Vancouver’s Trisha Sampson is making waves in Berlin’s fight community. But her toughest opponents are outside the ring.
By PETER CARVILL
I wrote this piece in 2012.
Back then, Trisha and I were both training at Berlin’s Boxtempel Gym. She trained in Muay Thai. I trained — and was training people — in the art of boxing. We often sparred together and became friends outside of the gym. Later that year, she moved back home to Vancouver, where she has lived ever since. She has married, had a baby, and temporarily given up Muay Thai. She’s training again, but adamant that she will not be sparring.
When I wrote this, Trisha was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most warm-hearted people that you could ever hope to meet. She still is.
“Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.” — Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing (1987)
“I’ve never knocked someone out in the ring. The last girl was really close — most referees would have called it. A few who saw it said it should have been called. [shrugs] You know what? It really motivates me because every time I see a fight I’ve done, I want to go back and give it more next time because I think there’s more I could have given.” — Trisha Sampson, Berlin (2012)
She hits because she loves.
That’s why Trisha Sampson does it: the dieting, the training, the sacrificing, the hurting, the being hurt, the suffering when she cannot get a fight. It’s for love. “I am,” she says, “a very loving person.”
That’s the thing about fighting for little reward. It’s not about blood, or B.S., or bragging rights, but about keeping alive that part that nothing else in life can make glow the same way. That’s what doing it for love is about. It’s not dignified, or brings a profit that can be counted with numbers, or even tender. But it’s love.
It began when she was studying in Australia. She had been kickboxing back home in Vancouver for a few months before she left. “I was looking for a gym at the university,” she says, nine years on, “and someone said there was this thing called Muay Thai that was the same. I called up the coach, who I’d never met before and I said I’d done a few months of kickboxing, had really liked it, and wanted to know about Muay Thai. Immediately, he had a thirty minute conversation with me about it, saying it wasn’t kickboxing. He was so passionate that I got excited listening to him so I went to the gym and tried it out.”
She teaches primary school in Germany. But she’s still fighting and training, and that’s where the other, competitive part of her exists — in the gym with its blood-spattered ring canvas and the steamed sweat impregnated in the walls, on an industrial estate in a far-flung corner of the city that you wouldn’t like to be alone in at night.
Sure, you can ask her on some days and she’ll tell you that she’d like to quit, go away, and find some other sport. But she knows that she would come back because that’s how it is when you have something that you love hard — no matter even if it’s bad for you, or unrewarding, or returns to you nothing close to what you give to it, you still find yourself coming back. Because that is just how it is.
“Sometimes, I wish it were another sport,” she says. “My family are pretty supportive but they didn’t like it when I got into it and they don’t like it when I compete. They encourage me to quit. They don’t want to see me hurt or injured.”
She feels that way herself sometimes. “There’s a little bit of dread,” she says. “I wish I loved another sport as much — I’ve tried with competitive swimming and competitive horseback riding. I did triathlons as well. But it’s not the same thing.”
She’s the only female in the gym serious about Muay Thai, which originates from Thailand and is broadly similar to Western boxing except that its practitioners, in addition to their fists, use elbows, knees, and feet. It was originally known as nawa arwut, ‘nine weapons’, to describe the strike points of the human body, including — in those days — the head. Competitions have been held since the thirteenth century, with more formal rules being implemented from the 1920s onward.
There is a great deal of tradition and ceremony in Muay Thai, such as the wearing of the mongkon.
But it’s the love that carries her out of bed each morning so that she can train before work. It’s two sessions a day, six days a week: an hour of cardio in the morning that’s doubled when there is a fight approaching, with bagwork, padwork, and sparring in the evening. Wednesday is supposed to be the day off but she’s usually in the gym to hit and be hit.
Dieting is equally disciplined. There is no solace in food, and she cannot remember eating for pleasure as there is no margin for error, or fun, or just to kick back and relax after a hard week. Everything is weighed and calculated, engineered to fit together like building blocks for the day when there may be a fight. “It’s not pleasant at all,” she says, “but it’s fuel to keep the body going. I stick with leafy greens and broccoli. I think like I don’t eat for taste any more, you know? I eat for performance. It’s a job, not a pleasure.”
The weight-making starts when she knows she has a fight. Done properly, it’s a science of balance where the body is starved and dried out to reduce it to its lowest functioning mass. In professional boxing, fighters often put on fifteen to twenty pounds of weight between the weigh-in and entering the ring the next day. The cutting of calories and reduction of water is an easily-tipped see-saw — get it right and your fighter is advantaged but get it wrong and they’ve lost before they enter the ring.
There is another woman in the gym who once fought in Muay Thai. She remembers the struggle. “I would lose 17.5lbs in eight weeks, mainly through starvation and dehydration. When you’re weighing in at eleven o’clock and fighting two hours later, I would be in sauna the day before and wouldn’t eat for maybe two days just to get down an extra 4.5lbs. It’s insane. It’s really, really dangerous. But because people set a standard that you boil down to the low weight, if you don’t do it, you’ll find yourself fighting someone six inches taller and you’re going to lose. So everyone goes as far as they possibly can to be the lightest they can be.”
