Luton athlete becomes first ever UK female to fight in traditional martial art Lethwei
Lethwei, also known as Burmese boxing, is a full contact combat sport that uses stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques
A Luton woman who became the first ever UK female to fight Lethwi - also known as Burmese boxing - wants to share her story to help inspire other women.
Nicola Barke wants to use her success in the full-contact combat sport to show women and girls that they can do anything they want in life.
The 27-year-old - who is a World Taekwondo Champion, World Lethwei Number 2 and British Kickboxing Champion - wants to share her story of how she became the first UK female to fight Lethwei to help build awareness and inspire the youth, especially females.
She said: "From a female perspective, it's okay to not fit the stereotype, I started in ballet but I was always that girl who couldn't dance.
"I was looking at the other girls, who were smashing it, and I really wasn't.
"I wanted to be good at something, I thought if I was bad at ballet, maybe I’ll be good at something else, so I picked the most opposite sport I could think of and landed in martial arts.”
Her martial arts journey started at secondary school.
Nicola, who is also known as the 'Burmese Python', soon earned her stripes as a 2nd Dan Black Belt and won a World Title with a fractured foot and cracked rib.
She said: "I started Taekwondo when I was at school and it continued from there.
"I tried out for the GB 2016 Olympics and after completing the selection process was written off due to injury.
"I then moved into professional Kickboxing and Muay Thai, securing the British Title and Ranking number 1 in the UK whilst training out of Storm Gym in Luton.
"Following my success I took my first step in making history and was the UKs first ever female to compete in Lethwei.
"Lethwei is the national sport of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. It’s how I got my fight name “The Burmese Python”; I'm proud to represent my mother and her heritage, the Python element depicts my aggressive and fearless fight style.
"Lethwei is not a well-known sport in the UK, but it is a big achievement for me.
"It is a brutal traditional sport that allows headbutts, punches, kicks, knees and elbows - all with no gloves. I now rank world number 2 in this sport.
"They created a division so that I could compete, they brought together a group so that I could fight – I felt honoured."
Nicola's fight took place in the capital, Mandalay, and she had the added joy of taking her Mother home.
She added: "I was the first female, which is a huge win, it’s a massive positive and I want to inspire other women to do whatever they want, be it ballet or martial arts – just go for it!
"It is important for women to go for what they want, it doesn't matter if you are the only woman, or the first woman, be proud of that – that’s your special power.
"Don’t worry about what other people think or say, do what makes you happy.
“Some people will love it, others will hate it, and that’s ok, it’s not their journey, it’s yours.”
Alongside Nicola's professional fighting career, she works full-time at HSBC as Global Project Manager.
She said: "People are often surprised I juggle so much. For me, training is the easy part, it’s my absolute passion in life, but it is a real commitment everyday that I choose to make and sacrifice all my free-time to my craft.
"I’ve recovered from a life-threatening car accident and too many injuries to count, including tearing my knee in three places. It's a mentally and physically tough sport.”
“You have to pick yourself up and not be afraid to start again.
“I’ve learned so much about myself along the way, and that’s what I love about the sport. When you’re in the ring, you’re on your own and it really shows who you are.”
You can follow and support Nicola’s journey on Instagram.