At 34, Della O’Sullivan is one of the highest-ranking female masters in the world of the lesser known Chinese Martial Art of Wing Tsun. She’s taught policemen, bodyguards, and students all over the country and now has three schools under her black belt. However her story is far from normal. Just ten years ago she was the victim of a stalker who terrified and harassed her for four years until she decided to fight back. This is her incredible story.
The MALESTROM: Della, tell us a little bit about how this all started and the terrible situation you were in?
Della O’Sullivan: Well, it was about ten years ago when I was a teenager and living at home in Peckham and this a guy started stalking me, sending me loads of texts, harassing me in the street, following me when I went out and it was terrible. I really didn’t know what to do and of course, I was terrified.
TM: Did you call the Police?
D: I did call the police, but back then stalking wasn’t really recognised as an issue. The police used to say, ‘We can’t do anything about this unless he actually attacks you!’ So, it was useless and I felt so helpless. If it was out on the street sometimes someone would come and help, but not all the time and I felt so vulnerable and just wished it would stop. It was a living nightmare. It actually carried on for about four years. Now it’s very different though because I’ve had other women come up to me and say the support is now, but it wasn’t when it was happening to me.
TM: What happened next?
D: I eventually left home and found myself as a single mum and suddenly my life was about my boy, about my son. Although the stalking had stopped I started having flashback and nightmares about it. I realise if it started all over I had to protect my son, not just me so, I started looking for a way out of this nightmare situation I was in.
TM: How did the introduction to Wing Tsun happen then?
D: It was my brother who said, ‘Why don’t you try this martial art called Wing Tsun?’ So, out of desperation I turned up to a class and almost from the very beginning, I loved it. I got such a sense of empowerment from the very first time and without sounding too out there, it felt like it was my ‘calling.’
TM: What were those first classes like?
D: There were a few females there who I trained with, but I actually thought that I needed to train with men to step up a bit and get out of my comfort zone. I got a training partner who was a guy and we did our grading together. They were such good people in the class back then that I felt comfortable and I soon found people to train with all the time.
TM: Were you at a disadvantage because of your height?
D: (Laughs) Yeah, I’m not very tall. I’m 5ft and quite petite, but it wasn’t a disadvantage because of the principals of the way we train. You don’t fight against a greater force. I did have to train harder though, I have to say that and I had to move a bit quicker. I had to think about things differently like I can’t reach most people’s heads. Of course, the target is the head but I had to find another way to come underneath rather than over the top so I didn’t compromise my own centre. Both of my first teachers were tall and they were both guys as well and I had to find my own little way (laughs). There are lots of small men who do Wing Tsun, and there are some who only have one arm and they’re Kung Fu masters. It allows you to be any size or gender and be effective, so it’s ideal for women. I ended up training 30 hours a week and actually opened my first school after just a year, the Dulwich Wing Tsun Academy.
TM: After only a year?
D: I knew I wanted to teach straight away. When I think back it was quite crazy to open a school with that much experience but I had put in the hours so I felt ready. If you put in over 30 hours a week in a year, that’s equivalent to what most people learn about in four or five years. I’ve now been teaching for about ten years. I even have my own instructors who have opened their schools. I’ve got three schools under me in the UK now and I’ve got another two instructors who are looking to open schools too. I still teach every single day.
TM: What a journey! Tell us about the martial art itself?
D: The whole syllabus is based on what’s likely to happen on the street. When we train, we train against someone who’s picked up a knife, picked up a bat or someone who’s got another person with them, or if there’s more than one attacker so, basically all sorts of street defense. If they punch that’s a count of one, the count of two is your strike. You don’t telegraph, you punch or kick from the immediate position that your hand or foot is in. We have a lot of ways of learning. We have one method called Chi Sau or ‘sticky hands’, which a lot of people may have heard of. It allows you to fight in a competitive, repetitious cycle, without pausing in a constant set of movements, attacking over and over again at rapid speed, and then suddenly you can break a rhythm and do something else. In a real situation, we aim for the weak points too, like the eyes or the groin. What you do over time is write movements into your nervous system so you can respond when you’re really close or without prior conscious thought, so you don’t have to think to react. That is what we call the soul of Wing Tsun.
TM: That sounds fascinating…
D: And when we can, we simultaneously defend and attack at the same time. We look at fighting from a shorter range. We also use the shortest and most direct route. We don’t go round. We go straight. There are not a lot of pauses in our movements. We just fly in and continuously move. It’s a one, two movement all happening at the same time, very continuous and very rapid and it’s also very fluid and very fast. You don’t try and fight against a greater force. You try and use it to your advantage.
TM: It obviously took your mind off the stalker immediately?
D: Yes. I found it really addictive because it stimulated my mind as well. I just thought this is so clever and there’s so much to learn that it took my mind of everything and I was straight in.
TM: That’s quite a transformation from being a victim?
D: Yeah, I felt empowered and it just made everything positive. It was more the mental side as well, you know. I stopped being anxious. I lifted my head up in public and when I spoke to people. I started public speaking, which I’d never done before. I was able to fly on planes, which I could never do because I was scared of flying. All of these fears went and it made a really big impact on my life. It’s very hard to explain, but when I walked into my first gym and I started to train… it was like a calling really. I can’t explain why but it was the first thing, or maybe the only thing that I was sure about without any doubt. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I need to do!’
TM: How important is the mental side of it?
