Rodlyn Park isn’t the least bit intimidating. She’s short — only 5 feet, 3 inches — and weighs just 107 pounds. She’s not exactly young, either: she turns 70 in February. But don’t be fooled by the Wyckoff resident’s small stature or the number of candles on her birthday cake; the blond-haired mother of three and grandmother of four can kick butt with the best of them.
She can hit so hard, in fact, that new classmates at Krav Maga NJ in Ramsey, where she trains three times a week in the hard-core Israeli self-defense art, are shocked at how adept she is, said owner/instructor Tony Racciatti.
“You would have never thought that anybody could talk her into defending herself — but now she’ll punch. And it hurts, ’cause she’s bony,” he said with a laugh.
But Park is not the only woman of a certain age who can hold her own. She’s part of what Racciatti calls his “fighting grandmas,” a group of women over 50 who train in Krav Maga, which was developed for the famously well-trained Israeli military and combines techniques from boxing, wrestling and a variety of other martial arts with a focus on real-world applications.
“It’s not just physical exercise — it’s a mental thing for me,” Park said, moments after her hourlong class ended on a Tuesday night. “For women, when you get older, your comfort zone starts to shrink. And I don’t want my life defined by my comfort zone. I can’t stop the physical aging, but I can stop the mental aging.”
Suzanne Lippe, an art teacher from Mahwah in her mid-50s, has three daughters and a granddaughter, and began studying martial arts after she was attacked in New York City about 15 years ago. She didn’t know how to react, she said, so she panicked and froze. After six years in Krav, she believes it would be different if it happened again.
“At least with Krav Maga, I have a game plan,” she said. “You learn to react very quickly and very decisively. And it keeps you completely aware of your surroundings — scanning your environment, making sure no one is following you.”
Many women, both young and old, have difficulty with Krav because of the inherent brutality in the techniques — Racciatti often yells things like “Jam your fingers in his eyes!” or “Grab his hair, and then flatten out his nose a little bit!” — but that’s what his students are here to learn, he said. (They don’t sacrifice safety — all men and women must wear cups at all times, Racciatti said, and many of the most dangerous moves, like eye pokes, are simulated — but the intent is there.)
“The hardest thing for me was learning to actually punch somebody or kick them in the groin,” Park said. “For the first couple months Tony would be yelling, ‘Rodlyn, kick him in the groin! You can’t do the move unless you kick him in the groin!'”
But Racciatti also teaches his students to head off problems before they begin through de-escalation and avoidance by, for instance, quickly getting away from those who invade their personal space.
“Any time you get into a confrontation there’s a chance of getting hurt. So we try to avoid them at all costs,” he said. “Older women have been around longer, they’ve seen the stuff that can happen. They don’t want bad stuff happening to them, because they know they’re a little more vulnerable.”
These techniques might have helped Rockland County resident Maritza Echevarria, 54, a mother of two with three grandchildren, when she was kidnapped in the Bronx about 15 years ago. She survived unharmed — the kidnappers meant to snag someone else, she said — but it left quite an impression. She’s been doing Krav Maga for the last nine months.
“I was dealing with a man who had a knife,” she said. “Knowing what I know today I would have felt much more secure.”
As for Park, she’s found another benefit: She can share war stories with her 10-year-old grandson, who does tae kwon do.
“Every time I see my grandson, the first thing he says to me is, ‘Hey Nana, did you learn any new moves at Krav Maga?” she said. “That’s our link now.”