Bullying nearly drove a 12-year-old to suicide.
One of the toughest 12-year-olds you are likely to know is sitting on a couch in the place that saved her life. Her name is Claire Tietgen. She lives in Prairie Village, Kansas, the United States, with her father, mother, older brother and younger sister.
Claire is quick to smile, at least here, surrounded by love. She likes fast cars and jumping on the trampoline in her backyard. She wants to be a lawyer someday, and heaven help you if you ever go against her in a courtroom.
She has come so far already.
Almost exactly a year ago, her parents were changing her mattress when they saw scribbled words carved in the wood of the bed: I want to die.
They were putting clothes away in her closet, turned on the light, and there it was all over the walls: I want to die.
Then, even more.
The stuff in her diary was crushing. She wrote about hoping her family would miss her if she was gone. She wanted it to be done.
Claire never had many friends. She hasn’t been invited to a birthday party in years.
At a neighbourhood festival, her father, Charlie Tietgen, remembers seeing other kids leave when Claire came near.
She was picked on, a lot. One boy punched her in the eye, knocking Claire’s head into a wall, for no apparent reason.
She switched schools after that.
When she was three years old, Claire was such an outgoing little girl. She used to walk around restaurants, introducing herself to strangers and giving the family home’s phone number to the ones she liked.
The bullying started in first grade. Everything changed after that. When she came home, and her parents asked how was school, the tears came hard.
Others called her a loser. Told her she sucked. They said and did things much worse than that, things that changed the way Claire saw the world. Changed the way Claire saw herself.
Being picked on, insulted and pushed became part of Claire’s identity. She wrote that she didn’t want this to be her anymore, that she’d be sad if someone else had to take it on, but at least she’d get a break.
After a few years, that outgoing girl who used to make strangers smile was never happy.
She shut off, staying in her room all night sometimes, not even coming out for dinner.
In her room, bullies couldn’t get her.
In her room, nobody judged her.
In her room, she could write out cries for help on her bed, on the walls of her closet, in her diary.
“I needed something to change,” Claire says now.
“If I kept acting like that, I would, seriously, kill myself.”
She found that something.
Sports can be that something for a lot of kids, in so many ways. Especially for kids being bullied.
This is how Claire came to this gym, the place that saved her life.
The magic moment came early.
Charlie and his wife, Denise, are so thankful for that.
Unless you’ve been in their situation, there is no way to know the anguish and helplessness of knowing your child is broken and being unable to fix them.
“I knew what she needed,” Charlie says. “But I don’t know how to give it to her.”
That’s where Austen Ford comes in.
He is tall and strong with a kind heart and a left arm tattooed with skulls and roses.
He is a former football player who now owns a gym called Brass Boxing.
Charlie heard that Ford runs a youth mixed martial arts class, and is especially good with kids looking for someone to believe in them.
That’s all Charlie needed.
He was at Ford’s door first chance he got, and had Claire at the next class.
She didn’t know what to think. Neither did dad.
Then the class started, and it’s a bit of a blur, but at one point, Claire took down the other kid with a move she hadn’t been taught and Ford’s voice filled the room: Whoooaaaa!
That’s the moment that changed Claire’s life.
That’s the moment Charlie knew his daughter’s life had been saved.
“It was the first time she ever heard praise from someone she admired,” Charlie says.
Claire was hooked, immediately.
And it turns out she’s really good. Like, really good. Strong and agile, but what really impressed Ford was her drive. She’s fierce on the mat. Down to scrap, in the parlance of the gym. They don’t let Claire go against girls any more because too many of them end up crying. That happens with some of the boys, too.
“There was a part of me missing in my life,” Claire says.
“But here, I can control what I do, and control what he could do to me. It brought me up from somewhere. I was being attacked, attacked, attacked. I didn’t know what I could do. Now, I know what I can do.”
This is the best part of Claire’s story, better than the nine gold medals she has won at competitions or even the amazing video her family put together.
The best part of Claire’s story, is what this newfound talent has done for her self-esteem. For the way she sees herself.
“It’s like seeing her breaking out of her shell and then dancing on the broken shells,” Ford says.
Claire sees those bullies so differently now, for one. She sees them as weak, instead of strong, which makes all the difference in the world.
She reacts to their taunts in a way she was incapable of before, and it doesn’t really matter whether that’s self-confidence or knowing she could physically pummel most of the kids insulting her. The point is, she’s a new person. And it feels amazing.
Her grades are up. She has a few friends now. She sees some of the kids she used to want to be friends with – the ones being mean to her – as unworthy of her friendship. Self-esteem is an incredible thing.
Charlie pulls up a picture of Claire from before she found MMA. Eyes droopy. Face deflated.
Claire happened to be sick when the picture was taken, but Charlie says she always looked like that.
Now? She won’t stop smiling when you talk to her, unless you ask to see her mean face, the one she uses in fights and newspaper photo shoots.
Claire even had the guts to stand with Ford in front of her whole school – including some students who’d picked on her – for an anti-bullying presentation.
Many people were moved by Claire’s story. The Ultimate Fighting Championship heard it and flew her and Charlie out to Las Vegas to see a fight recently. Claire met all the fighters and got to speak with her hero, Ronda Rousey.
The best part of Claire’s story is not any of that new attention or how far she’s come along with her takedowns or her jiu-jitsu. It’s how far she’s come as a young woman, now able not only to face down that awful meanness that drove her to the edge, but to talk openly about it in a way she and her family hope can help others.
“It’s hard to talk about,” Claire says. “But, it’s like, the past is the past. And the future is coming.”
That future includes a lot of sports.
Claire thinks once she gets to high school, she wants to try lacrosse, or even football.
“I am proud,” she says. “I have family, and wrestling, and a couple friends at school. I still get picked on, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.”
Claire has done this for herself, and she deserves the credit. But sports deserves some, too, as her path, and it’s in stories like this that you can see sports as something so much more than an escape or conversation starter.
According to StopBullying.gov, more than one in four American students grades six through 12 experience bullying, more than 70% have seen bullying, and when bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds more than half the time.
That’s what Kevin Ellis did. He plays pro soccer for Sporting Kansas City now, but back when he was in high school, he and his friends noticed a student with autism being bullied. They took that student into their group, and nobody ever bothered him again. Ellis is still friends with him.
At the Valentine’s Day party at her school, Claire went right out to the middle of the dance floor and rocked it out.
A year ago, she’d have been like the other girls, or at least tried to be like those girls, standing by the wall and trying not to draw attention.
But this is the new Claire, the girl who knows how strong she is inside and out, so she was singing along with the words and having fun, and then it happened. They started picking on her again. They threw things at her, like a hat or a necklace. A year ago, this would’ve ruined Claire, right on the spot.
But the new Claire grabbed the stuff, looked in the general direction of where it came from, and asked who did it. She says she made it clear she didn’t want to hurt anyone, just wanted to know who did it so she would know.
And then she went back to dancing.
When Claire got home she was still sad about the stuff being thrown at her at the dance. She cried that night in her room. But the next day, she was happy again. She was at the gym, pinning some boy, hearing her coach go: Whoooaaaa! — The Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service
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