The toughest 12-year-old you are likely to know is sitting on a couch in the place that saved her life.
Her name is Claire. She lives in Prairie Village 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.
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Then, more. 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 neighborhood 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 3 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 would come 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 in Waldo 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 anymore 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’s won at competitions or even the amazing video her family put together. The best part of Claire’s story, which is why her parents want you to hear it, 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 with a grace 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, her word here: amazing.
Her grades are up. Way up. She has a few friends now, and a funny thing about that. She now 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. They did one at a local church, too.
As you might expect, many people have been moved by Claire’s story already. The Ultimate Fighting Championship heard it and flew her and Charlie out to Las Vegas to see a fight last month. Claire met all the fighters and got to speak with her hero, Ronda Rousey. “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” has reached out.
But, no, 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 jiujitsu. It’s how far she’s come as a young woman, now able to not only 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.
“You see we’re talking about all of this, even suicide, and there’s a smile on that girl’s face,” Ford says.
“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.
Not just the training a few times a week, and not just the show last month in Vegas. The UFC is hosting her and Charlie again for a show next weekend in Los Angeles. She and Rousey are going to have dinner together, even work out together.
Claire loves training, loves fighting, and especially loves how her life has changed this last year. Sports can be such a good outlet for kids like this. 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.
There is real good to be done through sports, and there aren’t a lot of real problems that sports is better positioned to fight than bullying. It can be through experiences like Claire’s, in which a sport gives a bullied kid new confidence and strength.
Or — more often and undoubtedly more effective — it can be with parents and coaches and kids from high schools on down stomping out the kind of dangerous and senseless bullying that had Claire thinking the worst.
According to StopBullying.gov, more than one in four American students grades six through 12 experience bullying, more than 70 percent 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 for Sporting Kansas City now, but back when he was at Oak Park High, 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.
Nobody can say for sure how much Ellis’ soccer talents gave him the stature to end one case of bullying. But it certainly didn’t hurt, one kid able to help stop another’s pain.
There are so many good causes out there, and many are grown or promoted through sports. They are all worth the time and efforts of anyone moved to help.
But whether directly or otherwise, through celebrities like Charles or kids like Claire finding new light, sports are uniquely positioned to address a problem too many of us have seen firsthand.
You should hear about the Valentine’s Day party at Claire’s school last week.
It was a dance, with music — “this century music,” Claire calls it, which basically means dancing music — and this being a bunch of sixth-graders, it was mostly girls on one side and guys on the other.
Well, Claire doesn’t roll like that, so when a song she liked came on she went right out to the middle of the dance floor and, in her words, “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.
This is real life, not a movie, so 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!