With more women getting involved in combat sports, we visited one of Vienna’s all-women gyms.
The only man in the room has no arms, legs, hands, feet or hair. Going by the name of Bob, every day this pitiful creature gets beaten and punched by women. Bob doesn’t complain, scream out in agony or resist. That’s because Bob is a boxing dummy; but he’s not the only one getting smacked in the face. At the women-only Healthy Pernstich Kick-Box-Gym, hitting each other is at the top of the agenda.
Long popular as a complete workout, boxing and its cousin kickboxing are not only healthy but also improve speed, strength, agility and reaction time. And while the sport is still traditionally dominated by men, the last few years have seen more women joining, drawn by the rigorous physicality and sense of empowerment.
Between 10 and 20 people train together in one group, usually starting by skipping rope, filling the gym with a soft whir; then the trainees play catch, chasing each other from one end of the room to the other; afterward, they strengthen their muscles.
Bettina Pernstich, the gym’s manager, stands to one side of the training area, counting down from ten to one. Her group lies on the ground in front of her, each one supporting themselves with only their forearms and the tips of their toes. Called planking, this exercise is one of the hardest and most effective ways to harden the body. They group puffs and groans, but most of them manage to stay in the exhausting position. Pernstich shouts “zero,” – and the women can finally relax.
Pernstich became a state-certified physical-ed teacher and started instructing when she was only 17 years old. Later, she became the youngest trainer ever to run a fitness center in Austria, specializing in athletics, handball and swimming. “But after participating in many team sports, I wondered what I could accomplish if it were only me,” she remembers. “I live in Leopoldsdorf in the countryside and I have to admit, as a young woman I was afraid of being attacked at night when I walked home from the bus station – even though I was sporty.” Pernstich started practicing taek won do and later on, boxing, entering several regional and national competitions and even winning the state championships a few times. But even so, recognition, particularly from male athletes, proved elusive. Once, she dropped out of an advanced class because she was bullied. Pernstich’s voice turns a shade sadder when she talks about this time. “Back then, when you did martial arts, you didn’t get acknowledgment. Men generally saw me as the weaker sex and themselves as the stronger ones.”
NO MORE BLOODSTAINS
Attitudes, however, are shifting. “How boxing treats women has changed drastically over the last five to ten years,” confirms Norbert Ebetshuber, president of the Viennese Boxing Association. “Especially today, women box in their spare time because it is fun and increases self-confidence. In the official boxing clubs, it is totally recognized when a woman practices this sport. It is a form of empowerment.” There are no official statistics for Vienna on how many women actually box, but according to industry insiders, numbers are on the rise.
Nineteen-year-old Marija Jankovic was an early adopter of this ongoing trend, training with Pernstich for eight years now. “I love boxing and kickboxing because it is not only about aggression. You have to have a lot of patience and discipline,” she tells us. “By now, it is a part of my life. If nothing else goes right, I will still have this sport. Also, Bettina [ Pernstich] is an extraordinary person. She has always been there for me, helped me to become the person I am today and knows how to treat me. Not everyone does.”
Pernstich used to train both sexes, but about a year ago she remodeled her gym: She got new training mattresses, repainted the walls to a clear, perfect white – and got rid of all the men. “They did not train – they fought,” explains Pernstich. “As if it were about life and death. There were bloodstains on my floor. I did not want to have that ruthless violence in my gym anymore. I want people here to work with, and not against, each other. In the meantime, I continued to receive more requests from women and these training units were quite pleasant. I decided to go for it.”
By creating an exclusive space, Pernstich also allows women to simply be themselves. “In mixed gyms, I observed women who put on makeup before training,” laughs Pernstich and brushes a strand of chestnut brown hair out of her face. “Here, they don’t need to wear makeup. They can scream, they can sweat and don’t have to worry about being watched or flirted with. No distractions. I am not anti-male; I just specialized in a different niche.”
Pernstich believes that women don’t want to simply do aerobics or tone their tummy, legs and bottom anymore. “Boxing improves your health and it forms your body. You will be able to defend yourself and it makes you more confident. Many of the women who come to me have stressful jobs. They’re busy with their families, others are doctors or managers. They need to let off steam by hitting a punching bag. They want an hour for themselves, where they need only think about what they are doing right this second because it is so demanding and intense. And that is what I give them.”