The first time Olivia Parker found herself inside an MMA gym, she says she couldn't get out fast enough.
She means that literally.
As in, she physically couldn't run up the stairs and out the door before one of the instructors grabbed her and cajoled her out onto the workout mats.
The whole thing was a big misunderstanding.
At the time, the 32-year-old high school English teacher says she weighed around 320 pounds. After years of struggling to lose weight without much success, Parker had signed up to take part in a citywide fitness competition in her hometown of Seymour, Tennessee, about 20 minutes east of Knoxville.
The competition—which was like a local version of The Biggest Loser—had one simple rule: Work out at least once a week or be disqualified.
Unfortunately, when Parker and two other women showed up for the Thursday night bootcamp class they'd signed up to take, they found it full and were turned away at the door.
Eager to find another class, Parker saw signs saying there was a kickboxing session happening in the basement of a nearby church. Thinking it would be a normal cardio kickboxing class, she and the other women decided to check it out.
Turned out, it was a little more intense than that.
"We got about halfway down the stairs to the basement, and I started smelling that gym, manly, corn-chip smell," Parker says. "One of the girls was like, 'Uh-uh. I'm out,' and she bailed right then. Me and the other girl both just gulped but kept going down the stairs."
Parker didn't know it, but she was walking into a striking session held by the Knoxville Martial Arts Academy. The local gym offered a variety of fitness classes to the general public but also trained UFC fighters like light heavyweight contender Ovince Saint Preux and lightweight Rafael Oliveira.
When Parker got to the bottom of the stairs, the first thing she saw was Saint Preux's 6'3", 220-pound frame in a cage in the middle of the room. At that moment, Saint Preux scooped up his sparring partner and slammed him down with a terrifying thud.
"The whole room just shook, and I was thinking, 'Holy crap, what is this?'" Parker says. "I kind of panicked. The girl who was with me just turned and was gone. My problem was, I was 320 [pounds], I was out of shape, I could not run that fast."
Before Parker could flee, a woman named Taylor Turner—herself a pro MMA fighter and wife of KMAA owner Eric Turner—grabbed her and dragged her into the class. Parker, who felt like she wanted no part of fighting, reluctantly followed along.
In retrospect, she says, that moment changed her life.
Four years later, Parker has amassed a 5-0 record as an amateur MMA fighter and has lost close to 150 pounds along the way. She says her involvement with MMA has completely changed her life, making her happier, more confident and putting her back in touch with her athletic roots.
She's been so good at her unexpected calling that she's considering going pro in 2018.
"It's just been something that honestly set me free to a certain extent," Parker says. "It's allowed me to be the person that I want to be. I'm a better mom, I'm a better wife and a better teacher. I think I'm a happier, better-adjusted person in just about every aspect of my life. I don't think I'm remotely the same person that I was before I walked into KMAA."
Looking back, Parker admits that maybe the person she had become wasn't all that happy.
As a kid, she had always been an athlete—a multi-sport star in high school in nearby Maryville who earned a track and field scholarship to the University of Kentucky. After one year in Lexington, she transferred to Lincoln Memorial University and became a four-year player as a walk-on to the basketball team.
Even back then, Parker says she struggled to feel like she completely belonged. Growing up at 5'10", around 200 pounds and self-described as "weirdly Hulk strong," she never fit society's cookie-cutter body-image expectations. The attention her size and strength did get her made her feel uncomfortable and shy.
"I grew up in a world where I always felt like something about me wasn't necessarily right," Parker says. "I always wanted to be the person who could go into a room and disappear, just because I've always been a wide, big-bodied girl. In every picture of me and my friends, I was always the biggest one. I don't think I ever understood how to become comfortable with myself."
A shoulder injury her senior year of college put her out of touch with her athletic side. Meanwhile, she got married and started a family and a teaching career. At the time, Parker says she thought an adult life meant a sedentary life, and without sports to keep her moving, she got out of shape.
