I was born premature, two months ahead of schedule in February 1975, missing my hair and my nails and weighing a mere 4 pounds, 11 ounces. I was so tiny and fragile that my father could hold me in the palm of his hand.
Right from the start, grit was in my blood. But it took decades of trying life experiences and an introduction to the sport of mixed martial arts for me to realize that.
Today, I'm 41 and a single mom of two amazing kids. By day, I'm an owner and operator of a preschool and daycare center in upstate New York.
By night, I train in a sport that's often wrongly seen as just a bloody, knockout fight. For me, MMA has been the connection to who I truly am: a fighter. At 5'1" and 100 pounds, I'm still very small, but now I know I'm mighty in strength and spirit.
Like most people, I've faced many different struggles and challenges in my life. I grew up as one of eight siblings, and while my family didn't have much monetarily, we had an abundance of love. I was blessed to be raised in a loving home.
But by the time I reached my 30s, I found myself in an abusive relationship. It was the most difficult time of my life. Sadly, it continued and only grew worse.
Several years into this period, I came across an open house at a local gym where they were offering kickboxing and self-defense classes. I stopped in, started class that night and was hooked.
Kickboxing soon became my stress relief, my sanity and my therapy. Those workouts were the two days a week I could fight back. I didn't have to be that fragile, quiet girl; I could be strong, tough and defend myself.
I started seeing and feeling the change in myself, both inside and out. I found the courage to put my foot down and stand up for myself. I was able to put an end to an unhealthy relationship and pursue a happy, healthy life without fear, for myself and my kids. They are my whole world and a huge part of my daily motivation.
That kickboxing class also opened the door to MMA, in which fighters use a mix of different disciplines, from jiu-jitsu and judo to wrestling and boxing. In 2012, I was training in a new gym, and coaches there approached me and told me, "You've got fire in you; you are a fighter. You should be training to be in that cage."
So that's what I did. I started taking boxing lessons and sparring several nights a week, going round for round with the guys. I would spar with anyone, any size.
I was the only female at our gym who was actually training to compete in MMA and fight in the cage—the octagon-shaped ring where MMA matches take place.
I feel the biggest misconception about this sport is that it's all about brutality. I wish people could see what we fighters see: the honor and respect that is a part of what we do. When I train, I'm not training to hurt someone. I'm training to be the strongest I can be. How much can my body take? How much willpower do I have?
It would empower me even more knowing I could take a kick or a punch and then get back up and give it right back! My goal was to never quit, never back down, and to make myself stronger each day. I reached that goal and surpassed it, thanks to my MMA coaches and teammates over the years who made me into the fighter I am today.
In MMA, the people you train with are like family. We have each other's backs and push each other to our greatest potential and possibilities. The bond we make and the honor we have is like no other sport I have been involved with.
Do I want to win when I meet my opponent in the cage? Absolutely! Does that mean my opponent and I will get injured along the way? Yes, most likely. But with most sports there is always a risk of injuries. Win or lose, you should do it humbly, honoring yourself, your opponent, your team and your family.
To be an MMA fighter is something I'm very proud of. As a woman, I've been shunned, criticized and judged by some people. Like it's OK for a man to be a fighter, but not OK for me as a woman. When I continue to fight in spite of that, it's to show other women and young girls, including my 18-year-old daughter, that it's OK to be a woman and be strong. It's OK to stand up for yourself.
To the men and young boys, including my 21-year-old son, I hope seeing women in MMA encourages them to respect all women. To see them as equals in strength and as athletes. Not something you can control, mistreat or abuse, threaten or try to intimidate through bullying or fear.
I know I don't have to tell my son this. He is a respectable young man and treats all women with honor. He thinks of his mom as a badass—and I'm pretty proud of that.