Becoming World Champion: The fights before the fight

Images Courtesy of DEphoto and Anna Miah

With no shame whatsoever Danielle laughed, “I cried. Like, I cried A LOT.”

Teardrops glistening gold against the face of a medal. A gold medal. Gold after five years of silvers. Engraved not only in metal, but into the memories of the 21-year-old University of Kent student, Danielle Kirby, is the day when she claimed the title of World Champion. 21 September 2019.

Competing in the Karate Kumite u68kg, as well as the Open Weight, Senior Female categories at the WIKF World Championships in Crawley’s K2 Arena, the reigning BUCS (British Universities and Colleges Sport) champion took home two victories. Both of which were “a long time coming”.

“OMG. You’re a world champion!” is how Danielle is frequently greeted these days. Although evoking emotions of joy, the words—World Champion—don’t truly capture the battles Danielle has fought to get to the fight. Navigating through sport and avoiding troubles with mental health is like crossing a minefield, knowing exactly where they are but being blown onto them anyway. Opening up about her relationship with her mental health, Danielle goes back to the beginning. Starting young, Danielle exhibited a wealth of potential. Aged 15, she first competed for England and found herself on a promising platform for progression; but selection was mired by pressure. This burden manifested in Danielle’s first encounter with anxiety. At 18, Danielle impressed the national team selectors again and represented England. Although this time she would have to cut down—from an u68kg fighter to a 61. No mean feat and made even trickier by a lack of guidance. “The coaches offered no assistance in how to lose the weight. I had to do it myself”, Danielle shares. Somewhat inevitably, the Kent student describes her drift into an “obsession with the scales”.

This backdrop eventually led to the worst of Danielle’s confrontations with mental health, trampling on her healthy mindset in the year of 2018. BUCS was the trigger. Leading up to the competition, pressure was mounting heavier than usual because, as President of the University Karate Club (UKC), Danielle oversaw not only her own preparation but everyone else’s as well. To make the weight, she inflicted her body with overtraining, serious dehydration and showed signs of an eating disorder. The result—a win at BUCS—disguised the reality of panic attacks off the mats. Anxiety returned “sometimes just at the thought of training” and, verging on having an eating disorder, Danielle adds, “I couldn’t bring myself to have more than 1000 calories.” Recalling her lowest points, she shares: “I would be in the gym maybe 4 hours a day and only eating around 600 calories.” This state is one she has now managed to escape—with “bad days” intermittently. Owing her thanks to the gym staff at Kent Sport and teammates in the UKC Karate Club (namely Rebecca Barton-Hagger, last year’s BUCS captain and close friend). “Having lots of people I feel able to talk to has been so helpful,” Danielle admits, “the support here is unreal.”

Grateful for the ongoing support the university’s Sports Scholar Programme has given her, Danielle enthusiastically reels off each brick of the foundations upon which she has built her sporting success. “I have developed in so many more ways than I would have at home because of the scheme,” she ardently concludes. Tailoring her weekly Strength and Conditioning sessions at the Sports Centre have been Kent Sport coaches, Ben and Chris. She found this training, “helped, so, so much” with her base strength and speed. Heading the University of Kent’s Scholar Scheme is Oli Prior, who had nothing but praise to say about Danielle, he said: “She is an amazing athlete and a perfect representative of the scholarship scheme. It’s great to have such an athlete as an example to all the others, but also it’s incredible to see her achieving in her unique sport at a world scale level.” To bolster the scholar support further, psychology and nutrition workshops will be on offer for the first time this year; “it was the only component that was missing” admits Danielle. “So many athletes from different sports have problems in these areas. The level they are at, there is a huge amount of pressure that you can’t deal with by yourself. While nutrition can benefit your performance immensely”. They hold a significant importance to Danielle as she explains they were “the areas I struggled with the most”. Combatting this, as a Sports and Exercise Science student at the university, the karate champion is targeting this weakness straight on, she said: “I thought if I learn about it and have a job in that area, it will really help me with my own performances.” Karate, like most sports, is one where there is limited funding for women, so they cannot, realistically, be professionals. Danielle was left with the academic route to carry her sport.

Prevalent amongst university culture is a pressure to go out drinking and waste the night away—often singing out of tune at the top of your lungs in a stagnant cellar—whilst giving your calves their, not-so-usual, workout in a pair of heels. An environment not so ideally suited for aspiring sportsmen and women. Surrounding yourself with accepting friends is vital, which Danielle fortunately found. “They understand there are things that I have to miss out on because of my sport, [particularly] in the run-up to competitions” and on top of this, “if there are certain things I can’t do, they will make sure we also do something that I can.” Propping up this empathetic base for Danielle are her close friends of the UKC Karate Club. A group that “definitely made my university experience much better”, Danielle cheerily points out. Outside of competitions Danielle had another drive; despite the tremendous amount she gained from the club, she also felt a divide between “those who competed and those who didn’t.” Now Club President, this wasn’t the culture she would let remain. “I tried to make it as accessible as I could to everyone” and that, Danielle achieved. The club prides itself on its inclusivity.

Reinforcing the successful UKC women’s karate squad this year is the 18-year-old black belt, Gemma Shanahan, whose first contact with Danielle gives an insight into the Karate champions’ instinctive humbleness. “You’d never know from Danielle that she is a World Champion. It’s always something everyone else will tell you and she’ll get embarrassed by.” Training alongside Danielle, the first-year student said: “It great to learn from her. I’ve been training for 10 years and there’s always more to learn. Learning from someone that has achieved so much is great.” She has found being part of the club beneficial in multifarious ways, “you have people from all different styles and backgrounds of karate. It’s really good being able to learn from each other and learn aspects of a style you’ve never done before”, Gemma beams. Excited ahead of fights scheduled this year, Gemma adds: “I can’t wait to go to competitions with her as part of the UKC team.” Never without targets in sight, Danielle also looks ahead to BUCS, she said: “I want to retain my title there.” On from there, the Kent students’ gaze is higher but well within sight. “I have fought for the Under 21 National Team, but I haven’t yet fought for the Senior squad. That is my next goal.”

Interest in women’s karate is beginning to spark and catch alight. Introduced last year was a women’s version of the legendary 10K Karate Clash, where 32 elite men compete in a winner takes all contest. The ladies Super 8 Cup, does not yet draw the same publicity but its arrival shows acceptance of women in karate, is on the rise. “I think the women are a lot more aggressive than the men”, Danielle auspiciously concludes. Backing this up she highlights, “in karate females bring a whole different set of skills and qualities. For example, we may not be as good at the throws, but we make up for it with our kicks and fast punches.”

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