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Olivia Parker was 32 and 325 pounds when she somewhat accidentally ended up at Knoxville Martial Arts Academy.
Parker had enrolled in a local weight loss program called “Get Fit Seymour,” which required its participants to work out at least once a week. When she got to the class she was supposed to attend that Thursday, however, she realized it was full. She had to find something else to do that very night, or she would be kicked off the program.
Then she saw a kickboxing class on the schedule.
“I was thinking like Tae Bo – as in I was going to punch and kick the air in this room set up for just ‘Get Fit Seymour’ people,” Parker told MMAjunkie. “It was in the basement of this old church – I guess the church was being used, but the basement under it was not.”
Parker and two other women from the same program, whom she didn’t know, walked in with her.
“We get halfway down the stairs and we start smelling that bleached mat smell, that kind of sweaty guy smell,” Parker recalled.
One of the women turned back right then and there. Parker and the other one locked eyes and gulped, but pressed forward nonetheless.
“I get down there and there’s a gigantic cage right in front of the doorway,” Parker said. “And in that cage is (UFC light heavyweight) Ovince Saint Preux and another guy. And as I walk in, ‘Vince kind of slams the guy and the whole room just shakes.”
That was enough to scare off the second woman that had gone with her. And it would have been enough to scare off Parker, too, if it hadn’t been for Taylor, the wife of gym owner Eric Turner, who basically grabbed Parker and dragged her to the mat for kickboxing class.
“I wanted no part of that,” Parker said. ” I was like, ‘No way am I doing this.’”
Still, she took the class. And then, happy with the gym and its welcoming, encouraging environment, she took another one. And another one. Six months and 60 shed pounds later, she was suggested a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class. Again, she was reluctant. But again, she did it. Sure enough, she loved it.
So they suggested she try MMA practice.
“I was like, ‘I am not fighting anybody in the cage,’” Parker said. “I’m a 32-year-old mother of two. I am a teacher. I have my career. This is crazy. I go home and tell my husband, ‘I think I’m going to try this MMA class out.’ And my husband, who knows me very well, says, ‘Olivia, you’re so competitive you’re going to end up in a cage.’”
Parker denied it at the time. She was just taking classes, she insisted. Yet, a few months later, there she was, knocking out her opponent in the first round of her amateur debut.
“It was terrifying, but I also loved it,” Parker said. “Once I felt that adrenalin and I got in there and did it and I realized, ‘I could do this,’ I kind of fell in love with it. And I’ve been fighting ever since.”
Earlier this month, Parker knocked out Erica Camp at Valor Fights 47 to add a fifth win to her unbeaten amateur career. They were all finishes. From the time she took her first kickboxing class to now, she’s dropped about 150 pounds.
As far as weight loss stories go, this is certainly a successful one. But, looking at her journey, it seems a lot less about what she lost than it is about what she found.
‘I am finally, fully me’
While Parker’s introduction to MMA was an accident – “a blunder, if you will” – it wasn’t the start of her athletic life. In fact, for a lot of it, training was all she knew. She’d competed in track and basketball, which she played all through college. But then she graduated.
“I thought that the part of me, that the competitive drive in me, that I had to give that part of myself up,” Parker said.
Her parents, Parker says, were always supportive of her athletic endeavors. But, at the same time, there were some expectations as to how her life was supposed to look like.
“You get done with college, you’re going to get married, fall in love or meet your career,” Parker said. “You’re going to fall in line and do the things you’re supposed to. You’re going to be a wife. You’re going to be a mother. You’re going to do these things. You’re going to follow this set of principles.”
Parker ticked all the correct boxes. She started a career as a teacher. She got married. She had two sons. And she loved all those things, too. But, somehow, she felt like something was missing.
“I didn’t know how to deal with stress, because my body had always fueled that into athletics,” Parker said. “So I just started eating my feelings. I started trying to figure out – I didn’t know how to be that thing that I was told that I had to be.”
But then she inadvertently stumbled onto Knoxville Martial Arts Academy and found in Erick, Taylor and in other women like her the encouragement to step out of that box.
“They’re looking at you and they’re saying, ‘You be you. You can’t be anything else besides yourself,’” Parker said. “I think they recognized that hunger in me, that edge that I had tried so hard to repress.”
Parker still – happily – teaches American Literature to 11th graders and rather than pushback has received encouragement from her people at school. Her two sons, who are 6 and 8, often go to the gym with her. And while she doesn’t want to bring them at her fights just yet, they have seen quite a few sparring sessions.
Parker’s husband is entirely on board with her career, and not only goes to all her fights but helps manage her media and find sponsors. And even the family members who aren’t that enthused about the idea of MMA, like her mom or her in-laws, do their best to help out so her training schedule works.
Parker’s day-to-day now involves waking up at 5 a.m. for some type of cardio, teaching classes during the day and then, at least three times a week, spending more than three hours a night at the gym. And she’s not complaining about any of it.
“Once I kind of embraced that part of me and I took that part of myself back, I am way happier,” Parker said. “I’m a better mother. I’m a better teacher. I’m a better wife. Because I am finally, fully me.’”
‘That’s just kind of how I roll’
Parker’s story has gained some local notoriety. She’s had TV crews in her classroom and has even done meet-and-greet sessions in which she got a chance to talk to people looking for some guidance when it comes to changing their own lives.
But Parker won’t settle for being an inspirational story. She’s now focused on getting her weight down to 145 or 155 pounds, safely and slowly, in order to expand her pool of opponents. Her coach is the one who ultimately makes those calls, but Parker feels ready and would like to make the move to professional MMA “in the near future.”
Sure, 35 is not exactly the average age for a pro debut. But, then again, average doesn’t seem to be a word that Parker operates under.
“I’m just a very competitive person, so if I’m doing something, I’m going to do it and be as good as I can,” Parker said. “I’m going as far as I can go. That’s just kind of how I roll.”
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