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EBS contributor Ashley McEnroe, left, in sparring practice with Montana State University freshman Mackenzie Stone. PHOTO BY JOHN LEWTON

Bozeman combat arts gym offers women self-protection skills 

By Ashley McEnroe EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – This past year, the world became a more dangerous place, and not just because of COVID-19. Pandemic shutdowns led to domestic terror on a heightened scale for women and children forced to lockdown with an abusive relative or roommate. Meanwhile, the streets turned lethal, from the West Coast to the U.S. Capitol and most recently in Atlanta. Women were brutalized at political rallies, white supremacist marches and protests. 

Yet, it wasn’t the news cycle that led me to seek out self-defense training. At age 56 and feeling every old sports injury reborn as arthritis, I sought a new way to be strong and confident. Part of that self-assurance was knowing what to do if my family or I were threatened with physical harm. 

Like millions of other American women and girls, I have had close calls with violent predators. I consider myself lucky because I escaped. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, around 2 million women are physically assaulted annually in our country. One out of every four American women have experienced severe physical violence committed by a current or former husband, boyfriend or date, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

Women are much more likely than male victims to be injured during these crimes. The Montana Department of Justice reports that from 2000 to 2018, 200 Montanans died at the hands of an intimate partner.

The situation has not been ignored by lawmakers. The Violence Against Women Act—a 1994 law providing federal resources to prevent and combat domestic violence and sexual assault while supporting victims—is now moving through the U.S. Congress for renewal. Montana legislators are considering House Bill 449, which would give courts more power to require electronic/GPS monitoring as a condition of pre-trial release for defendants charged with felony partner or family member assaults and stalking. 

However, legislation rarely deters the darkest impulses of humankind. 

After an Internet search and a few emails, I found John Betancourt, founder of Fortress Combat Arts in Bozeman. I took him up on an offer for a free women’s strike fit class, a mix of kickboxing and assault defense maneuvers. My classmates, a mix of students and professionals ranging from late teens on up, were all aglow with sincerity. From the start, they made me feel welcome.  

A former advanced shipboard firefighter, boarding team member and rescue swimmer in the U.S. Coast Guard, Betancourt has 30 years of experience and black belts in an array of combat-related disciplines. He began teaching his first classes in Bozeman in 2009 and in 2013 opened his own gym. His inspiration to create female-focused defense training came later. 

Over the past election cycle, Betancourt’s outrage grew watching online videos of women being accosted at political events and sometimes pepper sprayed, chased and cornered while objects were thrown at them. 

“The people holding the camera phones recording the whole thing weren’t coming to their aid. The media wasn’t coming to their aid,” he said. “That’s when I realized we had to get serious about building a skill set for women to get themselves out of a bad situation.”

Like the name suggests, Fortress provides a safe space to venture into unsafe territory. In addition to boxing, striking and jiu-jitsu training, Fortress offers weapons courses. Everything is designed to bypass the mentally paralyzing adrenalin dump one experiences in a threatening situation and replace it with a set of practical, realistic options. 

While anyone can learn a little rote, formulaic fight choreography in some dojos or on YouTube, Betancourt said it is worthless in real life. 

“You can learn a bunch of cool moves, but unless it fits the situation that you get stuck in, it means nothing,” Betancourt says.

More important is sensing danger before it escalates by learning what assault cues look like, he teaches. And trusting yourself is paramount. A male attacker can overcome a female victim just by raising his voice. 

“Guys will use their power to shut women down emotionally, to break their spirits,” Betancourt says. “This is about finding that place where you can say, ‘Okay, I know what this game looks like now, I know what this guy’s trying to do.’” 

Meanwhile, women tend to overanalyze even imminently menacing confrontations. “Once you understand that this is a bad situation, there’s no time for all that other thinking and processing,” Betancourt says. “The next confirmation you will get is pain.” 

Betancourt maintains that the current popularity of concealed carry for personal protection is not a substitute for the spectrum of training he offers. 

“If we really believe that the gun is a tool of last resort, then if you have no other skill set, if you can’t fight your way out of a situation that doesn’t dictate actually killing somebody, then the firearm is the tool of only resort. We can’t be that type of person who relies on a gun to get us out of any situation,” he says. 

Professional fighter and boxing coach Cody Clark, who joined Fortress after moving to the Bozeman area this year, has trained men, women and kids to compete and now lends his experience to Betancourt’s program. Combat sports are not about physical violence, he insists, but reliance on a fundamental mindset—defense foremost and positive thinking.

“You’ve got to believe that you can handle this and you’re capable of it,” he advises. 

Montana State University freshman Mackenzie Stone discovered Fortress while seeking to continue her jiu-jitsu training. 

“From what I saw, it just looked like a good community here at Fortress. And it is,” she said. “It takes a lot for people to step out of their comfort zone to come to self-defense classes. They have this fear that they’re going to be hurt, but once you keep going and commit to it, that fear just totally goes away,” Stone explained. 

Andrea Wymore, 32, started at Fortress last October, and like Stone and me, she found a positive environment that drew her into the full array of combat classes. As a frequent international and backcountry solo traveler, Wymore feels more equipped to confront danger because of Betancourt’s emphasis on proper methods and disciplined technique. 

“If I’m going to learn something, I want to learn it right. And you learn technique here,” Wymore adds. 

To find the Fortress class schedule, visit fortresscombat.com. or call 406-599-6766 with inquiries.

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