D: I would say the mental side of all martial arts is really important because of the self-belief, the philosophical side, the internal growth. You have to become internally stronger because if you don’t have the self-belief, you can’t employ the physical side. You can’t be scared inside, you have to be able to face your fears and move forward. It is very important to have the philosophical side so you can watch yourself. You’re doing something that’s really quite brutal, quite aggressive and there’s a sense of etiquette that comes from the East where people are bowing and are very respectful to each other. It’s very easy to lose who you are and get a big ego and become more aggressive and someone you didn’t want to be in the first place. You know in old ancient Chinese mythology you always get one of the best students turn dark. But it can happen and it’s dangerous for people not to watch themselves and have a sense of awareness. I also have a very good teacher who will never tolerate bad characters.
TM: What level are you at now?
D: I achieved my master level last year, which is something I thought I’d never reach actually. Not many people get that high in my discipline anyway. In my association, I run the UK and I’m the highest-ranking female in my association, and one of the top five instructors in the entire association. There aren’t many females at my rank so I may well be one of the highest-ranking female teachers in the world.
TM: It’s certainly a world away from where you started. Were you very aware of not losing your femininity?
D: Yes, absolutely. I was really conscious of that and I think most girls are. You just assume you’re going to get big muscles and having people mock you because you’re around men. You assume because you’re learning from men most of the time, that’s you will imitate them and move like them and everything else. Wing Tsun allowed me to become something else and also embrace my femininity.
TM: It now sounds obvious to say, but this life change has obviously helped you stop being a victim?
D: Part of my motivation was to never be in that position again. Also, a lot of motivation was trying to master myself, trying to develop myself and every day become better and better at Wing Tsun. Then, I wanted to see how much I could grow and then the stalking incident became more and more distant in the back of my mind. I didn’t think about it for a long, long time because I became a leader, a teacher, I started helping other people. It was only recently that I had another shift in my life that I felt, ‘Do you know what? I am going to help and tell other women what I’ve been through.’ For nearly ten years my students didn’t even know anything about what had happened to me, they had no idea. I didn’t tell them because I thought, ‘I’m a teacher now, and will people see me as a victim, or will they feel sorry for me, or think less of me?’ Which I would have hated! Then I became mature enough to realise that I didn’t do anything wrong. It doesn’t make me less of anything because I had a stalker. I’m very strong and I’m not a victim. There is a sense of shame that comes with that and a lot of women have probably been through that too. You don’t want people to feel sorry for you and give you sympathy, especially when you’re starting to train other people to fight. Now, I thought if I speak out I might inspire other women who have been through the same or similar thing, so they say, ‘Well, if she can do it then so can I!’
TM: What are the origins of Wing Tsun?
D: The story has been passed down through generations so it can vary. My understanding was that in China about 300 years ago, there were five, Buddhist monk masters and one was a woman called Ng Mui and she was the only female master. At the time the Government was killing all martial artists and they all split and decided to create five styles for anyone of any size and any gender; simple, direct and effective outward movements that worked. Then Ng Mui met her successor called Yim Wing Tsun, who was being pursued and bullied by a local man who was trying to get her to marry him. She asked for Ng Mui’s help and she then trained her to a level where she went back and challenged the man who was bullying and harassing her to marry him, and she beat him. Ng Mui then named the martial art after her. So, Wing Tsun originates from a woman, which I really liked.
TM: That’s a great story. It sounds like it would be perfect for the police and bodyguards too?
D: Yes, it is. I’ve got lots of students who are police officers in my school and I also used to teach bodyguards as well, all ex-military.
TM: Wasn’t that daunting?
D: You know, a small female walking into a room with all these tough guys (laughs). First, they thought I was a bit of a gimmick, but they were really respectful and when they saw that I knew what I was doing, when they tried to stab me or throw a punch and they saw me react, I think they were surprised. Then, they just wanted to listen and learn. If someone’s got a weapon we try to defend and attack simultaneously. There will be a strike involved before we take a person down and disarm them.
TM: And you’ve also fought and performed in China…
D: Yeah, on the Shaolin Temple (the Buddhist Temple that is the cradle of martial arts). It was my first association and we selected the top people and went on a tour around China. We were invited out there and we did some performances at the Shaolin Temple and also on the Great Wall of China. We also got to train on the Great Wall at night-time, which was my favourite memory and also in the Forbidden City.
TM: That’s impressive!
D: When we were there we met the Shaolin Monks at the Temple. They went on first and then we performed in front of about 2000 people, all sitting there watching us. I did a multiple, attackers defense with a handbag, so it was like a real-life situation. Three guys started trying to harass and then attack me. I used my handbag in the first part of the demonstration and then fought them all off.
TM: Tell us about the tour you’re doing to encourage women to take up the fight?
D: After I decided to speak out about what I’d gone through, which as I said was only recently, I did a seminar full of lots of incredible women who had come all the way across London to see me and said they were helped by hearing my story. So, I’ve decided to do a tour in the hope to raise money for a charity and to encourage women to step forward and train in an all-female class, where they talk openly about what they’ve experienced. It’s inevitable that with a male instructor, someone who’s been a victim might not feel comfortable. They don’t necessarily have to join my school, but as long as they find the confidence in themselves to so something. Every woman should feel empowered enough to go out and be confident and know how to deal with situations should they arise, and be able to make the right decisions to make sure they feel safe. The tour’s called ‘Fight Like a Girl Tour’ and we’ve got two dates in London on 14th and 21st of October and there are other dates on the website too.