High school student Skylah Hamill has two previous junior world titles and is aiming for a third (ABC News: Jacqui Street)
Skylah Hamill is 13 years old, but she is already a two-time world champion in Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, and she is about to go for title number three.
- Skylah Hamill will be part of the youth Muay Thai team heading to Turkey this month
- Coaches say Muay Thai is increasingly popular with young girls
- Skyah’s mum says she thinks the sport is safer than netball
The Sunshine Coast teenager holds two state titles and three national titles, and on the world stage she is undefeated.
Later this month, she will head to Turkey with the Australian junior team competing at the International Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA) World Youth Championships.
Skylah said she chose the Thai martial art after first trying MMA (mixed martial arts), which she found was “pretty boring” and “didn’t have enough contact”.
Her coach Joe Hilton said Muay Thai utilised eight body parts as “weapons”.
“We use our knees and elbows as well — so two hands, two knees, two elbows, and we also kick as well and we grapple,” he said.
The highly technical Thai martial art has a strong following in Australian gyms, where it is considered a tough all-body work out.
But watching children fight competitively can be confronting.
‘They start from a young age’
The sport attracted criticism after a 13-year-old boy was killed at a Muay Thai match in Thailand last November.
But Skylah’s mother, Sarah Lewis, said the Australian fights were much safer than Thai junior competitions, with tighter rules and padding requirements.
“They start from a very young age and they have no padding at all, so their headshots to their little brains…. it’s pretty scary to watch. We’ve got a different structure,” she said.
“We’ve got full padding for all Muay Thai events. In the juniors, 10 to 11, there’s no headshots.
“Most of the competitions, like the IFMA World Championships, it’s fully padded, head gear, everything else.
Sarah Lewis admits she was concerned when her daughter Skylah first started fighting. (ABC News: Jacqui Street)
“It makes it a bit easier, but she knows the skills to defend herself.”
Mr Hilton said fighters were well prepared to avoid injury.
“It’s just like rugby league, it’s just like any sport — we train to compete and we train to defend ourselves, so that makes it a lot safer in the sport,” he said.
Ms Lewis admitted she was worried when her daughter first took to the ring.
“Her first fight was extremely hard to watch, but after probably the second we knew she could handle herself,” she said.
“You see all the cage fighting and it puts bad visions in your mind but they’re all padded. It’s pretty safe when they get in there, and yeah she can hold her own.”
She said she had seen few injuries in the junior ranks, compared with other sports.
“I injured myself more playing netball,” she said.
Australian Muay Thai supporters say the sport has strict rules and padding to protect young fighters. (ABC News: Jacqui Street)
Mr Hilton runs a heavy training regime involving shuttle running in the dark at 4:30am, multiple sparring, as well as pad and punching bag sessions.
Skylah gets up at 4am to start training, then returns to the gym in the afternoon after school.
“I normally come in, go for a run and then straight into pad work, which is five or seven rounds, and then we do a bit of grappling or sprint work, and then 400 knees on the bag and shadow sparring,” she said.
Mr Hilton said he believed Skylah had the temperament to dominate Muay Thai in her weight category.
“I’ve trained a few world title holder and national and state champions … and she’s at the top of the crop because of her dedication.
“She’s very focused. She understands there’s no time to have a rest or bludge. She trains very very hard and pushes very very hard.”
He said Skylah would have “a lot of work” in Turkey, with between 80 and 110 countries competing in the junior world championships across various age categories.
Muay Thai coach Joe Hilton says girls seem to be attracted by the individual focus of the sport. (ABC News: Jacqui Street)
Skylah said she was feeling confident about her chances.
“It can be a bit nerve-wracking for some just stepping in the ring, but then as soon as you touch gloves and start fighting the nerves sort of go away.”
She said the biggest challenge would be keeping to her weight class.
“You’ve got to be disciplined with what you eat, be healthy, try and train and be fit and on your weight,” she said.
‘Girls love it’
In spite — or perhaps because of — the sport’s gruelling nature, it is increasingly attracting girls and young women.
Five of Australia’s gold medals at last year’s IFMA World Youth Championships were won by female fighters, pushing Australia into fifth spot in the international junior rankings.
Coach Joe Hilton said that at the last world meeting coaches got together to try to work out why so many young girls were taking up the sport.
He said the individual nature of fighting could be one aspect that attracted girls.
“They love it — they love that individual competition one on one, and it’s growing and growing all the time,” he said.