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I Successfully Defended Myself From An Attack in Madrid - My Self-Defense Training Saved My Life

It was an unprovoked stranger attack. He targeted me because he thought I was vulnerable. He thought I was weak. He thought I wasn’t paying attention. He thought he could attack me from behind as I was leaving. He thought I was an easy target.

He was wrong.

No one ever wants to be in a situation where they have to use the self-defense skills they've learned. But the importance of having those skills is so that they're available to us in instances where we have to respond to danger or violence and protect ourselves. No matter what situation we are in, we are our own first responders and we are the most qualified person to make decisions about our safety in that moment.

I hate being a statistic but sharing my story of what happened on December 24th, 2021 is how I can help others realize that we do have a choice in how we deal with situations even when it looks bleak, even when it’s unexpected, even when we’re not 100% sure what to do in the moment.

Being prepared is powerful!

It was Christmas Eve, 2021 in Madrid and my friend Gina and I were heading to dinner at a restaurant that our hotel had recommended. Although Gina had been to Spain before, it was my first time in this beautiful country and I was enjoying Madrid immensely. I had spent the last 2 days exploring the city, shopping at the Christmas Markets, taking in the sights and tasting the food. This night, we decided to walk to the restaurant since it was only a short distance away. We left our purses in our room and put the few items we needed for the night into our coat pockets before we headed out.

In Spain, it’s customary to eat dinner later in the evening so our reservations were for 8:30pm. We walked to the restaurant, enjoying the Christmas lights and the bustle of the city along the way. After a wonderful meal, it was now 10:00pm and Gina suggested that we take an Uber instead of walking back to our hotel. I agreed, she called a ride, and we walked out of the restaurant to meet our car when it was just a few minutes away.

When we exited the restaurant I noticed that we were on a pedestrian only cobblestone street and the Uber would not be able to pick us up from right in front of the restaurant. That meant we would need to adjust the pick up point. We looked at the map on the app and made an adjustment to the closest street which was less than a block away to the left.

As we approached the meeting point, Gina handed me her phone to make sure that the pick-up point was correct. I slipped the holder ring on the back of the phone onto my finger so I could keep a better grip. The car was now about 2 mins away according to the app and we wanted to be ready for it to appear from the small tunnel way along the one-way street. When we reached the street corner, I noticed a lot of commotion - loud voices, some yelling, materials being dragged on the ground and clanging. I looked around and realized that we were near what seemed to be an encampment of unhoused people. The loud noises and general high energy unfolding around us sparked my intuition. I couldn't place why I was feeling uneasy, but I couldn’t wait for the car to arrive so we could get out of there. I turned to Gina and said, “this is not a great area to be in” in an attempt to ground myself while I kept my senses on alert.

We saw a pair of headlights emerge from the tunnel and we looked closely to match the license plate to verify if it was our ride…it was! We waved at the car to let him know we were his passengers. As our car approached, a man was walking haphazardly across the road but moved out of the way to allow the car to pass and then gestured for it to pass him. This man was harmless, but my awareness of what was happening around me was amped up. Our car stopped and I opened the back door to get in before realizing that Gina needed to get in first. She is quite a bit shorter than I am and usually sits behind the driver that way I'll have more leg room. This thought process all happened in a split second. I stepped back and motioned for Gina to get in first and she quickly ducked into the backseat.

Before I could follow her into the car, something caught my attention from the corner of my right eye. I don’t remember if it was a sound, a feeling, or movement I noticed, but I turned my head to see a man running full speed in my direction with a look of both anger and aggression on his unmasked face. His hands were at his sides clenched into fists and he was barreling forward with attack energy. I understood that he was going to collide with me before I would have the chance to get into the car- into safety. He had started his attack while my back was turned away to get into the car, which was a predatory move. But now I saw him and had a split second to decide what to do before he reached me.

Intuitively, I knew I only had one option, so I swirled my entire body to face him straight on, with my hands up and in front of my face. (This is "ready stance".) Gina’s phone was still looped onto my finger from when we had changed our pickup location, and it was now facing out to the attacker. He stopped in his tracks about 4ft from me the instant I turned to face him. He didn’t come any closer.Without thinking the words “Hey, what’s going on?” calmly came out of my mouth. Something about his demeanor told me that I needed to speak to him calmly. It wasn’t until after the encounter that I thought I should have been speaking to him in Spanish, but in the adrenalized moment, my Spanish went out the window.

