For 13-time tae kwon do world champion Rayna Vallandingham, “kicking like a girl” has never been an insult. Instead, it’s been more of a battle cry.
The 20-year-old fourth-degree black belt with a 1.3 million-strong TikTok following, admits that she’s encountered her fair share of sexism while rising in the ranks of the traditionally male-dominated martial arts. However, she’s tried to take it all in stride.
“There would be so many times where the boys in class would be like, ‘Rayna, you kick like a girl,'” Vallandingham tells In The Know by Yahoo. “At the time, I already had two sparring world titles.”
“When they would say, ‘You kick like a girl,’ I would take it as a compliment,” she adds. “Girls kick so beautifully. We have the most flexibility, you know.”
While having dealt with naysayers who focused more on her sex than her actual abilities, Vallandingham acknowledges that the experiences have toughened her up.
“I also think it really helped me to evolve not only as a woman, but also as a person, and just really learn what it’s like to be in this world and have the odds stacked against you and just rise up,” she says. “And I think martial arts really instilled perseverance in me and discipline.”
Tae kwon do for toddlers
The Indian American martial artist from Southern California got her start at a mere 2 years old. The shy little girl who started off hiding under chairs and benches at the local dojo eventually became the kid — and eventually, young woman — who was the one to beat.
After all, she won her first world title in the Korean martial art before she turned 9.
Vallandingham credits her parents, as well as her grandfather, for supporting her on her journey.
“My grandpa Nana, as I call him in the Punjabi language, he was so supportive of me. He would take me to the dojo every single day when I was 2 and hiding under the benches,” she explains. “And he would just persevere with me and be like, ‘You know what, Rayna? I believe in you.’ She’s going to do this. She’s my kaur, she’s my lioness. And kaur I actually have tattooed on me because it means ‘lioness’ in Punjabi. And I think that every time I look at it, I just feel so empowered.”
That support has fueled her desire to break boundaries, not only in martial arts but also in the entertainment industry and social media.
“It’s always been like, ‘Rayna, you are the first Indian American to do this, or you’re the first female Indian American to lead a music video.’ And for me, that was so crazy because it’s like Indian women are so incredible,” she says.
“I never got to see a female Indian lead in an action movie,” adds Vallandingham, who’s now based in Los Angeles. “And that’s why I want to be that. I want to inspire so many girls who don’t see people that look like them.”
For Vallandingham, she says the closest role model for her growing up was Chinese American actress Lucy Liu.
“I absolutely adore her because I know she inspired so many little Asian girls that are now kicking ass,” she says, “and that’s absolutely what I want to do in this life.”
The ‘female Bruce Lee’
Vallandingham’s million-plus TikTok followers aren’t the only ones who’ve been taking notice. In addition to her stunt work, music videos, “A Threat League” podcast and choreography work for the likes of Shawn Mendes, Vallandingham has also partnered with the family of martial arts icon Bruce Lee to launch their signature bomber jackets.
“I remember the day that the Bruce Lee account followed me, and it was a celebration because it was a marker of everything I’ve been through,” she says. “I’ve always said that I wanted to be the female Bruce Lee, and people were like, ‘Well, he’s a man, honey. You can’t do that.’ And so that became my mission statement. Well, you know what? I am going to be the female Bruce Lee, and I’m going to be renowned as that.”
And if little boys want to be the male Rayna Vallandingham, she’s down with that, too.
“I want to celebrate what it is to be a woman in this industry. But also the little boys who have had a really tough childhood with dads that are like, ‘You’re not masculine enough. You’re not this, you’re not that.’ I want to inspire them,” she says. “If you want to do martial arts and like cute clothes and makeup, go do it. That’s what you’re here on this Earth to do. You’re here to break barriers and push the envelope and through your passion as well, which I think is so powerful.”
Although the tae kwon do champion is all about hitting the gym, she’s also a young Gen Z woman thriving in one of the greatest cities in the world. And while she admits that martial arts takes up most of her day, she also finds time to write poetry, journal, hike, watch movies and even date.
‘Strong and independent’
But dating for a female martial arts champion can have its own risks.
“I moved to LA when I was 18, and a lot of boys — I want to say boys — were intimidated by the fact that I was a martial artist,” she says. “And honestly, if I’m going to get vulnerable here, it can be dangerous because boys will be like — and I went through this in third and fourth grade too, but now it’s just at a more dangerous level — they’ll be like, ‘I really want to test how strong she actually is.'”
Vallandingham says that can lead to things like “physical abuse and toxicity,” which is why she advocates for women to learn self-defense.
“It can be a struggle for a lot of women who are strong and independent, but I think it’s so worth it to align your values with somebody,” says the 20-year-old, who is currently in a relationship. “And if they’re supportive of it and if they’re not intimidated, it can be so beautiful and it can be such a special relationship.”
Ultimately, though, Vallandingham wants to show girls and women all the amazing things they can do. And the feedback she’s gotten from girls who want to pursue martial arts or who have been inspired by her work has given the tae kwon do champ an added purpose.
“I can’t explain the feeling it gives me,” she says. “I feel like I’m that little girl again who started martial arts and didn’t know where she was going with it, but just knew that she wanted to inspire people. It’s just so fulfilling for me.”
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