For some people, martial arts in the genes. They have an instinctive ability which is rooted in a long family tradition. For the rest of us, all we can do is watch on enviously as they achieve in weeks, things that we have to work towards for months.

11-year-old Muay Thai Fighting Girl – Rhya Henare

Rhya Henare is a great case in point. Rhya is an 11-year old New Zealander who has just competed at the IMFA Youth Amateur World Championships in Bangkok Thailand, despite only taking up Muay Thai boxing in April of last year.

But digging a little deeper into Rhya’s family background reveals why she is such a natural at Muay Thai, despite her tender years. Her father, Alex Henare, is an experienced Muay Thai practitioner as are all of her three siblings. But Rhya’s martial arts grounding runs even deeper than that. Her grandmother, Awhi Ropiha, is a fifth dan black belt in Shidokan and also practices Muay Thai, kickboxing and boxing.

There is no doubt having such a strong female role model will have inspired Rhya, but compared to some in her family, Rhya has come to martial arts relatively late in life. She is also a competitive skateboarder and has represented New Zealand for the past five years before turning to Muay Thai. According to her mother, this has given her a good grounding for her martial arts success as it has taught her how to persevere and cope with knock-backs as well as going through the pain threshold at times.

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But while she may be a relative newcomer at Muay Thai, Rhya has certainly been putting many of us to shame in her dedication since taking up the sport. She trains at the Rhythm of Combat (ROC) gym in the central north island town of Taupo and since qualifying for the World Championships, has committed everything to the cause.

As her mother, Chareese Henare told the New Zealand Herald, “She trains five days a week for at least a couple of hours a day. She’s been running daily, she’s been doing that for the last three weeks, either a 2km or a 4km jog in the morning building her up to a 6km easily. She’s just moved into intensive training with her coach between 60-90 minutes full-on, one-to-one. That’s what she’s been doing every day of the school holidays.”

Her astonishing rise shows how this level of commitment and hard work can pay off. And if that sounds like a lot for an 11-year old, Rhya is evidently very happy to make the necessary sacrifices. She told the same newspaper that she was “really excited” to be off to Bangkok.

Only Training in Muay Thai for Just Over a Year

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Ahead of the tournament, her coach at the ROC, Justin McDermott, was full of praise for her skills and optimistic for her chances in Bangkok. “She’s strong in all her areas but she’s got a good clinch, strong posture, good punches and fast powerful kicks,” he explained. She’s developing a second phase of attack, we’re working on that and sharpening all those areas up now.”

And his confidence proved to be well-founded. In her first bout against a Thai girl, Rhya secured a tie before winning her second fight against an American girl. Two other opponents withdrew, which meant that Rhya returned from Bangkok having finished in 2nd place in her age-group. As her coach concluded, “we were pretty happy with that”, but there was more.

Rhya was also awarded the Female Rising Star Youth World Championship title, which recognises the participant which has the greatest potential for future achievement. To receive such an accolade after only training in Muay Thai for just over a year is an astonishing feat and once which her coach summed up neatly when he described her as “a little beast.”

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He’s not wrong. To achieve what she has in such a short space of time is little short of miraculous. And there is more to come. Rhya already has her sights set on next year’s World Championship where she hopes to go one better and bring back a gold medal.

While there is no doubt that Rhya has earned her success, it would be wrong to overlook her background. Being brought up around martial arts enthusiasts undoubtedly gives youngsters an advantage. Whether it is because she has subconsciously witnessed them in action and learned from them, an innate physical fitness, or just having the mental strength all martial artists need, it is impossible to say.

But for some people, like Rhya, martial arts are in the blood and it seems that will often give them an extra edge.

When asked about her granddaughter’s success, Rhya’s Muay Thai fighting granny said, “As one very proud ‘Nan’ it is an honour to have this 11-year-old carry forward a family heritage.” Perhaps it is just a desire to make her family proud that gives Rhya that extra bit of motivation.

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