Now that we were face to face I saw his eyes were wide, his brow furrowed, his hair askew and his jaw set in a hard grimace. His hands were still clenched at his sides and he had this look of anger on his face that I won’t ever forget. His wide eyes and the unprovoked manner in which he attacked led me to also infer that he might have been impaired in some way either chemically or medically. The world around me narrowed and I was laser focused on this man.

With the car still behind me, the door partially open from when Gina got in, and this assailant mere feet in front of me, my brain was quickly assessing my options in this moment. I wanted to keep myself between him and the open car door so that my friend wouldn’t be in danger. I also wanted to get into the car but I knew I didn’t have the time or distance to do that before he could reach me since he was still too close. He moved around me a bit; walking or more like swaying a few steps to my left and then my right. I kept turning my body so that no matter where he moved, I was facing him straight on; just as I have been trained to do and what I train others to do. He wasn’t moving closer to me so I calmly watched and kept my hands up. I said again, “Hey, what’s going on?”

He seemed agitated, but also confused. He never answered me, nor was he speaking any words to me or making any sounds. I didn’t know what he wanted, what prompted his attack attempt, or why he wasn’t walking away. I don’t think he knew what to do since I was facing him and not acting fearful. I wanted to avoid yelling at him because I could already tell he was upset and I wanted to de-escalate this situation as quickly as I could.

At some point during this stand-off, I remember that Gina yelled for me to get in the car, but I knew I couldn’t do that yet because of his proximity and aggression. I called back to her over my shoulder that I couldn't because of this man. I felt the safest thing I could do was keep evaluating the situation, stand my ground, and monitor my options for eventually getting to safety. He kept solid eye contact with me during this entire time. He wasn’t coming any closer but he was still too close for a smooth escape. I felt frustrated that safety, the car, was right there but I couldn’t access it yet.

Around this time, I must have slipped Gina’s phone out of my hand and passed it behind my back to her in the car. The interesting thing about the neurobiology of trauma is that memories of events are often out of chronological order, or certain events can't be recalled. I have no memory of giving her phone back to her, but it wasn't in my hand when the next thing happened. Everything seemed to happen so slow yet so fast.

Suddenly, he leaned back and I saw the attack coming. He did what looked like a front kick at me and he struck my open right palm; both of my hands had stayed up to protect my face. Even though I had kept a decent amount of distance from him, he was still close enough to make contact with my palm with his kick. However, he didn’t move closer to me in order to do this attack and it was clear that he was trying to do what he could from a distance.

Once he made contact with me, several things seemed to happen at once. Our Uber driver got out, came around the front of the car to the right side where we were at, and started yelling at the man. Two other men appeared from nearby and rushed my attacker, pulling him away from me. As the bystanders grabbed my assailant, I knew this was my chance to get to safety. Using the distraction, I ran around the back of the car and got in back door on the left side.

Gina closed her door which she had kept open during the encounter in case I was able to make it into the car, turned to me and asked if I was hurt. She had seen the kick and thought he had kicked me in the face. I told her he had kicked my hand but that I was ok. My hand stung like getting an aggressive high five, but I wasn’t injured or scratched. Moments later our Uber driver got back in the car and we thanked him for his help intervening in the situation. As we drove back to our hotel he asked if we were ok and inquired as to what happened. We told him what we knew - that this was an unprovoked attack from a man that targeted us as we were leaving for no apparent reason. Our driver dropped us off at our hotel safely and that concluded our night.

After the incident, we continued our trip through Madrid, Barcelona and Andorra. And I wasn’t afraid. I knew this was an isolated incident, an act of unprovoked violence that was not my fault and I wasn’t going to let this encounter stop me from enjoying my vacation or any future adventures.

I am not going to stop living my best life!

My intention is to share this with you to help you feel powerful. My intention is to be real in saying that violence can happen to anyone, and it’s not always about statistics. Yes, 86% of the time women are assaulted by someone they know, and like 1 in 4 women in the world, I am part of that statistic. However, this man was a complete stranger. Statistics help us identify problems, but they aren’t absolutes or guarantees about what we can experience. My intention is to bring you empowerment and not fear.

