15 year old Claire Tietgen shows others how they too can find hope in darkness
Her favorite move is the arm bar. Any chance she gets, she’ll put her opponent in one — and from there, there’s no way out.
Fifteen-year-old Claire Tietgen models the move off her favorite fighter, Ronda Rousey, and actually shares (albeit on a smaller scale) her record of eight arm-bar submissions.
She’s also a suicide survivor, and the bravest teen you’ll ever meet.
Tietgen has dealt with bullying for years. She has been knocked to the ground and beaten up simply because of the shoes she was wearing. She’s been punched in the eye by a male classmate and had her head banged against a wall. She has even received death threats.
But three years after carvings were found in her bedroom reading “I want to die,” Tietgen and her family have used these experiences as motivation to build their E3 Sports Facility in Overland Park.
Decidedly modern with a bright blue logo and an open floor plan, E3 is a family-run fitness, Jiu-Jitsu and yoga facility. Claire works here alongside her parents, younger sister and elder brother to teach people of all ages the sport that has given her the first happiness she has felt in years.
Opening E3 has also helped her find a new passion. She loves being a manager.
Like, really loves it.
“I boss him around all day long," Claire says, pointing to her father, Charlie.
Embrace, empower, encourage.
Three words Charlie and Denise Tietgen have long shared with Claire, and ultimately the inspiration behind the name E3.
Situated on 83rd Street and Metcalf Avenue, E3 took a little over a year to construct. The physical space was created by merging four different businesses together, including a bait shop and a convenience store.
An open mat with punching bags around the edge sits to the left. The E3 logo is emblazoned upon the far wall. A spacious changing area with a pair of modern bathrooms occupies the back of the facility, while a line of desks and furnished waiting area sits near the entrance.
A large frame with pictures of celebrities and famous fighters hangs near the front desk: Rousey and actors Andy Garcia and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to name a few. Each is a one-time victim of bullying, and several have appeared on Claire’s YouTube show, ‘Bullied But Not Broken.’
"It's basically a talk show where I interview celebrities who have similar stories or the same story, and just get their advice about bullying and their story,” Claire says. “Because I've noticed with me, I did not like to talk about it, and I figured that with celebrities like Dwayne Johnson, having a bully story similar to kids', they'd be like, 'If he had a bad childhood, and bullying, and he became this, why can't I?' "
Claire has traveled to Las Vegas to meet with UFC president Dana White. She has dined with Rousey in San Diego — the real Hollywood experience.
But everything goes back to Claire telling her story: letting people know that it’s “cool” to talk about their experiences with suicide and depression.
People are often sheepish when approaching the topic of suicide. Some are nervous about asking Claire details about her own story, even when she brings it up first.
If her parents hadn’t found the carvings in her bedroom, each marking an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Claire doesn’t know where she’d be right now.
“It's one of those things that it was a horrible time, but it kind of saved my life and ruined my life at once,” she says.
Tables and chairs are set up in a room to the right of the gym. Pictures and bar charts line the walls. This is where Charlie and Denise are doing their part to help the community.
In this room, at-risk kids can take something called the Kolbe Y Assessment: in short, a test of how a person learns best, and what techniques should be used to maximize their learning experience.
Claire is very task-oriented, and Charlie noticed that the methods of teaching being used in her school were just not working. Not for her, anyway. For years, teachers had told her what to do and how to do, but all Claire wanted to do was finish a thought before being interrupted. She had to finish a thought to be able to do her work.
A former therapist suggested Claire take the Kolbe Y. After taking the assessment and making its suggested changes, Claire saw her grades skyrocket from F’s to B’s.
Now, Charlie lets kids take the Kolbe Y for free, because he understands how important it is for them to be taught in the correct environment.
Its insight can be applied to sports training, too. Claire tried every sport under the sun, but Jiu-Jitsu was the one that kept her attention.
"If you're doing your thing, then you're engaged,” Charlie said. “You're enjoying it. If you're not enjoying it, then it's not the way you like to do things. So we just determine how kids like to do things, and we teach the child how to stay in that zone."
The Kolbe Y isn’t the only thing offered for free at E3. The facility also makes available more than 30 individual scholarships, as well as family and single-mother memberships for those in need.
"I guess the bottom line is, it is saving lives,” Claire said.
Claire was good friends with Ciara “CiCi” Webb, an Olathe teen who took her own life with a gun in 2014.
Standing at her grave with CiCi’s parents shortly after the tragic incident, CiCi’s mother turned to Claire and asked her if she still thinks about ending her own life.
“Every day,” Claire responded.
CiCi’s mother broke down in tears.
CiCi's struggles in many ways mirrored Claire's. The two competed in Jiu-Jitsu together, and the younger Claire recalls CiCi telling her at a tournament once, “You know what, it gets better. You need to do this, have fun with it.”
Those words continue to give Claire hope through dark times, even now that CiCi is gone. So, too, do these:
Never end the fight.
CiCi had that phrase tattooed on her ribcage, and Claire does now, too. The four words are also emblazoned on the south wall inside the family's E3 facility in Overland Park.
“Those words are why we have this place open in the first place," Claire said.
For the past year, Claire and her family have spent every waking moment getting E3 off the ground. No summer vacation, no hanging out with friends.
On opening day, May 12, Claire and Charlie were at the facility until 4:30 a.m., making sure everything was ready.
Jiu-Jitsu coaches from across the region attended the grand opening, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Leo Pecanha, who owns several gyms in the Kansas City area. In all, about 150 people showed up throughout the day.
"We wanted to see how many people could fit on those mats," Claire said, laughing. (For the record, the Tietgens learned that about 50 could fit comfortably at any one time.)
Claire now trains two to three times a week. She took some time away after breaking her arm, but she has returned to a routine that includes teaching kids classes and participating in "open mat" sessions on Sundays.
She’ll be able to train for her blue belt once she turns 16 in August and recently competed in her first tournament in more than two years at Santa Fe Middle School. She finished runner-up in that competition, while her elder brother also reached the semifinals in the open weight class.
Her life goals include advancing to black belt, but until then, Claire remains focused on breaking the mold and seeking improved mental health through sports instead of medication.
The family business, this gym in Johnson County, offers her family a place to do that — a place for Claire to tell others they look nice, or that they're perfect just the way they are.
“We wanted it to be more of a community gym that kids can walk in just if they need just a good home for like an hour, just to sit and do their homework, or for us to say a nice comment,” Claire said. “That's what we made this place for."