Facing Doubt in Athletics as an Amputee

About the Author: Sam Tokita is a below knee amputee and a muaythai practitioner. She also occasionally shares her incredible portrait photography! She is very open and honest about being an athlete who is also an amputee, so to hear more about her and see some more amazing photos of her in action make sure to check out her instagram here!

On a sunny evening last May, after months navigating a rollercoaster of life events, I stepped into a mixed martial arts facility for the first time. I sought endorphins, a distraction from my thoughts, and a physical challenge. Muaythai intrigued me because it utilized knees and elbows as weapons. As a below-knee amputee, I knew these specific elements would test my mental and physical fortitude.

The gym entrance was located in an alleyway tucked behind a residential street near the University. Upon entering, cobalt flooded my field of view. A thick, blue mat blanketed the concrete and padded the walls.The humid air burned my nose with the scent of a high school passing period and rubbing alcohol. Nine students shadowboxed in arbitrary formations, unphased - or maybe just unaware - of my arrival. The tile ceiling hovered lower than I initially pictured, but the space was filled with enough passion to double the size of the room. 

My introductory muaythai class experience seemed standard. I learned basic footwork and the name of six strikes. I am left-handed, so I train southpaw. I wear my prosthesis on my right leg, which is my forward-facing side, and my real leg is conveniently the source of my power kick. It was as if my anomalies aligned - this path was kismet.

Almost immediately, muaythai awakened something in me. After my first class, I vowed to step into the ring someday. I signed up for six months of training and never missed a class.

As I progressed into an intermediate level, I was introduced to blocking, switch-kicks and knees. It was here that I began receiving the following unprovoked questions, not only from my coach, but from my peers:

“Should we try an alternative combo?”

“Do you want to stick with your real leg for this drill?”

“Are you sure you can kick with that?”

Here’s the thing: when I set out to do something, I don’t question myself.

Every unnecessary attempt at accommodation from a stranger whittled away at the confidence I walked in with. These questions are written with care, but they read like doubt. Where I originally sought to prove something solely to myself, I found a new obligation to prove even more to others.

I thought, “I must surpass them in speed, skill, and timing, in order to be viewed as their equal.”

I worried that even if I was good, I’d just be good for a woman with one leg

My expectations of myself skyrocketed. The opinions of others infiltrated what once was unbreakable self-assurance. I kept my desire to fight a secret, in fear it wouldn’t be taken seriously. I compared myself to an imaginary standard and a body that wasn’t mine.

It wrecked me. I envisioned and demanded perfection a mere few months into my training. When I couldn’t meet my ever changing expectations, I broke down after class in my car.

My biggest fear was mediocrity until I realized that my position as an amputee in this space defined me as anything but.

I got the hell out of there; I’m at a new gym now. From my first day, I felt like part of the team. I did the same drills. I received the same level of critique. My teammates didn’t hesitate to hit me hard, and I enjoyed it. If my form was off, it was corrected - there was no assumption that this was the best I could do. I always push myself, but this time, my peers were pushing me too.

I went out to lunch with my new coach a few weeks later.

“Do you want to fight?” He asked.

“Do you think I can, with my leg?” His question caught me by surprise, and the doubt I inherited from my previous gym spilled out of me.

He laughed. It was so cheerful. I’ll never forget it.

“Yes, of course. We will just put a pad over your leg to protect your opponent.”

It took everything in me to hold back my tears. He expressed concern for my future opponents, yet showed no worry about me. It was the first time someone with experience in this sport believed in me at the same level I originally believed in myself.

In that moment, I felt the parts that were whittled away, return back to me.

I still hear that doubt sometimes, but it’s quieter now. Everyone has their own limitations, able-bodied or otherwise. Those limitations can change too, based on a myriad of factors from sleep quality and nutrition to soreness and mood. We don’t assume the average person’s limits. Why should it be different for me?

All I want is the space to draw that line for myself. Let me decide, just like everyone else, how high I will climb today. Let me decide the same tomorrow, next week and next year. Don’t ask me if I can do something - assume that I can. I promise that even if I’m struggling, I will find a way.

I no longer fear being, “good...for a woman with one leg.”

After fighting so hard to prove myself, I know I am valiant, adaptive, vigorous, and resilient because I’m a woman with one leg.

Nowadays, when new students venture into my gym, I inevitably find their eyes on me. I smile. The first day is always intimidating. I know they’re wondering the same questions I’ve received over and over again, but they don’t voice them, and I am thankful I don’t have to voice my answer. Instead, I demonstrate. When my shins meet the pads with a loud thwack, I know they understand. I hope it empowers them to abandon their own insecurities.

For those that question me, please know this - your doubt is my ammunition. It frustrates me, it hurts me, it knocks me down, and when I work my way through it like I always do, it strengthens me. Keep it coming. There is no greater joy than proving you wrong.