Jessica Lindsay loved everything about Muay Thai — the empowerment of breaking stereotypes, the battle in the ring, the intense discipline the combat sport demanded, the art and science of it all.
But the Perth university student with the magnetic smile and warm and infectious personality would never have imagined that dedication to her biggest passion would cost her her life.
Weeks after the 18-year-old’s shock death while “weight-cutting” in preparation for an upcoming amateur bout, her devastated mother Sharron Lindsay is speaking out — paying tribute to her beautiful and “pure-hearted” daughter while also calling for urgent changes to the sport in order to protect other fighters, both amateur and professional, from a similar fate.
With less than three years of Muay Thai experience under her belt, Jessica was training for only her second official fight when on November 10, the day before the match-up, she collapsed while running near her Forrestdale gym. It was half an hour before Jessica was due at the official 24-hour weigh-in for her fight, for which she had been cutting weight to meet the 64kg limit.
Her boyfriend Walter Lara and younger sister Grace were with her and raised the alarm, and Jessica was rushed to Fiona Stanley Hospital. Grace said Jessica hated running, but had been talking to them until she started “walking funny” and then fell to the ground.
In the public hospital’s emergency department, Jessica had a galloping heart rate of 180 and doctors at first didn’t know what they were dealing with, placing her in an induced coma which she never came out of.
Four days later, her shattered family switched off the Byford teenager’s life support. The preliminary cause of death, her mother said, was extreme dehydration.
Ms Lindsay said Jessica had no underlying medical condition and that her first attempt at weight-cutting in this manner had caused “horrific” damage to her internal organs.
After what her family said was careful research and obtaining advice from various people, Jessica decided to undertake a gruelling method that other fighters had used of dropping weight quickly in the week before her fight — a process during which she was monitored and never on her own.
The regime included water-loading — in which a person drinks an excessive amount of water before reducing their intake — running in a rubber sweatsuit and taking hot, salty baths.
Ms Lindsay said her eyes have now been opened to how dangerous the practice is, calling on the governing State Government body, the Combat Sports Commission, to ban it, relax stringent rules about weight limits and focus rather on a “healthy” weight range and conduct dehydration medical checks during the week of a fight.
The mother-of-two said Jessica committed “200 per cent” to whatever she did, and believed her eldest daughter felt pressure to weigh in at the agreed weight and “wouldn’t accept anything less”. She said she did not know how much weight her daughter was trying to lose.
Ms Lindsay said Jessica, who was being trained by WA Muay Thai expert and former Australian champion Darren Curovic and coached by trainers at her gym, had shown no warning signs of feeling unwell before she collapsed. At first, she thought it was just fatigue.
“When she collapsed, we brought her back to the gym and her lifeless body was just ... just holding her and seeing her I just knew this wasn’t right,” Ms Lindsay said. “She just wasn't responding at all.”
The Muay Thai community is a like a “second home” to the Lindsay family — Ms Lindsay participates in the sport and trained with her daughters — while Grace, 14, is still training and plans to represent WA at the national championships next month.
“This has rocked everyone, this is bigger than just Muay Thai, this is every combat sport, anyone that does extreme weight loss, this will wake up a lot of people in a lot of different ways,” Ms Lindsay said. “This is not how is should be done. There are healthier and better ways to do this.”
The grieving mother met Premier Mark McGowan and is calling on the Combat Sports Commission to strengthen its guidelines.
Ms Lindsay also wants to see a shift in culture of the sport, saying the dangerous practice is widespread.
“The commission isn’t protecting the fighters, clearly,” she said. “They have wishy-washy rules that they could absolutely tighten up.
“This can’t happen again. People need to be educated and people need to understand that Jessica was an articulate, educated, intelligent young lady who did this method of weight-cut by the book and the extent of horrific damage on this one attempt took her life.
“I’m her mum, and it was my job to protect her but it was also her job to protect herself ... fighters need to be protecting themselves, the gyms need to be protecting them and the Combat Sports Commission needs to be protecting everyone.
“The flow-on effect is that the State Government isn’t doing that.”
Fighting back tears, Ms Lindsay said it took her breath away knowing she would never see her daughter again – never receive a call to pick her up from the train station, laugh at her “wicked sense of humour” or witness her “crazy dance moves in the kitchen”.
“I was always in awe of Jessica,” the mother said. “She was an old soul and ... I always knew she was destined for great things. She was such a kind, giving, gentle, loving daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin. And her presence is just incredibly missed every minute of the day.
“The sense of loss is just overwhelming it’s still surreal, this is my baby, my daughter not here anymore because of it.
“She was such a pure person, I feel utterly robbed that I don’t get to see her grow up, I won’t be there for when she hits 21, or when she gets engaged, or gets married or has kids.
“The only thing I can think of is that God needed her more than what we do down here. I’m trying to get some comfort in that. Is this her legacy? If Jess hadn’t died, we wouldn’t be sitting having this conversation trying to change the laws and the regulations.”
