Danika Thibault lands four kicks in a row to her opponent’s stomach at Combat Do, a musty, old-school gym in Cicero. Two streams of light beam down from the ceiling windows, illuminating the DeKalb freshman and her clearly overmatched sparring partner on the elevated boxing ring in the middle of the floor.
The 5-foot tall fighter unleashes a few powerful punches that keep the slightly larger girl on her heels. Every time she hits, she releases an audible gust of breath to maximize the force in each punch or kick.
It’s her power, her brains and her raw competitiveness that have her father, coaches and agent thinking she just might be a world champion kickboxer this weekend, when she heads to Orlando, Fla., for the International Kickboxing Federation’s world championship, where she’ll compete in the 14-15 flyweight division.
She’s only 14, but Danika Thibault has big dreams. She talks about one day joining the UFC, which doesn’t yet have a women’s division. Her dad talks about possibly competing in boxing at the 2016 Olympics if she does well in the Silver Gloves amateur championship this fall.
“By the time she’s 18, she’s going to be a world champion,” her former coach Sean Jackson said. “She pushes herself, beyond the guys, the pro fighters. She has that will to be the best at what she does.”
‘I GET TO TAKE ALL OF MY ANGER OUT’
In the ring, Danika is a menacing figure.
Two opponents refused to get in the ring with her. Before her first kickboxing bout, when she was 12, her opponent started to cry. Feeling bad, Danika took some of the power off of her kicks and punches on her way to an easy win.
When she finishes practice and takes off her equipment, she looks more like a normal 14-year-old than a fierce fighting machine. Her long, brown hair is French-braided, her finger and toe nails are painted pink, and her braces are lined with red bands.
In many ways, Danika is a typical high school freshman. She’s been on the poms team for two years, attends school dances and is consistently a member of the high honor roll.
But there’s something about hitting another girl in the face that she loves.
“I get to take all of my anger out,” she said. “I just think it’s fun.”
FINDING A COACH
The man behind her fighting career stands about 25 yards away with his arms crossed.
Sean Thibault is her chauffeur, promoter and father.
One thing he tries to avoid, though, is coaching his daughter.
The soft-spoken, slightly-built 37-year-old, who sports a goatee surrounded by stubble, has learned that being a father and a personal trainer just don’t mix.
The loving relationship that a father has with his daughter is complicated by certain actions that are implicit in coaching, such as correcting her mistakes or sternly telling her she needs to work harder.
“It gets to the point where she’s sick of hearing my voice,” he said.
Sometimes he can’t avoid giving her a few tips, yelling her name and miming different movements with his body, showing her what she needs to do better.
But Sean knows that, when he sees Danika shake her head in a certain, disapproving way, it’s time to stop.
Jackson used to be her permanent coach, but he moved to San Diego a few months ago.
Sean made the two-hour drive to Cicero because Danika needs a coach in her corner this weekend. He hopes that man is Master Bob Schirmer, a man no taller than 5-6 with curly white hair and an inverted brow that juts out and makes it look like he’s constantly scowling.
Schirmer is a martial arts legend in the area, an eighth-degree black belt who was awarded the rank of master by the United States Jiu-Jitsu Association in 1994 at the age of 37.
He already is heading to Orlando with several of his own athletes, and by the end of the day, it’s decided that he’ll coach Danika, too.
Sean didn’t play sports past his junior year of high school. He said he didn’t have the support needed to be an elite athlete.
“I had dysfunctional parents,” he said. “Elite athletes usually have somebody behind them … Whether it be a mentor or somebody who made it financially possible or somebody who drove them every day, there’s usually somebody behind them. There’s a reason they got to that level.”
But during his adult life, he fell in love with MMA.
As his kids grew older, Sean began taking his daughters to the gym. His older daughter, Danielle, didn’t like fighting, but the sport came naturally to Danika.
She started with grappling, a submission form of wrestling, when she was 10, and she followed the natural progression to kickboxing, boxing and MMA a few years later.
In years previous, Danika played for competitive travel softball teams. But this summer, she quit softball to focus on fighting.
She’s all-in, and Sean is right there with her.
“It’s definitely something you make a decision to go all-out for,” Sean says. “You either go get it or you don’t, and if you do go get it, you go get it as hard as you can, 100 percent. Broke as a joke, everything goes to travel, everything goes to training. You just go as hard as you can and try to keep her happy.”
Sean’s days consist of working as a warehouse manager at Fox River Import Company and driving her to United MMA in DeKalb, to Aurora for boxing, to the Huntley Middle School track, or anywhere else she needs to go.
Because cross training is important in mixed martial arts, no two consecutive days are the same. Some days, she trains like a distance runner and some she trains like a wrestler.
This week, they’re making a two-day drive to Orlando for the IKF World Championships.
They don’t really know what to expect because Danika never has faced this level of competition. She’s 3-0 in kickboxing, and 5-0 across all types of stand-up fighting, and most of her wins have come in dominating fashion.
“You always expect to win,” Sean said. “But you don’t know. You don’t know what some girl in California has going on or if there’s some Puerto Rican girl. We’ll find out where she’s at.”
SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY
It’s not difficult to tell how much Sean has calculated and thought about his daughter’s future.
“To come out of [the IKF Championships this weekend] with a world championship would be nice. That’s kind of the goal, start with that kickboxing one then get the grappling and then get the boxing,” he says. “She can’t fight adults yet, so when she progresses to a certain point, we’re going to have to sit on our hands a little bit until she turns 18. … Once she turns 18, we’re just going to turn her pro right away.”
Later on, he talks about Danika’s goal of boxing in the Olympics, even though he also said she’ll focus more on mixed martial arts.
And Danika seems to have the same feelings. She dismisses talk of possible burnout in the future.
“I’ll want to do it in the future,” she said. “I love it.”
If they do lose sight of things, Jackson is only a phone call away. He talks to Danika on the phone a few times a week about school, fighting and life in general. And he tries to give Danika and her father in perspective when need be.
“Everything he’s doing, he’s doing for her, and I see that,” Jackson said. “My position here is just to give a couple of pointers, let’s not burn her out, but keep doing what you’re doing because you’re doing the right thing.”
She’s only fought for three years.
But Sean sees opportunities for his daughter. He sees an opportunity for stardom, an opportunity to become a professional fighter, and opportunity for her to have a better life.
Now is the time to seize that opportunity.
“Everything just kind of fell into place at some point,” Sean said. “And at some point, you kind of just have to decide, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to go at this 100 percent.’ Go hard, go hard, go hard.”