What I know for a fact is that my self-defense training saved my life. Self-defense is about avoiding danger and getting to safety and I was able to do both of those things without having to use my physical fighting skills. My assailant never said a word, didn’t try to grab me once I turned to face him, and didn’t try to rob us. His motivations will never be known to anyone but him. I successfully defended myself because I was prepared and used all the options at my disposal to avoid a fight.

We can’t always predict when we will be faced with violence. We can’t control the behavior of others. But we can control our response to danger and violence that presents itself in any particular moment.

We can be prepared with options for defending ourselves.

I am thankful that the 3 bystanders stepped in during this attack and came to my aid which gave me the time to escape. I know that I’m worth fighting for and so is my friend. When we look out for each other, we can make the world a safer place for everyone.

Photo by: Deborah Hart

Looking back on what happened after having some time to process the events, it reinvigorates my passion for teaching self-defense. I want to educate as many people as possible on how they too, can protect themselves in a worst case scenario. Much of what I teach with Girls Fight Back and IMPACT Personal Safety includes non-physical strategies to address danger and set boundaries because those are the skills we use most often. But not all situations can or will be deterred by those means alone. It is life saving to have both physical and verbal skills available to respond to a situation when an assailant is highly motivated to attack; or any situation including within our relationships, at our workplaces or with family.

There is confidence in knowing that you can protect yourself. There is confidence in knowing you don’t have to wait for others to step in to save you. There is confidence in knowing that you can handle yourself UNTIL help arrives.

It's time to own our power instead of relying on others to save us.

My bystanders intervened AFTER the man attacked me and made contact with my hand, but I was successfully defending myself up until that point which gave me the opportunity to get to safety.

Photo by: Erik Umphery

Society attempts to put limitations on us, especially women, in regards to our safety and how we live our lives.

I teach self-defense to help us remove those limitations and give us direct access to our power.

Because you know what? Those limitations, those “don’ts” and "lists of things to avoid if you want to be safe" that are perpetuated in our society are not guarantees of safety. Let's look at the dynamics of my attack in Madrid: I wasn’t alone, it wasn’t late, we were getting an Uber instead of walking at night, we didn’t have our purses, we didn’t have flashy jewelry or clothes, we were in a well lit area, there were other people around, and safety was inches away (the car). There are no guarantees of safety unfortunately, but instead of limiting our lives, we can learn options for defending ourselves and setting boundaries for those instances when we are faced with discomfort or danger. This is how what can allow us to open up our world. My self-defense training saved me and allowed me to continue to enjoy my trip and explore the city and beyond without fear.

During my attack, I made the best choice I could make for myself in that moment. I made that choice based on my training and my split second assessment of what was happening. I did the best that I could do with those circumstances and with the choices at my disposal. I was able to avoid a physical confrontation by using my body language, confidence, voice and hands. This is what I want to give everyone:

Education on the options available at varying stages of an encounter and the confidence to be able to make a choice that works for them.

As Gavin de Becker says in his book The Gift of Fear, “everyone might be a target at times, but not everyone must be a victim.”

Special Thanks:

Thank you to Girls Fight Back and IMPACT Personal Safety for my training that enabled me to act fast, think clearly and protect myself until I could get to safety. The knowledge that I am prepared to defend myself and that I have options for doing so is what empowers me to walk through the world confidently and not live in fear.

Thank you to our Uber driver for going above and beyond as a driver and stepping in as an active bystander. He had no obligation to intervene in a situation that had already become physical, but he saw a situation that could have escalated further and he decided to act. Thank you for your kind act of bravery.

Thank you to the 2 bystanders on the street that came to my assistance as well. I don’t know your names but I am grateful that you intervened on my behalf. I hope that you are safe and the situation was de-escalated after I got to safety.

Self-Defense Skills Recap from My Madrid Encounter:

  • Intuition: Something felt off

  • Awareness: I noticed the man running at me

  • Distance: I kept him far enough away that he couldn't easily touch me.

  • Response: Calm, direct, and ready stance

  • Verbals: Calmly tried to de-escalate

  • Decide: Choosing to stand my ground in ready stance until another option to safety opened up.

  • Escape: When the bystanders intervened it gave me the space to get to safety by running around the back of the car.

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