Escape Alive

Story By Chelsea Murray

Catherine Rodgers of Naugatuck learns to evade a choke hold. Photos By John Murray

   I was robbed my last night in Greece.

  After watching the sunset from the Acropolis, myself and two friends took a short cut back to our apartment. On our way through the cobblestone streets we encountered a young Gypsy couple, who stepped out of the shadows looking for a smoke. My friend gave them a cigarette and loaned out his favorite lighter. After small talk about how quiet the streets were, the man pocketed the lighter. My friend calmly protested and asked for his lighter back. Instead of the lighter, the Gypsy pulled out a switchblade and thrust it against my friend’s throat.

   I’ll never forget the Gypsy’s cold, malicious expression and his girlfriend’s green serpentine eyes. The moment he pulled out the knife my body felt like it dropped ten degrees and my stomach turned into a bag of ice. I had left my purse, camera and valuables back at the apartment, so the only thing of value they could take from me was my life.

   My body bristled as they ran their hands repeatedly over me searching for money. My friends and I were frozen and put up no resistance. We didn’t know what to do. At the time, and in many situations, the best protection is to comply and not act like a superhero. While I was calm during the experience, I was a wobbling, terrified mess afterwards. Although I had no valuables, in just a few seconds the Gypsies had taken my trust with them.

   For months I looked at everyone that crossed my path suspiciously. I didn’t feel safe. I picked up my pace walking and rarely wanted to go out in public alone. I felt like a deer tiptoeing through the woods sniffing the wind for predators. I decided fear could not sit in the driver’s seat the rest of my life. I wanted to feel safe in my own body and at ease going places alone. It didn’t matter whether going to a grocery store down the street, or wandering through a spice market in Egypt, I needed to strengthen myself, mentally and physically.

  So, I decided to take a self-defense class.

  My opportunity arose in late March at Naugatuck Valley Community College when the Jane Doe No More Foundation partnered with East Coast Training Systems to bring a four-hour “Escape Alive” self defense class to Waterbury. Jane Doe No More is a non-profit foundation created to improve the way society responds to victims of sexual assault. It was created by prominent Waterbury businesswoman, Donna Palomba, in response to her horrific 1993 rape.

   Fourteen years after she was sexually assaulted, Palomba revealed her identity on national television and launched the Jane Doe No More Foundation. Part of the mission of the foundation is to empower women and she partnered with martial arts master and Watebury firefighter, Drew Serrano, of East Coast Training Systems. Serrano is an internationally recognized martial artist and has a passion for teaching self defense courses. Serrano believes that all people should have the tools to recognize dangerous situations and be able to defend themselves.

   According to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network every 2 minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Clearly, women need to learn to defend themselves.

   The class began at ten in the morning and I was unnerved because everyone else had come with friends or family, and I was alone. I felt out of place when I was partnered with a stranger. It was awkward throwing punches and roundhouse kicks at my new acquaintance. I get frazzled learning physical moves and demonstrating them in front of others. My partner was extremely patient, but she had no trouble whacking me. She meant business and my small frame could barely handle the repeated blows.

   The most educational and intimidating part of the course occurred when Drew Serrano came around and personally instructed each one of us. He held the punching bag and critiqued every move that I made. He instructed me to turn my hip out, lift my elbow higher and to use more force. I turned into a giggling mess, which happens when I get flustered. I told him I would not be this nonchalant and marshmallowy if I was fighting for my life. I’m a string bean, but a feisty one if you push my buttons.

Chelsea Murray learns to whip her elbow into an an attacker.

   Serrano had me hold the bag and he demonstrated some of the punches, chokes and kicks. He said he would do it softly, but soft to him was like getting hit with an iron frying pan. Eventually, I grasped a few of the moves.

   Unbeknownst to me, I was being taught by a master.

   Before the class I had never heard of Drew Serrano, but I looked him up online afterwards and he is the real deal. Drew has appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Time Warp on the Discovery Channel. Serrano has placed 2nd on in the U.S. Open Black Belt Heavyweight Power Breaking competition, and has garnered many other titles. He was awesome.

Drew Serrano is a Waterbury firefighter and a a highly acclaimed martial artist.

    Serrano and a group of instructors from East Coast Training Systems pumped over a dozen moves into our heads, and after three hours my brain started to overload. I have practiced a few of the moves and two weeks later feel confident that I could use some of this knowledge if a dangerous situation arose in the future. I learned how to throw a proper punch, use a palm to the face, and most importantly to do anything – including eye gouging and a knee to the groin – to create space from an attacker so I could run away.

   One in every four women is sexually assaulted, or attacked, and most don’t want to talk about it. Chances are you know someone that has been assaulted, but they are too ashamed to say anything. If you’ve had a traumatic experience you should not be afraid to go to someone for help. Talk to someone, because you’ve done nothing wrong.

Danielle Rodgers of Naugatuck slams an elbow into a pad.

    Donna Palomba and the Jane Doe No More Foundation is fighting the stigma surrounding sexual assault, and Drew Serrano and East Coast Training Systems are teaching women how to defend themselves. This is important work.

  Thanks to Donna and Drew I’ve learned the importance of self-defense and hope to work on my skills even more in the future. Our lives and our bodies are precious gifts and we can’t allow a monster to take that away from us. Learn to defend yourself and protect the most important thing any of us has – our life.