Nia Sanchez doesn’t feel like she’s ever been in any real physical danger. She has never felt threatened in public or feared she could be the victim of any type of violence.
There was, though, that one time a few years ago when she was in a public place and some jerk grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her in the opposite direction of the way she was going. Maybe the man was just joking around. Sanchez wasn’t going to stick around to find out, quickly using her martial arts training to get the man to remove his grip.
That joker got off easily. Sanchez, the newest Miss USA, is a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo and competed in tournaments through high school. If she wanted to hurt the guy badly, she could have. The Las Vegas resident and Miss Nevada has been training in taekwondo since she was 8 years old and also has two years of Brazilian jiu-jitsu training under her belt.
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"I’ve never been in a situation where I felt threatened or anything," Sanchez told FOX Sports. "I’m very lucky for that. But I’m confident that if it ever did happen, I could take care of myself."
Don’t expect Sanchez, 24, to be competing in the UFC or MMA any time soon. While she is a big fan of the sport, she has actually never been to a live UFC event, which she hopes will change in July in Las Vegas. Sanchez has heard quite a bit about UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, but has never seen her fight. Rousey defends her belt against Alexis Davis at UFC 175 on July 5 at Mandalay Bay.
Rousey was the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo. Like Sanchez, she has trained in martial arts almost her entire life. When she was 16 years old, Sanchez’s trainer moved, so her father ended up buying the taekwondo studio. Ironically, her sensei opened up a new gym in Washington state — near where her mother lived. When Sanchez visited her mother, she was able to continue her training, too.
"It’s been a way of life for me," Sanchez said. "I like tradition. I like the respect factor of it."
Though she’s a beauty queen and will represent the United States in the Miss Universe pageant later this year, Sanchez said she wasn’t very girly growing up. At tournaments, she never wore makeup and always had her hair up in a ponytail. The object was never to look attractive — it was to win.
"I wanted to look as tough as possible," Sanchez said.
It’s been a way of life for me. I like tradition. I like the respect factor of it.
-Nia Sanchez on martial arts
Today, people are stunned by her taekwondo pedigree. She continues to train and now that she’ll be living in New York during her stint as Miss USA, she’s currently looking for a gym where she can practice taekwondo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Her sister is also a BJJ competitor.
"They don’t even get it," Sanchez said of outsiders. "I think it’s kind of a funny reaction. I explain to them how it’s a part of my life."
Sanchez took some heat for an answer she gave to a Miss USA judge about the high rate of sexual assault crimes against undergraduate college women. Sanchez responded that it’s important for a woman to know how to defend herself. Obviously, women should not have to defend themselves — no one should fear be the victim of an attack. But Sanchez thinks in case there is trouble, a female should know self-defense.
"Why not empower women to take care of themselves?" Sanchez said. "It would be great to live in a world without crime and without rape and murder. But that’s not reality."
Sanchez said when she has kids, she will definitely put them into martial arts classes from an early age. She sounds almost like Rousey when she explains what she believes people should know how to do when faced with a violent threat.
"Break their knee, break their ankle, break their elbow," Sanchez said. "Make sure they’re in so much pain, they can’t cause you any pain."