Ms Lindsay is also pushing for a fast-tracked coronial inquest into her daughter’s death, asking who-knew-how-many other people were teetering on the edge of disaster, doing untold damage to their bodies.
She said it was “jaw-dropping” that the commission has not introduced any temporary measures for fights that have taken place since Jessica’s death.
Ms Lindsay said the commission had also not tried to reach out to her family.
Jessica, a Murdoch University global politics student, would have turned 19 the day after her funeral service on November 22.
After returning from a year-long break from competition, Jessica underwent a routine fitness test a week before she collapsed — before she started her weight-cutting regime.
That doctor, chief medical adviser to the Combat Sports Commission and emergency medicine consultant Paddy Golden, said that putting your body through acute water loss was “very dangerous” and measures were needed to tackle it (in combat sports) across Australia.
“She was a fit young girl before the weight-cut,” said Dr Golden, who is trying to develop new guidelines for the industry.
“I liken (weight-cutting) to putting a revolver to your head and spinning the chambers. One of those has a bullet in it and you don’t know which one. The more weight loss that you have the more empty chambers you take away.”
Dr Golden said he had repeatedly raised how dangerous weight-cutting was, and the need to address it, with the commission over a long period of time.
“It’s a bad system where you need something bad to happen before something good happens ... we need to do something relatively soon to try to prevent this,” he said.
Grace Lindsay said her sister didn’t like weight-cutting but felt she had to do it.
“When you don’t make weight you’re shamed for it, you didn’t try hard enough, or you bit off more than you can chew and it’s your fault,” she said.
“She didn’t want to upset anybody, she was always a people pleaser. She knew it was going to be hard, she researched before she decided to do it, she wrote down all the pros and cons and got all this advice from all these people. All these fighters who had done it before.”
Jessica’s friend and fellow Muay Thai fighter Niki King said she had cut weight before and, after losing Jessica, felt sick about the drastic and dangerous measures that fighters had accepted to be normal.
“I don’t think anyone in the community understands the potential is there you can die,” she said. “As a fighter, I didn’t know that ... if you draw the unlucky straw you will die. People need to realise it will happen again unless it changes.”
Ms King said it was common for fighters to experience heart palpitations to the point “you feel like you’re going to die”.
Combat commission chairwoman Cassandra Wright said Jessica’s death was a “tragic incident which has impacted the entire combat sports industry” and offered condolences to her family.
She said the commission’s guidelines stated contestants should not cut weight through dehydration and highlighted the dangers of doing so.
“Weight categories (weight ranges) are already in place for various combat sports ... this is a complex issue that is constantly under review and requires a considered approach that discourages contestants from large weight-cuts and changes the culture of the industry,” she said.
The guidelines also recommend losing no more than 4 to 5 per cent of your body weight in the lead-up to a contest through good nutrition and exercise, not dehydration.
Mr McGowan, who met Ms Lindsay this week as Rockingham MP, said it was an “absolutely devastating” incident and “as a parent myself I felt very sad for Sharron’s loss”.
He has written to Sport and Recreation Minister Mick Murray about Ms Lindsay’s concerns and suggested the commission meet with the grieving mother.
The Premier said the Government would consider any recommendations that arose from a coronial inquiry, adding: “I’d advise any athletes engaging in this (weight-cutting) practice to ensure all guidelines are followed and they do so under correct supervision.”
In a statement, Jessica’s Muay Thai gym Kao Sok said it backed Ms Lindsay’s call for “changes to be made at a State Government level” and combat sports medicos needed support and the necessary equipment to carry out procedures like the sodium finger-prick blood test “which provides instant readings for dehydration”.
Nine days before she collapsed, Jessica posted on Instagram that she was feeling “fit and healthy”. In another post two days before her collapse, she posted a photo of herself on the floor, saying “yeah nah cutting weight is sick hey”. Her mother said that was evidence of Jessica’s sense of humour.
Earlier this year, Scottish Muay Thai boxer Jordan Coe died in Thailand of suspected heatstroke while trying to cut weight for a professional fight.
Jessica also wrote a series of online blogs about Muay Thai, one of which detailed the mental strength and dedication necessary to “make weight”.
“If you’re not committed to following a strict diet and exercise regime, you’re not going to make weight. Not making weight is disrespectful to your opponent,” she wrote.
“Preparing for a fight will be one of the hardest things you will do in your life. Essentially you are putting your body through hell ... to get into a ring with someone whose goal is to hit you ... hard enough to be crowned the winner. To fight, you must be able to have the mental fortitude to overcome that.”
But in other blogs, Jessica, who had travelled to Thailand with her mother and sister for training, described Muay Thai as a “beautiful” and “empowering” sport that could be “very addictive”. Her motto was “train hard, fight easy”. Tragically, Jessica never got to the easy part.
This article originally appeared on PerthNow.