.