Founder Bio: Gemma Sheehan
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
I'm Gemma. I started this company Girls Who Fight after I decided to end my career in MMA. Here's my story.
MMA Career, Concussions, and Life.
When I was a kid I wanted to be really really good at something. I did gymnastics and dance but I was never that good at either. When I was 14 I tried a kickboxing class. I kept attending, and I started to get pretty good at it. So I tried Brazilian jiu jitsu, and then wrestling. Before I knew it, my only goal was to be the best MMA fighter in the UFC. The next Ronda Rousey. For the following 8 years, all I did was train and compete. Criss crossing the city after school to get to the best gyms in Toronto.
Fighting was going amazing. I had a record of 5-1, with 4 wins in the first round. I won gold at the Pan Ams in jiu jitsu, and I was ranked best female fighter in Ontario. I was nominated for the best up and coming fighter internationally too. Everything seemed to be coming together, I saw a clear path to where I knew I was going and everyone around me seemed to see it too.
Then in 2017, I was told by a neurologist that my brain had visible damage, forming white clusters where they shouldn’t be. They said that even if i tried to keep going, the UFC would probably not clear me to fight. I was a liability. It was the same year that I watched my close friend go through the worst post concussion syndrome that I had ever seen. He was the best up and coming MMA fighter in Toronto. After a head kick in training, he lost his ability to to pursue MMA, and to lead a normal life.
In denial, I kept training for an upcoming fight, but luckily, the girl pulled out, and it gave me some time to think about my situation. I hadn’t really thought about the consequences of brain damage before that year. One day my coach made me answer a question, 'why do you want to be an MMA fighter'?
It seems strange but I hadn’t really even considered that until then. When I really thought about my motives all along, it came down to that desire to be really good at something, to feel special and get rich and famous because of it. It had nothing to do with the enjoyment of going in a cage to fight people. I realized that it didn’t seem as fulfilling as it did when I was 15. To me fighting seemed like a big deal, but when I zoomed out, and looked at how it would impact anything beyond me, I saw nothing.
I noticed how many injuries fighters had, how little else they had outside of fighting, and how their spotlight was short lived. I realized that MMA was only about myself. Thinking about it like that helped me decide to step down and dedicate my life to something else.
Switching to Girls Who Fight
There was a short period of ‘who am I without MMA’. But then I thought about all the unique skills fighting had given me. The first was a proficiency in fighting people. But the second part seemed much deeper. Mental toughness and confidence. Fighting gave me something that went beyond athletics, that I bring with me everywhere I go. It showed me how tough I am and how much I can accomplish. I thought that this was precisely what other girls needed.
So I started Girls Who Fight, and offered classes and workshops in MMA and self defense. I had no idea if there was a market for it, no one was doing it, but I thought that if there was a person that could make this happen, if would be me. I felt that feeling again, that there was something I could be uniquely good at. Today I feel that my job is so much more rewarding than fighting was, and I have a lot more fun with a lot less injuries.
When I work with kids, after we're done learning martial arts techniques, we talk about how to be assertive with our voices, and how to be confident in our body language. Many studies have shown how important it is to stand and walk confidently. For self-defense, this plays a huge role in deterring bullies and predators, who look at them and think ‘that girl will put up a fight’.
Being assertive also plays a huge role, not just for self defense, but for navigating a life where you get what you want. That starts with the confidence to ask for what you want. To say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. To negotiate, to tell the truth, and to stand up for yourself. These are the behaviours I strive to encourage in my students. I can tell I’m succeeding when students who didn’t put their hand up start to volunteer. When they rush to get a new partner instead of passively waiting for someone to come to them. When they put themselves first in line instead of at the back. Parents are telling me that these behaviours are permeating into the home and at school, where their daughters are standing taller and speaking up.
So now I teach students how to be assertive, and how to fight really well. Girls Who Fight has grown to include 3 other amazing female instructors who lead programs for girls and women in Markham, Scarborough, and Davisville.
Through pursuing this, so many other opportunities have opened up for me. Speaking and teaching at organizations, being invited onto podcasts and news features, being able to travel to volunteer and teach self defense to other communities. In 2018 I travelled to South Africa to teach the people of Khayelitsha self defense for three weeks and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Theres a video of my time below!
Part of what makes my new job so much more rewarding, is that I don’t get kicked in the head anymore. But mainly that it now involves more people. I get to help and impact others, but I also have so many more people who I feel I could turn to for help if I needed it. I’ve created a little Girls Who Fight community and I plan to keep growing it.
When I was 14, I thought being a famous fighter would equate to my success and fulfillment. When I lost the ability to pursue it, what I had left was the confidence and determination the sport had given me. Those qualities allowed me to adapt my goals and create something new, something that is even better, and so much bigger than just me. My goal is to help other girls build these qualities of resilience, confidence, and assertiveness, so they can better navigate their own journey. And when they face a bump in the road, an injury, a heart break, a bully, they’ll be able to face it with confidence, knowing that nothing will get in their way.
I give talks about my journey through MMA, switching to entrepreneurship, and my work with over 3000 women. To inquire about a speaking engagement or workshop, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading my story!