DePaul’s Grace Penney fights opponents, discrimination

Blow, parry, dodge. Be it in the ring or out in the open, DePaul sophomore Grace Penney has lived by those three words since coming out as lesbian when she was 15 years old.

The 106-pound Penney may be small but she packs a punch, and holds her own in every situation. Frequently bullied throughout her adolescence, she has turned to combat sports as a way of dealing the burdens that her sexuality place on her shoulders on a daily basis. As she evades and attacks in the ring, so too does she elude stereotypes and fight back against misconceptions in the court of public opinion.

“When I was growing up, I was just a different kid and I got picked on a lot,” said Penney. “I was also smaller so that was a huge thing too. I think it was mostly because I kind of stuck out and I didn’t fit with the norms.”

Penney said that her experiences in high school and particularly in middle school were harrowing enough for her to find an escape. That’s when she discovered wrestling.

“In high school it wasn’t until I joined wrestling that I found the perfect outlet, my senior year of high school. I fell in love with wrestling and combat sports,” she said. “I’m a really aggressive kid. I was getting in fights a lot with other boys and driving my mom crazy so when I joined wrestling, it was perfect.”

Instead of simply coping, Penney went out and dominated the competition. She won the state title for women’s wrestling in Illinois when during her first year of wrestling when she was 17. She continued to perform well, competing in Wisconsin and consistently putting on sterling performances.

But Penney wasn’t content with restricting herself to the wrestling mat. She began boxing in 2009 and found that she was equally talented throwing punches as well. But even her impressive resume with combat sports did little to deflect attention away from her sexuality.

“I struggled a lot with that in high school, especially on the wrestling team since it’s such a macho sport,” said Penney. “A lot of combat sports are very masculine-oriented, so I kind of kept it a secret, I didn’t talk about it much. It took me a little longer to be open about it.”

But when she started going to DePaul, everything changed. “When I got to DePaul, I started at a new gym that I’m at now, and it’s not even a problem. People don’t even think twice about it.”

The 20-year-old’s story doesn’t end there. Penney has made sure to use her talents to help those who face the same problems she did when she was younger – namely, teaching children how to defend themselves when face to face with bullies.

“The head trainer at my gym, Misho Ceko, wanted to put together a Jiu-Jitsu program for little kids. Now we teach these kids aged five to 14,” said Penney. “We have over 15 kids enrolled and basically we focus on respecting others. Respecting yourself is a huge thing too. We teach them throws, submissions and takedowns and all this other stuff that is really fun.

“It’s basically teaching them not to hurt other people but to defend themselves, just to carry themselves differently.”

Despite her involvement in the class, and a brutal regimen that includes several hours per day at the gym, Penney still finds time to enjoy college life and work toward her goals.

“My dream would be to compete in the Olympics in boxing,” she said. “If not the Olympics, then, I love my [Environmental Studies] major, and I’d love to have a life where I’m experiencing the best of both worlds. So no matter what I’d probably still be doing MMA and boxing and having a job as well.”

Through it all, Penney remains grounded and is thankful for all the support she has received since enrolling at DePaul. She refuses to let her sexuality allow others to judge her, and prefers to live as she sees fit.

“It’s definitely an everyday thing. I don’t really think about it unless I’m forced to think about it. It can be tough. But I’ve found friends and they love me for who I am and vice-versa and that’s all that really matters to me,” said Penney.

“One thing that’s really important to me is that I’m just myself. I just unapologetically do whatever makes me comfortable, what makes me happy, and that’s what it is.”

Summer is around the corner, which means more time for training and more chances to learn new techniques. For someone that’s been battling her entire life, it’s just another day in the life of Grace Penney.