Why this matters
As athletes return to sport, what might have been considered routine, is now steeped in a new world of considerations and precautions.
As mid-March approached, New York City began to shut down. Phaidra Knight noticed it most at her midtown Manhattan gym, where she met weekdays with her coaches and took Brazilian jiu jitsu and muay thai classes. She wondered if fewer people were showing up because they were falling ill with the coronavirus or were staying away out of fear of catching it as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
Over the past year, Knight has trained intensively to step into the mixed martial arts (MMA) arena with the intention of having her first bout this fall. MMA fighters use wrestling, judo and grappling techniques to dominate and pin their opponents. They also employ boxing- and muay thai-style blows in blitzes of fists, elbows, knees and shins that either finish off opponents or make for decisive wins in judges’ eyes.
A retired rugby star, Knight knew that when her gym closed she would need to be ready to fly solo, so she ordered kettle bells, a punching bag, TRX resistance training bands and other equipment. But the idea of working out in the Manhattan apartment she shares with her female partner and their two dogs was a nonstarter. Fortunately, a friend in the East Hamptons—two hours east of the city on Long Island—had three residences on her property where Knight, her partner and other friends could ride out the quarantine family-style.
“We packed up and didn’t have any idea of how long we’d be out here,” Knight recalls. It was March 19 when they awakened, loaded the car with clothes, nonperishable foods and pooches Mable and Cheeto, and made tracks to their friend’s sanctuary.
From communal to solo
Though Knight sometimes works out with her coach via videoconference, she says the biggest shift for her has been going from a communal environment to hours spent alone. She shadowboxes with herself in a mirror not only to correct her technique but also to trick her nervous system into reacting as if she’s actually trading blows with someone.
Having a gym on the property gives her a space for working out, and she has plenty of room to run, an indoor and outdoor pool, a sauna, a hot tub, and a garage where she’s laid down mats and hung her punching bag. She breakdances twice a week to improve her footwork and has increased her runs—as many as four miles at a stretch—from two days a week to four. She rounds that out with rowing and about 45 minutes of swimming or running in the pool.
“Even in what seems to be a disaster,” Knight says, “you can turn it into opportunity.”
After nearly two decades of an illustrious pro sports career, Knight retired from rugby in 2017. She was voted the US Rugby Player of the Decade in 2010 and was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2017. Over the years, she played in three World Cup Championships with the USA Eagles. As she exited the playing field, Knight did a brief turn in the broadcast booth, calling rugby matches for NBC and other media outlets.
Knight took the bait
Knight continues to serve on the USA Rugby board of directors and the Women’s Sport Foundation’s board of trustees, but she had seemed content to leave competition behind—until last year. That’s when her partner, a CEO in the tech space, suggested: “You’d be really amazing at MMA. I think you should fight.” Intrigued, Knight took the bait.
Along with preparing physically, she has to manage her mind, reining in expectations.
“I don’t want to get fixed on the results of trying to be a world champ but [to stay focused] on the tasks that could get me there,” she says.
And at 46, she must work around old injuries, the ghosts of a broken ankle, a broken foot and a cracked orbital.
“The human body can be trained to perform for a very long time,” she observes, “but for me, the hourglass has more sand at the bottom than at the top.”
Knight knows she’s not the only athlete caught in a time warp. She expresses compassion for the more than 11,000 Olympians who were poised to compete in Tokyo, Japan, this summer, until the games were postponed out of concerns surrounding the pandemic.
“I feel for them having to shelter in place, going from an environment where they’re accustomed to relying on teammates and team culture. It’s really tough on a lot of them,” Knight said.
She noted that the Olympic athletes, too, must remain in peak condition and yet carry the added pressure of knowing that another athlete could take their spot when it’s time to requalify for the Olympic Games, now scheduled for 2021. And, still, she trusts they’ll power through.
Facing that first opponent
Over the past couple of months, Knight has persevered at a slower, island pace. When she left, the city was in a tailspin, the virus having quickly descended and claimed the lives of so many. But the downshift has proven to be gift, she says, especially “being out in nature, in quiet areas without congestion, pollution or noise.”
While the future of most sports franchises is to be determined, MMA bouts are still being scheduled. Two opponents in the ring apparently can be more easily managed than group sports.
“There was a fight tonight on pay-per-view,” Knight said recently. “Those [competitors] have likely been in quarantine, been tested and given an assurance that they will not, in any way, compromise each other’s health.”
At the East Hamptons compound, Knight prepares healthy meals for her friends using grass-fed beef or chicken wings made in an air fryer. “Collard greens are one of my specialties,” she says. She dreams of hosting a show that’s a hybrid of cooking, lifestyle and sports, and she is preparing to launch her PSK Collective clothing line—a fusion of activewear and streetwear—this August.
“I have never had a ‘traditional’ female body,” she says, “and, as a result, I was often forced to turn to semi-custom or custom clothing options. [So] I was inspired to create a fully inclusive line that caters to athletic-bodied girls, women and individuals alike.”
At the moment, she fits in every pursuit at her own tempo. But one day her sojourn away from the city will end, life will accelerate and her coaches, she hopes, will give her the green light. Then, finally, she will face her first opponent in the MMA octagon.
COVID-19 is the rival no one in sport could game plan for. As many live events remain at a standstill and the world keeps adapting, how is sport resetting upon its staggered returns?