Kelly Herron changed my life.
On March 5, 2017, Kelly Herron fought off an attempted sexual assault in a public restroom at Golden Gardens park in Seattle. She utilized tools and strategies learned just three weeks earlier in an onsite self-defense training I facilitated at her office.
I found out about the incident from one of my karate students. She heard a woman got attacked over the weekend and told witnesses that she learned self-defense at Fighting Chance Seattle. I remember my stomach dropping. Who was this woman? Was she ok? I felt anger that it happened at Golden Gardens, a park that’s always been a refuge for me when I need to breathe and look out at the water. It hurt me to be reminded and sit with the reality that my female friends are not as safe as I am in our neighborhood.
I saw the now-famous Instagram post. Oh shit. I remembered her. Three weeks earlier. I recall her being shy, but with a streak of determination. I would come to learn that feeling fear (and showing up anyway) is one of Kelly’s defining warrior qualities. She stayed after the workshop to ask about safety tips for runners. I told her: “You’re a runner, you know your body. You have access to your body. Trust the power of your body. Trust yourself.”
I had no idea that just three weeks later she would use that advice. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Though my material is grounded in reality and taught with seriousness, it was really real to see the photos and GPS graphic. I struggled to process the knowledge of a woman fighting off an attack with tools and strategies I taught.
Hours after I saw the post, Kelly sent me a message: “Could you meet me for coffee? I’d like to unpack this experience with you.”
We met the next day at Bauhaus Coffee on Market Street. I saw her through the window, standing tall and definitely a little shaken. I noticed that she was still in a heightened state of awareness. I remembered the long week of disorientation I felt after my cage fight (and that was a mutually-agreed upon contest with rules and time limits). I grounded myself and focused on being fully-present for her.
She recounted the incident like sharing a nightmare, detached but eerily lucid: a sudden violent attack in a public space. As she fought back, she said time slowed down, that she heard my voice in her head: “Hard bones to soft spots. Be loud. Trust yourself.” Her story fell over me like a blanket. It was too heavy for me to fully let it in.
I saw her in the wholeness of her strength and fragility, a person, not a story.
Lesson 1: Self-defense goes beyond the workshop.
Without warning, Kelly’s old life was over.
My experience with Kelly after the attack led to the addition of a fifth stage to my self-defense model: recovery. How do we come back into wholeness and integrate following an ordeal that requires self-defense? When we are most in need of recovery is when we are often least able to organize a plan.
One strategy Kelly chose for her recovery process was to empower herself and others by sharing her story. She made the experience bigger than her, and shared herself with the entire world from a deeply vulnerable place.
I committed in that first meeting to seeing her as a person through this whole ordeal, to being someone she could call or text for support, to holding space for the intensity of her experiences, to being a friend before anything else.
A few weeks ago Kelly shared with me that when she gets anxious she hears my voice in her head inviting her calmly to take a deep breath and come back to her body. To learn that I continue to impact her life in a positive way opened my heart.
Lesson 2: Self-defense begins with loving yourself.
Talking and processing seemed helpful, so a few days after our first meeting I interviewed Kelly about her experience. We went through the incident moment-by-moment to document her first-hand account of fighting off a sexual assault. My intuition guided me to ask: “Where were you fighting back from? What broke you out of the freeze and kept you going when you were ready to give up?”
Her answer fundamentally changed the way I teach self-defense.
She said she realized in that moment that she loved her life. That she had worked her ass off to get sober, to become a runner, to organize her life around a deeper commitment to her own happiness. She had moved through darkness to come to a place of strength and stability. And she was not going to give that up.
In my own journey I had not yet learned to love myself. In Kelly’s words I found personal inspiration, but I also saw how important it is that self-defense begins with self-love and worthiness. We need to know what we are fighting for and that we have a right be safe. We need to show up for ourselves in our full power as protectors, just as we would for the people we love.
Lesson 3: Clear, actionable self-defense tips reach a wider audience.
As Kelly’s story went viral we saw an opportunity to tell a story about empowerment and awareness around women’s safety. Kelly is a skillful and passionate communicator. Her poise in live interviews just days after the attack impressed me. She pushed back on the media and shaped her own narrative, refusing to be cast as a victim.
Clarity is power. In a moment of panic, we recall simple courses of action (like stop, drop, and roll). I originally based my curriculum on this idea: keep it simple and practical, focus on the experience of feeling our power, and meet people where they are with love and respect.
Kelly taught me the value of my own material and helped me to craft media-friendly soundbites that retained the integrity of my unique teaching style. I was cautious about being misrepresented. Self-defense instruction is unregulated, and the media are frequently complicit in spreading disempowering and frankly dangerous advice from well-meaning but unqualified martial arts instructors. Self-defense is not martial arts, it’s a suite of life skills and safety practices. Without additional training a martial arts instructor is no more qualified to teach self-defense than a volleyball coach.
With national media attention came more opportunities to teach. I’m humbled that I continue to get enthusiastic referrals for my workshops throughout the country. I closed my physical location in December 2018 to focus full-time on leading self-defense and empowerment trainings. I share Kelly’s insights in every workshop. I am a better instructor today for the gift of Kelly’s hard-fought insight.
It’s taken me two years to let it all in. To sit with the reality that women face the threat of violence in our society on a daily basis. I can more fully honor how important my work is to me and how important it is to me to honor my own integrity and teach effective, practical, and holistic approaches to self-defense.
I feel so grateful that Kelly is safe and that she’s committed to her recovery and ran a freakin’ marathon and continues to thrive and empower others. She is a remarkable human being. I may have taught her the strategies, but the power and will to fight back was entirely in her. Our bond was forged two years ago under horrible circumstances, but we’ve continued to support one another, collaborate on workshops, and become friends.
Jordan Giarratano is the founder and head instructor of Fighting Chance Seattle. He leads workshops on Self-Defense for Women and Men’s Allyship for individuals and organizations in Seattle and throughout the US. Kelly and Jordan are also available as a team for workshops and speaking engagements.