Kelly Chinchilla, a band member of Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba (with Polish and Métis ancestry), is not one to sit still. A single mom at the age 20, Chinchilla raised her daughter, while working full-time as an educational assistant; studying to become a teacher through the CATEP program, a partnership between the University of Winnipeg and the Seven Oaks School Division; and maintaining an active lifestyle by pow wow dancing and training in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) at the Winnipeg Academy of Mixed Martial Arts (WAMMA) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education, Chinchilla is now working as a kindergarten teacher in the Seven Oaks School Division, and is continuing to advance in her MMA training.
SAY Magazine sat down with Chinchilla to learn more about her incredible passion and dedication, and to find out how she does it all.
SAY: How did you discover your passion for mixed martial arts?
Chinchilla: I got into MMA about a year and four months ago. I always wanted to train in martial arts, but I didn’t have the confidence to show up at a gym. I had a friend that brought me to WAMMA one day and from then on I was hooked. I enjoyed how challenging it was, but also how good it felt to make it through a class. After starting to train, it became empowering. It’s also an outlet for me to regulate some negative emotions. Being an athlete most of my life, I also just wanted to develop my skills, and see what I am capable of.
SAY: Were you quite active in your youth, then?
Chinchilla: Yes, very. I played basketball for about 13 years; in high school I played from grade 9-12 and was very competitive. I made the provincial team for the North American Indigenous Games in 2002 (Winnipeg, Manitoba), 2006 (Denver, Colorado) and 2008 (Cowichan, British Columbia). In high school I also played volleyball and did cross country.
I continued to play on adult recreational teams after having my daughter, and when I was 21 I started coaching for Anishinabe Pride, a program that helps inner city Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth participate in sports. I was literally coaching with a baby on my hip!
In 2013 I received the Aboriginal Coach of the Year Award from the Manitoba Aboriginal Sports and Recreation Council (MASRC). I coached for about 3 years, while I was working full-time and going to university part-time. I had to stop coaching to focus on schoolwork, my job as an educational assistant and of course my daughter.
SAY: Are you involved in any other activities in your spare time (if you have any)?
Chinchilla: Now that I am teaching, I am considering eventually coaching basketball in the school I work at. I am also a pow wow dancer, which involves a lot of cardio and is helpful for staying fit, and I teach kids how to dance in pow wow clubs at schools in the school division that I work for. Ever since I was a teen, I have also enjoyed exercising outside of sports, such as weight lifting and cross training. I often work out at home when I can’t make it to gym.
SAY: How did you balance raising your daughter, working full-time, studying and staying active, all at the same time?
Chinchilla: It’s all about time management, using your time wisely and being able to multitask. I would always tell myself not to be someone that makes excuses. I had to make these things a priority. Seeing other people accomplish their goals made me believe that I can do the same.
To stay active, I would watch videos and research ways to work out at home. I would literally jump rope in front of my daughter when she was a baby sitting in her swing, or do things like squats while holding her, which she also enjoyed. I found ways to stay active while spending time with my daughter.
I consider myself to be a pretty “high- strung” person, so I always need to be doing something. I need to be active, and I find I am good at managing a busy schedule. There are times when I do get overwhelmed – you have to know when to step back from something to focus on your main priorities (i.e. stepping down as a coach when I started school).
SAY: Over the years what has motivated you to keep moving towards your goals?
Chinchilla: My daughter is my biggest motivator by far. Before I had her I was very unmotivated, and I had really bad social anxiety and depression. Once I had my daughter, I became outspoken and driven. I started to realize what I wanted in life, for myself and my daughter. I just knew that I wanted more than I had, and wanted to do better.
I feel there is also a negative stigma attached to young and/or single mothers as well, which motivated me to do my best as a parent. Becoming a parent and having to advocate for my daughter (by myself) forced me to overcome some of my social anxieties. I was forced to be strong.
SAY: Do you have a strong support system that helps you succeed?
Chinchilla: My parents, brothers and grandmother, and a few friends really support me. They’ve always been there to help with my daughter, especially when I had evening classes.
I have also been lucky to have the support of the peers in my cohort that I went to school with for the last six years; they saw me struggle as a single parent and always helped in whatever ways they could (encouragement, advice and conversation). The friends I’ve made at WAMMA are very supportive, including Curtis, the owner and head coach at WAMMA, who has become a great mentor. In addition, I have so much respect for the other women I train with – they are fearless and inclusive, and they help make the gym a little less intimidating.
I also have many supportive friends in the Indigenous community who I have met over the years through pow wow dancing and ceremony – many of whom believe in building our nations up and supporting one another.
SAY: How has your involvement in physical activity and sports impacted your life, and why has it been a priority?
Chinchilla: Playing on sports teams helps children to develop socially, and in many cases it helps to keep them away from negative things – this is true for me. Kids learn how to become leaders and team players, accept losses and strive to improve. Looking back, I realize how the discipline learned from playing sports has shown me how to work hard for progress. As I got older I started caring more about the health aspect of it.
In 2016 I was diagnosed as diabetic despite being active and eating fairly healthy most of my life. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is even more important now. I am very physically “fit” and I manage my glucose levels very well, but part of maintaining that is being mentally healthy. I was shocked at my diagnosis and struggled with depression – that’s one of the reasons why MMA became an outlet for me both physically and mentally. I know that diabetics can be healthy, so I don’t let the disease hold me back.
SAY: Can you share with us some of your goals for your MMA training?
Chinchilla: I want to have my first MMA fight before next summer. I also hope to earn my blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu before the end of this year. I have competed in two jiu-jitsu tournaments here in Winnipeg. I competed in the Manitoba Fall Open and earned gold in my white belt NoGi category and a silver in the NoGi category this past May at the Spring Open Tournament. I am getting ready for the next Fall Open tournament, and I will most likely be competing in jiu-jitsu tour- naments every year, and for as long as my body will let me.
I would like to train to fight as an amateur athlete and see how I do. Longer term I would like to fight professionally. I am trying to train as much as I can, and improve as fast as I can. I want to be able to do things I never thought possible.
SAY: What advice would you give to a single parent who is struggling to reach their goals?
Chinchilla: Remember who you are doing it for – your child (or children), and yourself – and don’t forget to take care of yourself as well. Make time, and don’t make excuses. Make realistic goals, but also have a plan of action, and know when things need to change. Surround yourself with people who motivate and inspire you to do better.
SAY: What piece of advice do you have for young girls like your daughter?
Chinchilla: Never give up when you really want to achieve something. You have to persevere, and also know that you may fail at some things. The key is to make a change or adjust when necessary – that may even be your own attitude or mentality. A saying I really like is, “A year from now you will be wishing you had started today.” If you really want to achieve something, go get it, make it happen. Just keep fighting for what you want because it’s probably worth it!