WEEK #25: VERONICA DE SANTOS
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sports have always been a part of my life. From a very young age I wanted to do everything from play cricket to martial arts. Being the youngest of 10 children, my mother along with older siblings impressed upon me that certain sports, especially martial arts was not something young girls participated in.
June 29, 1975, I arrived in Toronto from Guyana to begin my new life together. I was 4 months shy of my 17th birthday and the first thing I did once settling into my apartment in Mississauga, was to look for a martial arts school.
I loved every minute of the classes and did extra training on my own. I failed my first belt testing which taught me the valuable lesson of not giving up! Success is built on failures and each failure is an opportunity to learn.
I received my 1st Degree Black Belt in 1979 and my life would be forever changed from that moment on. I moved from Mississauga and began training at Northern Karate. It took a while to learn a new martial arts style but the excitement of learning was still fresh. I began competing on a serious level and was awarded the Ontario Amateur Athlete Award in 1981, the same year I was ranked Number 1 Female Fighter in the Karate circuit. The spirited child found and outlet for her energy and it was paying off in a substantial way.
1987 I was named as one of only two Canadians to the first professional karate team…World Atlantic Karate Team with such notable names as Billy Blanks (Mr. Tae Bo). Competing around the world was a dream come true and I appreciated every moment.
I had the honour of competing and training with some of the most amazing female athletes in the world. Martial Arts was most definitely something young girls should do.
In 1988 I opened DeSantos Martial Arts Studio. It was important for me to send a clear message that martial arts was for ANYONE and EVERYONE. Regardless of age, ability and gender!
A staple in the east end of Toronto, I now have 3 locations where we serve hundreds of families in our communities. The mission has not changed as we are still “Empowering Lives through the Martial Arts.”
Please share a story about an internal or external barrier you have faced. How did you overcome that barrier?
April 5, 1988, after winning a grand championship in Boston, I opened my own martial arts school, DeSantos Martial Arts Studio. Although I had immersed myself in a world where women were strong and unstoppable, the business side of martial arts reminded me of a childhood warning…Martial arts is no place for a woman. How dare I think that as a single woman I would be able to enter the man’s world of running my own school. People talked about me, made up stories, approached my students at tournaments, anything they could to undermine me and my reputation. Who would want to train under a woman?
My answer to that question was other women! Women, men, children, anyone who wanted to learn the benefits of martial arts in a non-threatening, inclusive environment where all ages and all abilities could find a place to shine and be their best!
Opening a martial arts school is a tough business but especially for a single woman in the late 80’s. I was subjected to ridicule from former instructors, training partners and most men in the martial arts field. Not only was I a woman, but a single woman, a single woman of colour, a single lesbian woman of colour, a single lesbian woman of colour with limited education.
There were many sleepless nights and times when I doubted myself. Instead of giving in, I tried to find ways to rise above and I sought the help of other women in the business who were running schools with and without the help of a male partner.
I sought the advice from a few women I knew who were running schools in the U.S. and a very good friend who had a school in Ottawa. I created a support network of martial artists who were more than happy to help and see me succeed. They connected me to an organization which helped to revolutionize the business of martial arts, a model which has been duplicated many times over now. Through this company I was exposed to leaders in the field of sales, marketing and customer service. I studied hard and learned the concepts and started to see the rewards of applying these concepts to my business.
It was an uphill battle with many days where I thought I couldn’t go on, but the spirited voice of the child within propelled me to keep going forward.
And here we are 31 years later, with two successful locations, hundreds of Black Belts and the same resiliency as the driving force behind everything I do.
What skills did you develop in sport that helped you overcome your barrier?
In order to achieve anything it takes hard work, perseverance and an unrelenting will. There are no short-cuts and there are many sacrifices.
Martial arts gave me a foundation on which I live my life. Coming to a new country with limited resources and education, I found a home in martial arts. It has taught me about perseverance, determination, the value of hard work, the importance of focus, but more importantly, it gave me confidence to pursue my dreams.
One of my mottos with my students is C.A.N.I – Constant and Never-ending Improvement. I truly believe in walking the talk and wouldn’t be the leader I am today if it were not for my own journey.
Martial arts gave me confidence to walk in the world with a YES I CAN attitude. Gender plays no role in achieving my dreams.
I learned nothing worth having comes easy. Wanting a black belt meant hours and hours of training, repetition and never giving up. I learned to enjoy the journey and trust the process.
Remaining focused was essential in my career as a competitor and again as a business owner. When friends were partying, I was training or studying. The goals I set were important to me and it was my hard work that would make them a reality.
When I would have doubts or question if it was worth it, I did not succumb to those feelings. I would remain focused on my goals. Reading and surrounding myself with like-minded people really helped me to remain on my true path.
If you had one word to describe your character, experiences or philosophy what would it be? Why?
Telling me I cannot do something makes me work even harder. More importantly than that is the belief I have inside. The voice that propels me forward and tells me, I can do anything I set my mind to.
Venturing into a male-dominated business where most martial arts schools fail within the first 24 months was terrifying, but I had the drive and determination to succeed. These attributes helped me to seek out help and remain focused.
If you wanted to motivate a young female athlete to #BuildHerUp, what quote would you use? Why?