By their thirties, there are some Yellowknife residents – their hips and knees ground down by concrete floors and parched summer turf – already retiring from sports.
Then there are the city’s kickboxers, competing for regional and national honours regardless of hearing their forties knocking. And despite their friends being unable to comprehend.
Scott Thomson, a strength and conditioning coach, is a relatively recent convert to kickboxing. He just attended his first national championship, in Niagara Falls. (He was disqualified, to which we’ll return.)
“People are asking me: at 41 years old, why are you looking to compete in kickboxing?” Thomson said.
“My answer is I didn’t want to be 75 years old and sitting on the couch, wishing I had. I had a blast.”
Gopi Rajkumar, who moved to Yellowknife in 2014, returned to his birth country of India in May to take part in his state’s kickboxing championship, held in Chennai.
Before the flight, he recalled, everybody said: “You’re too old for this.”
“I’m almost 38 now. They said, ‘Why do you want to do this? At this age? You have a family, you have a kid to raise.’ I have an 18-month-old son and my wife, they are both in India. So they said: ‘You must be insane. Why don’t you do something else?’
“I did not listen. I just laughed and walked away from the conversation. Because I know what I want to do. I see what they don’t see. I know I can do it.”
Rajkumar won his state title. He will return to India in August for the national championship in a country of 1.4 billion people.
Eleven-year-old wins bronze
Canada’s nationals took place at the start of this month. Thomson and Rajkumar each featured in the seven-strong NWT team.
Some, like 11-year-old Liam Kincaid, were fighting for the first time – a daunting experience further complicated when Kincaid was moved into a full-contact division instead of the introductory “kick light” class he had expected.
“I was really nervous,” he said. (His mother, Ali, added: “I was also very nervous, as you can imagine.”)
Kincaid spent hours going through the weigh-in and a medical exam, and even endured an argument about his clothing seconds before his fight started, ultimately competing without a shirt after a disagreement over whether a t-shirt or tank top should be worn.
He then went three rounds with an opponent who had already had seven fights to his name, in a category for which Kincaid was not prepared.
The Yellowknife boy lost in a split decision.
“Liam came right to me and told me that he wanted to fight,” said John Stanley, who coaches Thomson, Rajkumar and Kincaid at his gym in Yellowknife (Thomson co-owns it).
“He did really well. He held his own, he showed a lot of heart. It was a split-decision loss against a kid who already had seven fights and went on to win the division.”
Kincaid came away with a bronze medal and a special “Heart of the Warrior” award created in his honour.
“He’s an absolute champ,” said Thomson. “We’ve created this award that we’re now going to give to someone, in any tournament that we go to, based on his performance.”
“It was an awesome learning experience for me,” said Kincaid. “I’m really excited for next time.”
‘Zen-like’ in the fight
Thomson had the opposite experience.
Expecting to fight in a full-contact class, he was shifted around by organizers working to ensure various categories had the minimum number of participants. Thomson was assigned to kick light, where failure to follow stricter rules on contact can lead to disqualification.
That seemed to matter little in his opening fight. “We both came out swinging,” he said.
Thomson racked up one official warning for “crumpling” his opponent with a hit to the chin, a second for a leg hit that dropped the other man, and finally was disqualified for a second chin hit.
His opponent, Thomson said, “actually protested to the ref. He’s like, ‘No, we’re having fun, this is great, let’s keep this going.'”
If the experience of national kickboxing sounds stressful to you – last-minute category shifts, daunting odds, disqualifications, chin hits – Thomson finds it has a much-needed calming effect on him.
“I suffer with extreme anxiety,” he told Cabin Radio. “Leading up to the fight, my anxiety was at its highest. I slept like three hours, four hours the night before.
“The second I walked on the mat, I felt calm, almost zen-like. It was like everything went away.
“Being in there, fighting somebody else, was a lot of fun.”
Fighting for her
Rajkumar loved every second of winning state gold in India, because it fulfilled a promise he made to himself – and his mother.
After dabbling in kickboxing for a little while, his drive to take the sport seriously came from an event named Fight For Her held in Yellowknife two years ago, just before Covid-19 closed down the city.
The event’s name alluded to intimate partner violence and proceeds were donated to the Yellowknife Women’s Society. In that name, though, Rajkumar found his own interpretation and inspiration.
“I was raised by a single mother. We lost my father when I was in Grade 1,” he said, referring to his mom, Revathi, and his younger sister and older brother.
“We were all left alone. My mom was shattered, she didn’t know what to do. In the first six years, we had nothing but a lot of financial issues. So many challenges to overcome.”
He remembers his mother telling the kids, after their father’s death: “Dad left us but this is not the end of world. We need to stand up and make him proud.”
“She was a very tough woman,” he said. “I have seen her go through a lot of issues in society. She faced it all. She gave us the courage to stand up on our feet, by herself. So I wanted to fight for her.”
Returning to India in August will give him the chance to top his state triumph with national honours, but that trip has a family connection, too.
His wife, Sai Bharathi, and their son, Gautham, are ready to come home to Yellowknife. Gautham was born in India during an extended visit mid-pandemic and they have remained there since.
“I’m planning to go to the nationals and bring them back here,” said Rajkumar. He says having his wife, son and a national medal on the plane home is his dream. “I will make sure it happens.”
One thing that’ll help? His support in Yellowknife – from younger residents.
“My sparring partners are incredible,” he said. “We have young athletes who kick my ass every sparring. They’re fast! They’re fast because they’re young, and their recovery time is very instant. For me to recover, it takes a while.
“I have to match their pace and then train with them. So that’s kind-of like a head-start for me. And I’m thankful to be here in Yellowknife, training with these guys.”
Rajkumar came home from this month’s Canadian nationals with bronze. In all, the NWT entrants received four silver and two bronze medals.
Stanley, the coach, says that haul pleased him.
“If we get them some more experience then, next year, we can definitely be looking at maybe having a champion,” he said.