November 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the wee hours of March 1, 2017, a masked intruder entered a west Omaha hotel near 180th and Dodge streets, lurked around corners, stalked the lone female desk clerk, then pounced on her. With his pants below his waist, the predator groped the woman as he dragged her down a hallway toward a restroom.

Then the narrative changed.

The woman fought back. In the struggle, she ripped off the man’s black ski mask, giving his face as much exposure as his genitals on the surveillance cameras. She broke away from him, ran back to the desk, and called 911. Police captured the suspect the next day.

“Statistically, you’re more likely to be a victim just because you were born a female. I know it sounds terrible, but it’s a fact,” says Shawn Whittington, an instructor for the Women’s Primal Self-Defense classes at Omaha’s 88 Tactical Group, an elite training and educational state-of-the-art facility with a firing range. “Predators are looking for easy targets. But they’re not looking for a fight.”

Instructors at 88 Tactical teach the basics of verbal and physical responses to help ensure a woman under assault achieves the ultimate goal: to get away.

Since January 2017, almost 500 area women have taken the Primal defense class, a rigorous four-hour training session that costs $80. Hundreds more participate in the intermediate and co-ed self-defense courses.

The reason has a lot to do with stories of violence that come in waves with every news cycle.

“The Mollie Tibbetts tragedy brought the single biggest spike in inquiries we’ve seen yet,” says Whittington, referring to the disappearance and murder of a 20-year-old University of Iowa student in July. Whittington, an Omaha firefighter and paramedic, helped field phone calls and emails for several hours each day in the weeks following the discovery of her body. “It got a lot of people thinking, ‘Maybe I need to take my personal safety more seriously,’” he says.

Serious statistics have fueled the burgeoning self-defense business nationwide and in Omaha.

Sexual attacks against women constitute an epidemic in this country, according to several health organizations. An estimated one in five women has been the victim of rape, or attempted rape, the majority at the hands of a domestic partner. Department of Justice statistics show one in three experience some sort of sexual violence.

In Omaha, reports of sexual assaults against women in 2017 grew almost 12 percent from the previous year.

While a victim’s trauma lingers long after the sexual attack, Amber Crawford, co-founder of Impact Kickboxing and Fitness Center in Omaha, has seen how increased physical strength can help the healing process.

“I’ve worked with some women who have left an abusive relationship, but the intimidation and insecurity are still there,” says Crawford. “They come here to get their confidence back.”

Confidence becomes the primary byproduct of kickboxing for every member, even though most women who sign up at Impact do it “because they want to get skinny,” says Crawford. But as they lose inches executing jabs, cross hooks, spinning back fists, elbow slashes, and the always-effective well-placed kick, “many of our members will go into martial arts training because they think, ‘What else can I do to protect myself?’’

Crawford and her business partner, Jodie Daniels, opened Impact two years ago in the L Street Marketplace complex. Kickboxing may not qualify as a self-defense discipline, but the muay thai style taught at Impact emphasizes both punching and kicking, which can come in handy.

“What they learn here is how quick and strong the strikes should be,” explains Crawford.

Word began to spread about this unique fitness program and membership soon outpaced the space. Fortunately, another storefront with double the square feet recently became available next to Kirkland’s, directly across the street from the original site.

The spacious new gym consists of one large room with about 30 freestanding punching bags distributed evenly along the mat in an atmosphere best described as unintimidating. With more than 300 members (70 percent of them women) ranging in age from 13 to 67, Crawford and Daniels see one, possibly two new locations in their future.

Most women’s self-defense programs represent only part of a larger business model, often included under the umbrella of the $4 billion-a-year martial arts industry and taught by professionals like Thomas Todd of Championship Martial Arts in Omaha.

A highly ranked black belt in both taekwondo and karate, Todd began training at age 10 and later came under the guidance of K.H. Kim, known to thousands of Omaha youngsters as Master Kim.

Todd began his own school in his native North Omaha before moving 13 years ago to the current 6,000 square-foot facility at 88th and Blondo streets, “so we can do a lot more for the community,” he says.

The women’s $25 self-defense classes, held once a month for an hour-and-a-half, reflect Todd’s belief in community service. He gives deep discounts to those who struggle financially. And, like the instructors at 88 Tactical, he often takes his skills outside the studio.

“We’ll go to schools and work with teachers and staff or sometimes they’ll come here,” he says. “We go to real estate offices, churches, college sororities, women’s groups, and corporations. We also hold a lot of mother-and-daughter classes. Demand gets bigger every year.”

Todd devotes a lot of class time on ways to defuse a situation. He trains how to use body language to look strong. He tells women to be alert and aware of their surroundings, to quit texting, and to scream at the top of their lungs to scare off a predator.

As for more aggressive measures, “we teach them how to strike the ‘big four’ soft spots: eyes, nose, throat, and groin,” he says.

As a self-defense tool, where do guns fit in?

“One complements the other,” says Shawn Whittington, who also serves as a firearms instructor at 88 Tactical. “But a self-defense class is the best place to start, because you may have to fight to get to your gun.”

Whatever the training, survival remains the primary objective.


Visit 88tactical.com, gofierceimpact.com, and martialartsomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.