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18 years ago, Veronika Kanya completely lost her eyesight.

Now, the 43-year-old former biologist is midway through acquiring her orange belt in jiu-jitsu.

This is not Kanya’s first experience with martial arts. She originally became interested from a young age when one of her friends introduced her to Bruce Lee movies. When she lost part of her eyesight at 23, she recalled watching those movies and decided to take a kickboxing workshop at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

“I liked kickboxing but then lost the rest of my eyesight when I was 25 so I switched to Aikido, which I trained in on and off for about 10 years,” Kanya said. “I tried some other things, but last year it really occurred to me that I wanted to get some really effective and practical self-defence training.”

Kanya talked to a few self-defence instructors but was turned away. Eventually she found her class with Sensei Kevin Kummerfield at Bissett Jiu-Jitsu Den Winnipeg.

“Other places said ‘you won’t see the punches coming in’ but then I found this place and it’s the perfect match,” Kanya said. “It’s actually meant for someone without sight. Jiu-jitsu is really about feel. You move in with your hips and you feel the other person. Once you feel where they are you can react without having to see.”

 

 

Kummerfield was shocked when Kanya told him she was turned away from other classes.

“That really bothered me,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a student turned away. So we said ‘let’s figure it out together’ and moved forward.”

Kummerfield says Kanya is progressing and working with her has expanded his knowledge of how to train people in jiu-jitsu and modify techniques for students with specific needs.

“I’ve never worked with anybody with sight loss before so I was really excited for the challenge,” Kummerfield said. “It’s helped me as an instructor to think outside the box.”

“Most of the techniques didn’t require any modification because jiu-jitsu is close-quarters. Some things like striking offered a bit of a challenge, so we’ve been working on ways for her to increase awareness and using soft pads to strike at her so she’s used to receiving blows. That way she can learn to move to deflect those and mitigate the damage.”

Kummerfield says Kanya's drive and willingness to learn inspires him.

“She’s still getting out there and doing these things every day and finding the martial arts training for her. She didn’t take no for an answer.”

“She really is a fighter. She didn’t need martial arts for that.”

Kummerfield and Kanya recently conducted a self-defence seminar for clients at CNIB.

One of the main aspects of Kummerfield’s class that drew Kanya to it is a focus on is de-escalation of conflicts as opposed to physical confrontation.

“We’re trained to walk away and avoid conflict as long as we can,” Kanya said. “It goes deeper than just physical violence. I have options and I can rely on my skills if it ever comes to it.”

Kanya has been training for about five months and has acquired her yellow belt.

She has no plans on stopping any time soon.

“I am just really having fun learning it,” Kanya said. “I can throw someone bigger than me and it boosts my confidence that I’m not helpless in any given situation.”

“Sensei Kevin always likes to say this is a life-skill, not just a martial art and that’s true.”