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Every once in a while I think about what motivated me to become a fighter and martial artist, the foundation probably started in my childhood. I was raised by a single mother who was a Polish immigrant and could barely speak English. My Polish grandmother raised me while my mom tried to make ends meet. As a result, I didn’t know how to speak English for a long time and was often teased at school or grouped into the learning disabled crowd. When I was around six years old, my step dad (dad) came into my life. He took the time to tutor me and introduce me to sports. I started playing basketball and later found a passion for parkour. My upbringing set the stage for my adventurous spirit and tenacity. I battled through depression and found solace in my training and travels.
My foray into Mixed Martial Arts began when I was a freshman at Carleton College. I was in the student rec center lifting in preparation for another bodybuilding show. By chance, I met a professor from the neighboring college. He introduced himself and mentioned he was a philosophy coach and former boxer. He was also coaching a small boxing club and asked if I might be interested. On a whim I decided to try it out and discovered I loved it. A year later I started the Carleton Boxing Club at my college. To this day, Coach Gordon Marino is my mentor, coach, and friend.
I took my gloves and workout routines with me everywhere. When I spent three months in the Africa desert tracking rhinos, I brought homemade kettlebells I could fill with sand and continued training.
When I graduated in 2009 and failed to find a job in the recession I decided to buy a one way ticket to Costa Rica so I could find myself and decide what I wanted to do with my life. I spent several months in a small mountain town teaching English to the local community. The students ranged in age from eight to twenty. A few weeks into classes, one of the community members helped me make a heavy bag and I started teaching after school boxing lessons to my students. My newly acquired puppy, Sonic, would watch.
Once the school year ended, I decided it was time to move on to another location. I sold the motorcycle I had bought and took all I could carry (including Sonic) and made my way down the mountain to the only paved road. I stuck my thumb out and hoped I could get a ride. I had no destination in mind. After about an hour, a couple pulled over and asked where I was going. I told them I had never been to the ocean and wanted to go there. Once I was in their car, we talked the whole drive to the coast. When it was time to drop me off, the couple (John and Maria) took me to their home instead. They gave me a place to stay and fed me for the remainder of my stay in Costa Rica.
At that time I was living only ten minutes from Dominical (a small town on the Pacific coast). I often went to the ocean and sometimes stayed overnight in one of the youth hostels. Over time I met a small group of guys who trained kickboxing. One of them, Sasa, became my close friend and eventually coach. Many months later we built our own gym by the ocean. Locals and tourists came to train with us.
When I returned to the United States, I moved from Illinois to Montana where I went to my first MMA gym and finally competed in my first MMA fight. I met my boyfriend there, and after a year and a half we moved to Oregon.
Right now I’m training at Performance Martial Arts in Springfield, Oregon. I am an undefeated professional MMA fighter, a purple belt in jiu jitsu, and a personal trainer.
I stay motivated by telling myself that someday I won’t be able to do some of the things I do now (such as competing in MMA). Combat athletes often have a finite amount of time that our bodies let us compete in the sport. I tell myself that one day I will miss it. No matter how strenuous the training may be or how much I have to sacrifice to fit everything into my day, someday I will miss this. I never want to look back on my life and wonder “what if.” If there is something you have always wanted to do, just go for it. The worst regrets are not trying. Everyday you are trading your life. Once a moment is gone you will never get it back – you traded it for something. So find a dream worth trading your life for.
Roma Pawelek is a professional MMA fighter and former bodybuilder out of Oregon. She is currently studying for her JD at the University of Oregon Law School. Having had to fight all of her life – to speak the same language as everyone around her, to make ends meet with a terrible economy, to now following her dream as a pro MMA fighter – she wants to inspire and encourage others, especially women, to fight for what they want unabashedly and unashamed.