national Women's
Martial Arts Federation

Member Spotlight

Rose O'Reilly-Hoisington

NWMAF Wonder Women: 

Our Origin Stories in Our Own Words

This month we feature Rose O’Reilly-Hoisington, who trains Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, and jeet kune do, and is a founding member of Voice of a Warrior (VOW) Self-Defense in Oregon. The following is a personal essay about her journey in martial arts and self-defense.

Quiet is only a five-letter word.

And “Rose is quiet,” is just a short sentence, feather-light and easy to say.

It was easy to hear, until it wasn’t—until it had been said so many times I felt the weight of each utterance settle over my shoulders. I carried it with me through high school, from day one to graduation. It made sense—what if I said the wrong thing? What if people stopped liking me? It seemed infinitely easier to become a mirror to whatever they were thinking, feeling, or wanting from me. Nodding and smiling had never strained my relationships.

Eventually I recognized the quiet was a cage.

I tried to give it the slip as I moved ten hours away for college, hoping that a new start might mean a new me, but it clung to me with a white-knuckled grip.

When I was displaced from my picturesque University of Montana over credit technicalities, I was forced to return to Oregon. The 2016 election was in full swing, and it felt like I had lost every scrap of control I had ever possessed in the world.

How could I get it back?

The University of Oregon was similar to UM except that it was bigger, less personal, and not particularly interested in making sure one transfer student out of 20,000 had integrated well. I struggled to fit in again. On a whim, I took a women’s self-defense course offered by the student recreation center. It was a two-part class, taught by a four-person team. The first instructor we met was Ryan Kelly, who casually mentioned his life’s ambition of studying as many martial arts and self-defense systems as he could find. The other three women are familiar names for most of you to read: Jocelyn Hollander, Justine Halliwill, and Jessica Stainbrook. All of them seemed powerful and inspiring—I found myself wanting what they had.

I flew through that first ten-week course, loving it for the confidence it sparked and hating it for the light it cast on all my fears and insecurities. Persistence is a word we use often when teaching empowerment self-defense, and my own reluctance to speak up for myself was the most persistent obstacle I have ever faced. The instructors were wonderful, and the student teaching assistants were just as supportive.

With encouragement from our TAs, I started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at a local gym to supplement what I was learning. I spoke with my instructors and signed up to begin assisting with each class I could jam into my schedule. I probably sat through those classes between ten and fifteen times before I graduated, and with each iteration I felt like I was learning something new. By the time graduation approached, the women’s self-defense team had organized an instructor training and I jumped at the chance to attend.

While all this was happening at the university, I had been training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for almost two years and assisting one of our upper belt instructors with her monthly free self-defense workshops. We would teach one a month in Eugene, Oregon, and then another in Coos Bay. It was good and exhausting and energizing. I would often lament not being able to major in empowerment self-defense.

Somewhere in the middle of this, at no particular point I could recognize, I had shaken off my old enemy, the stifling quietness that had dogged me for so long. Now when I walked through downtown, or rode the bus, or wrestled a man two times my size on the mats, it felt like I carried a fierce, tempered self-love inside my heart. If I didn’t want to do something, I had learned what felt like the most important secret: the knowledge that I could just say, “No.”

I moved to Portland, and together with my friends and teammates, created a nonprofit called Voice of a Warrior with the purpose of making empowerment self-defense accessible to communities in Portland. None of us had ever created a nonprofit before—I had volunteered with plenty, but not as an administrator. But we were stubborn. We chased our goals and purpose even as we descended into the chaos of the pandemic. I’d like to say I fearlessly led us over, around, under, and through every hurdle laid in our path. Truthfully, I led terrified, tripping over everything and wondering if I was cut out for this kind of work.

Now, after flailing, worrying, and teaching some really good workshops, I can say it was all worth it. Voice of a Warrior is starting its second year going strong. The future’s uncertain, but I have hope, some cool jiu-jitsu moves, and determination to learn, share, and grow.

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