A Story Of Two Halves

“I’m not one of each, I’m a bit of everything.” Muay Thai champion Annabelle Gely on identity, motherhood and seeking joy above all else

By Tahmina Begum

Before I spoke to Annabelle Gely, there was one thing I didn’t account for: her French disposition for enjoyment. When researching the doubly-revered European Muay Thai Champion and former Golden British Muay Thai champion, I discovered that the now retired athlete and Operation’s Director at Eight Club London had been designing a martial arts themed gym as well as raising her eight-year-old son. I naively expected our conversation to be based on juggling the different gloves Annabelle dons; that archaic question on how she balances it all as a woman and a mother. But the real message I was left with was: if you don’t enjoy something, even if you’re training for the Olympics, then what was the point of doing it at all?

“First and foremost: just have fun,” is the simple answer Annabelle gives when I ask her what advice she has for women, of any age and background, that want to do martial arts. “It’s the same thing I say to my son, who does lots of different sports, the main thing is to enjoy what you do. I think it takes the pressure off.”

Martial arts for Annabelle Gely is the gift that keeps on giving. Photography by Filip Latka.

Since the dawn of time, we’ve seen ‘real’ athletes work 24 hours around the clock in order to make their dreams come true. There is so much messaging and hype around waking up at the crack of dawn, not eating any junk food and the constant idea of sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice, in order to fulfill one’s goals. And though there may be some truth in that when it comes to reaching momentous sporting heights, Annabelle and the dynamism around her life is a reflection that you don’t need to breathe your sport and nothing else in order to become a champion. That being an athlete was a core part of her but Muay Thai still doesn’t make up all of her.

Annabelle is known for her 18 fights in which there have been 15 wins, two losses and one draw, but her start into Muay Thai was a serendipitous one. Perhaps this is why she continues to reverberate this attitude. At the time, Annabelle was working in a restaurant, asking the other waitstaff what new and different experience she could have and that’s when martial arts was recommended. A Muay Thai class happened to be next to where she lived and now, 15 years later, the rest is a historic feat for women in sport. “I didn’t know what to expect as I’d never heard of Muay Thai before. In my first session, I was completely dead on the mat. It was a shock to my body and mind but it made me feel so unreal and alive that I kept going back and I really fell in love with it.”

“Muay Thai gave me confidence and a way to let off steam.” Photography by Filip Latka.

Muay Thai also became a good outlet for managing stress as, before her martial arts epiphany, she described herself as an anxious person: “I used to have a lot of panic attacks and I was on medication to help stop these. Muay Thai gave me confidence and was also a way to let off steam. My panic attacks stopped and I didn’t need that pill.” Martial arts for Annabelle, therefore, has been the gift that keeps on giving.

“I never would’ve imagined this happening” is the reaction to her athletic career that began in her late twenties. But, as noted, Annabelle has never just been an athlete. On a typical day during Fight Camp, Annabelle would wake up at 6am and head out for a run. Then she would come back and ready her son for school and drop him off. Afterwards, Annabelle would head to work until about lunchtime, which is when she would workout for a couple of hours, until showering and returning back to work. Work would finish around 8 to 9pm in the evening and that’s when she would go home and rest, when her son was already in bed. Now, as a retired athlete, she similarly trains and works just as she would if she was preparing for a match.

Momentous

“I work my body out so I’m peaceful when I get to work.” Photography by Ossi Piispanen.

“I have the support of my husband, which is amazing because as an athlete you need to have proper sleep so it’s important to have that support system. My workplace has been amazing too, when it came to taking time off or competing around the world.” On one hand, in 2021, there shouldn’t be a need to applaud a woman in sport and her family for being able to prioritise her dreams. But on the other, this is a part of Annabelle’s story. She didn’t grow up visualising being a world-athlete who would go on to compete in Greece, Holland, America, Thailand and across the UK. Perhaps her life prior to martial arts has ensured a healthy outlook towards Muay Thai; sometimes the sport takes centre stage in Annabelle’s life and sometimes it’s a thread in an applique of many other loves, roles and interests. Another life motto that kept cropping up when speaking to Annabelle is her clear work ethic and belief that, “if it’s something you really want, you will make time for it and you manage the time around it.” This goes for training while pregnant — exactly what Annabelle did a week up until her son was born.

“It’s adapting to life with the things you already have.” Photography by Ossi Piispanen.

“I got pregnant with my son, who is eight now, right in the middle of my career and everyone told me it was not going to work and I thought, no, that’s simply not true. It’s adapting to life with the things you already have.” “My advice for those who are pregnant and want to train is to listen to your body. If it’s telling you to stop, stop. If you’re tired, don’t push it. Again, it comes down to enjoying yourself. You don’t have to do anything you don’t feel like. That goes for anyone in general, whether you’re a mum, an athlete or not. It’s about enjoying what you do, no matter what it is.” Perhaps what we can learn about balancing different parts of one’s life from Annabelle isn’t a matter of semantics but a philosophy of personal boundaries. After an MRI scan in the US revealed an injury in her caudal spine, this then became the catalyst for her retirement. This hasn’t stopped Annabelle from training herself back up to where she was, even if she can no longer afford to be in the ring.“It is an everyday battle to enjoy it for what it is. I still train and keep fit but it’s been hard news to deal with and I’m still coming to terms with it.”

ETHIC & BELIEF

“If it’s something you really want, you will make time for it and you manage the time around it.” Photography by Filip Latka.

From being in conversation with Annabelle briefly, she had already made the impression that she does not take anything lying down. The multi-faceted athlete has a drive and belief that anything is possible, if you are willing to work hard enough. “I often try to find something different but I always just come back to Muay Thai. I still love it but I am learning to love it in a different way.” When in the gym or training for a fight, Annabelle always has her nails done and would wear pink shorts. Because her femininity and who she is as a woman does not stop and start at different intervals of the day. Her message to women who want to experiment with sports or have a desire to compete: never reduce who you are. “It doesn’t have to be divided into ‘I’m a mum between 6-8am in the morning, a woman between 8-12pm and an athlete between 12-2pm.’ No, you are who you are and these are the different sides to your character.”

“It’s about enjoying what you do, no matter what it is.” Photography by Filip Latka.

So it makes sense that Annabelle responds with two answers when asked about her proudest achievements to date. “Becoming a mum. That’s definitely a proud moment. Not necessarily becoming a world champion, but being able to have that achievement in martial arts whilst also being a full-time worker and mother. I’m proud I achieved that same level without having to be an athlete who solely focuses on their sport everyday.” Annabelle could never be a story of parts. Her work at Eight Club London, where she has helped design London’s first martial arts inspired gym, is fluid and connected to her identity as a mother and who she is in the corporate world. “It’s all interlinked. I’m probably a better business person because I work my body out so I’m peaceful when I get to work. With motherhood, I’m able to manage my time better. I’m not one of each, I’m a bit of everything.”

Annabelle has helped design London’s first martial arts inspired gym at Eight Club. Photography by Ossi Piispanen.

Art Direction & Production Root, Photography Ossi Piispanen, Photographer’s Assistant Claudia Agati, Stylist Natasha Dugarin, Hair & Make-Up Kim Leaver, Models Annabelle Gely, Ligia Pop & Ewa Dalmata

Special thanks to Eight Club London

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