Trisha walks around at 172lbs, a much heavier weight than any of her competitors. This is one of the biggest challenges for her in that there’s such a paucity of women on the German Muay Thai scene that it’s near-impossible to find a similar-sized opponent. Despite how hard you love, it’s hard to make fights when your genetics have conspired against you.
“I’ve told my coach that I could get down to 165lbs,” she says, “but the other thing with fights in Germany is that they don’t even weigh in on the night before. When I did 144lbs, I weighed in the night before and came into the ring at 158.5lbs.”
She has tried because you don’t give up on the first hurdle when it comes to love. You keep coming back and back until it acquiesces. You don’t quit because who does that in love? It conquers all, right? Not always. Not even sometimes.
“It’s really frustrating because I can’t get my weight down lower,” she says, “I’ve done a lot of things: had a nutritionist look at my diet and tweak it, added weights, taken out weights, increased my cardio. I have a bodyweight that’s a heavier bodyweight and I’m fitter than half the people that I train with. So I know I’m ready and I’m fit, and I feel like there was something else I could do to make it happen. I’m doing everything I can but there isn’t.”
Her coach tries to get her fights because everyone wants to see love succeed. He knows how hard it is.
“Girls rarely compete in the sport of kickboxing in Germany,” he says. “Her weight’s also a reason because when they do have females, they’re around 132lbs and very young. Trisha weighs around 175lbs and is thirty years old.”
How far can you love? How much further can you go?
“I’ve had four fights in my career,” Trisha says. “And I’ve been open to fighting and ready for six or seven of the years of I’ve been training. I’m always ready because I’m always training and I want it. And it’s hard to see guys that train in the gym having fights because they’re your teammates, you train together, and you want them to succeed but it’s hard to see them getting ready and have no problem in finding opponents. I train up, get ready, and it’s disappointing. It’s heartbreaking.”
See Sampson in action, Part 1:
..and Part 2….
So when it happens, it’s special. “I always smile at opponents,” she says. “First of all, it’s because I’m excited as it’s hard to find girls in the sport and at my size. I can’t help it; it’s an exciting and happy moment.”
That is what fighting is about: it’s not about violence, or aggression, or dominance — it’s about love. It’s about finding not only those who share the same passion but in finding out your limits. The joy is not in victory over the opponent but in victory over the body’s limitations. It is a cry against death, a shout against nature of I’m still alive.
It’s dangerous but the risk is the flame. The joy is not in flirting with danger or avoiding it, but in celebrating the thin sliver of time when you reach your best. Fighters assess the danger against that reward. “The risk we take,” said one long-retired and still-intact boxer, “is the price we have to pay for success, and we budget for it.”
“I worry about the long-term effects of repeated head injury,” Trisha says, “but somehow I feel there’s a point that you can be smart and quit. I originally said that I’d give it up when I was thirty. I’m that age now and I’ve extended it, for the time being, to, ‘I’ve got until I’m thirty-one.’ But I’m aware that I’ll give it up in the next few years. The peak time for women, athletically, is twenty-nine or thirty. There’s bone deterioration after that and you can’t recover in the same way. After your twenties, there’s a downward hill.”
She carries injuries and jokes that marriage is out of the question now that she has a lump on the joint of her ring finger. That was the result of an errant kick, when moving around in the ring sans gloves, that dislocated the digit. There have been a couple of concussions, one serious enough to put her in hospital, and she has shin-splints. Most of what she carries, she says, comes from the rigours of training rather than the violence of the ring.
She makes allowances for it, justifying it by saying that it’s all part-and-parcel of what she chooses to do. It’s the same with the people she faces in the gym and at competition — it is the price you pay in pursuing the thing you love. She worries about hurting others and doesn’t know how she would be able to deal with it. “I pray it never happens but I feel strongly that if you’re competing in the sport, you’re going to possibly get hurt. You’re making that choice. If somebody hurt me and damaged my sight, I’d probably be bitter at myself. But it’s me that puts me in the ring.”
Very soon, she will be going back to live in Vancouver. Home calls her. She says, “I miss the mountains, the trees, and the oceans, not to mention the culture, food, and language. I’m sad to leave behind the friends and life I’ve made here but I feel only excitement and anticipation at moving back.”
The Germans call it heimat, or ‘homeland’. It’s the other place she belongs outside of fighting. She hopes there will be more competition there. It’ll still be hard to find fights as although there are more women competitors, she’ll probably outweigh them by 20lbs or more.
She’s going back a different person to the one that left. She’s older, is qualified, and has a profession. There have been four fights and thousands of hours sparring, exercising, and training. Good, healthy friendships have been gained and kept.
Many will hurt and miss her when she goes. That’s how it is with those who fight — they draw themselves upon each other and form bonds that those outside could never understand. That is the intimacy among fighters that they themselves can barely comprehend, is formed in the violence that is written against each other’s bodies, and gone in the next instant.
Here’s that word again because that’s how it goes. It’s not always tender, or given wisely, or understood, and only sometimes returned. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the love.