Defense can be the best offense

Civil engineering major Giselle Abucayon, 20, gives a swift kick to FitMax Krav Maga instructor Jack Szychtel at a self-defense training session Nov. 5 on Marple campus. Photo by Mary Kadlec

Four years ago, a young woman named Kelly Herron stopped to use a public park restroom in Portland, Ore. in the middle of a long training run. As she washed her hands, she instinctively felt something was wrong.

She turned around and came face to face with Gary Steiner, 40, a registered sex offender, who began assaulting her. Herron was able to use self-defense tactics she learned in a workshop just weeks prior to fight off Steiner and subdue him until police arrived.

I came across Kelly’s story in an issue of Runner’s World magazine when I too was training for a marathon and frequently spending weekend mornings on long runs. Her courage and grit were inspirational and made me wonder if I have what it takes to fend off such an attack.

Even though I am tall and consider myself an athlete, would I stand a chance?


Prevention is key, especially for women, and I’m aware of the typical safety tips told to us, such as not walking alone late at night and not going anywhere with someone we don’t know well.

We can try our best to avoid vulnerable situations, but prevention might not be enough, so we need a backup plan if an attack occurs.

Our backup plan should be self-defense. These skills are necessary to increase awareness of potential threats, decrease vulnerability to an attack, and protect ourselves.

This realization and Kelly’s story led me to sign up for free self-defense training hosted by FitMax Krav Maga on DCCC’s Marple campus in November.

The training sessions were part of the “It’s On Us” campaign, a 2014 initiative from the White House intended to increase public awareness and education surrounding sexual assault, particularly on college campuses.

Jack Szychtel, founder of FitMax Krav Maga in Media since 2015, led the training sessions at DCCC with the help of fellow instructors and long-time students.

Krav Maga is an Israeli form of self-defense designed to protect against real-life threats.

(Left to right) FitMax Krav Maga student Bill O’Rourke and instructors Jack Szychtel and Christopher Young complete four weeks of self-defense training Nov. 5 on Marple campus. Photo by Mary Kadlec

“The self-defense technique was founded by Imi Lichtenfeld in 1930 out of necessity to defend his Jewish ghetto,” Szychtel said. “It is a Hebrew phrase translated as ‘contact combat.’”

Students were advised to bring water and wear athletic clothing and footwear suitable for movement.

On a crisp fall evening, I dressed in comfortable activewear and laced up my trusty sneakers to join approximately 20 other participants, including men and women, young and old, in the Aerobics Room of the STEM building.

It was already dark outside, but the room was well lit and we had plenty of space to move around.

Before I had a chance to think about what I had gotten myself into, I was jogging around the room with my peers to increase our heart rates. Simultaneously, we were asked to circle both of our arms at the same time. Then, separately.

“Same direction!” Syzchtel called out. “Now, opposite directions!”

Syzchtel told us it’s important to have good coordination because if we’re attacked, we need to strike as early as we can while also defending ourselves.

The wild gesticulation provided humor and helped break the ice. The pace slowed until we finally stopped to form a circle around the room to stretch.

Once we were sufficiently warmed up and limber, Syzchtel jumped right into demonstrating a basic combination of a kick and two jabs to the face.

We were split into partners and one of us was assigned as the attacker while the other was the defender with large pads.

“Keep your toes flexed down, snap your knee and strike with your insteps,” Szychtel instructed. “Immediately follow with two palm strikes or fist punches.”

I partnered with Michelle, a fellow student with a similar build and stature. She decided to defend first and strapped two large, blue pads over her arms.

The room filled with nervous chatter as we began, punctuated by the sound of contact being made against the pads.

“I punch like a grandmother,” one student said, laughing at her technique.

Next, Syzchtel instructed participants without pads to close their eyes. The defenders with the pads were told to move somewhere else in the room. Michelle was the defender, so I closed my eyes and tried to find her at Syzchtel’s signal.

“Attack!” Syzchtel yelled.

Michelle was difficult to find, which was surprising because she’s very tall. We laughed when our eyes finally met, and I rushed over to deliver a swift kick and two jabs to her pads. We reset and did the drill several more times.

“This drill is about situational awareness,” Syzchtel said. “That’s your first line of defense. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings and know where to find the nearest exit.”

The second line of defense tested how well we were able to protect ourselves.

Syzchtel distributed fabric “tails” and directed us to tuck one end inside our shirt collars and allow the rest to hang down the front of our bodies.

“You’re trying to get someone’s tail and they’re trying to get yours,” Syzchtel said. “Keep your fingers tight until it’s time to grab and be careful of the eyes.”

Laughter erupted throughout the room as we ran around narrowly avoiding one another. We weren’t allowed to cover the tail with our hands, but we could raise our hands to protect our bodies when someone tried to grab our tails.

It was reassuring to know your instinctive reaction is to protect your body when someone invades your personal space.

In the next drill, we acted as if our first two lines of defense have failed, and our partners were able to get their hands around our neck.

With his partner’s hands around his neck in attack mode, Szychtel demonstrated how to target the outside of his partner’s thumbs by engaging his back muscles and swiftly hitting his partner’s hands off while simultaneously delivering the kick and punch combination.

“If you’re not more aggressive than your attacker, you don’t stand a chance,” Szychtel said. “For every strike you receive from a guy, women need five strikes to counter-attack.”

To put all the drills together, we performed a timed exercise of the kick and punch combination interspersed with squats to keep our heart rates up. When Szychtel called “time,” we had to disperse around the room with our eyes closed while our partners became the attackers and we had to defend ourselves.

It was a high-speed drill and we were quickly out of breath. Applause erupted as the timer went off.

We gathered as a group at the end as Szychtel thanked everyone for coming and taking safety seriously.

People might say taking self-defense lessons seems overly cautious, but self-defense is not a fear tactic. It’s a logical way to help you feel more confident about your personal safety. Prevention can only take you so far.

According to Szychtel, the goal of Krav Maga is to help people feel safe so they can walk in peace. I feel safer knowing there’s something I can do, other than relying on adrenaline, if I ever find myself in a dangerous situation, but I know there is a lot more to learn.

Krav Maga isn’t the only self-defense technique. There are a variety of other martial arts, kickboxing, boxing and specialized self-defense programs available.

FitMax Krav Maga offers classes for kids, teens, women, and adults. Free introductory classes are available every Monday in Media and Newtown Square.

Contact Mary Kadlec at

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