"I had to take the Olivia that I had been my whole life, and I had to put her away and become that mother and wife that I was supposed to be," Parker says. "I gave up a large part of myself."
That changed when she discovered martial arts. Parker says in the first two months of attending kickboxing and "max fit" circuit training classes at KMAA, she lost 35 pounds.
More importantly, the physical attributes that once made her feel uncomfortable in her own body were perfect for combat sports. She was big and strong, and it turned out she hit hard, too. Whereas in her previous life Parker felt she needed to keep the more aggressive parts of her personality under wraps, coach Eric Turner constantly encouraged her by saying: "Just be you, Olivia. Just be you."
Suddenly, all the things that seemed like detriments before set her up for success. The further she got in her martial arts training, the more momentum Parker seemed to build in life.
She wasn't the only one who noticed, either.
"Not that she wasn't happy with her life as it was, but when she found MMA it was almost like, wow, something's changed in her," says Philip Parker, Olivia's husband. "Everything she does is different now that she's found that athletic outlet. Once she found it, all the other pieces seemed to fall into place. It's really been a fun journey to watch."
Parker finished in second place in the citywide fitness competition she'd entered. Even as the organized competition ended, however, she wasn't about to give up on KMAA.
She continued taking the kickboxing and circuit training classes. Eventually, she reluctantly signed up for Brazilian jiu-jitsu and was pleasantly surprised by the empowering feeling of learning to hold her own on the mats with people much larger than herself.
Slowly but surely she started to get her old life back.
"One day, I could run three or four miles and not really feel it," she says. "One day my body, which I had lost, was just back. I realize now that I can do anything. The confidence that goes with that is just life-changing because it makes everything possible. Anything is possible if I want it badly enough, and I'm willing to put that work in."
When she finally told Philip she was considering trying out KMAA's MMA class as well, her husband could only chuckle. The person who knew her best knew where all this was headed.
"Olivia, you're going to end up fighting," he told her. "You're too competitive. You're going to end up in a cage."
Parker says her family and friends have mostly been supportive of her interest in MMA, even as what started as a hobby grew into something more.
Her mother was initially skeptical, thinking fighting in MMA meant that Parker would be taking on men. Once she found out her daughter would only be fighting other women her own size, she warmed to the idea. Parker's mom still doesn't attend the fights, but she's supportive of her daughter's endeavor.
Parker's coworkers at the high school have been equally openminded, she says. When she's cutting weight for an upcoming fight, a group of other teachers all forgo their normal lunches to sit with her and eat the bland food of the preparing fighter.
Her two children, now six and eight, don't know any other life. Her eldest has even dabbled in BJJ himself and says he wants to be a police officer and a fighter when he grows up.
The transformation and added energy that have come along with her involvement in martial arts have mixed into other parts of Parker's life, too. Aside from teaching, she currently serves as the track and field coach at her high school. She also recently earned her master's degree in history from Norwich University Online.
"She does everything," Philip Parker says. "She's Wonder Woman."
For her part, Parker says she doesn't worry about the health risks involved with fighting. She points to her father—who died of cancer when she was a freshman in college—as evidence that you can do everything right, run four miles per day and still die at a young age.
"I feel like I was called to this adventure," she says. "When you're called, you take your calling and you go. That's what I'm doing, and I'll keep doing it as long as I enjoy it. When it ceases being that, then I'll quit."
So far, her MMA career has gone off without a hitch. She is undefeated and crafted first-round stoppages in her first three fights. In her fourth fight, she was tested, got stuck on the ground beneath a much larger opponent and still battled her way back for the win.
Currently weighing about 170 pounds, Parker is considering turning professional later this year. She knows at that weight there won't be a lot of competition in the professional ranks. To really make a splash, she will have to continue dropping weight until she can safely make the 135- or 145-pound limits of weight classes featured by MMA's biggest promotions.
No matter what happens, she's already seen enough positive changes in her life to consider her MMA career a resounding success.
"It's a night-and-day difference from when she first came in; it's ridiculous," KMMA owner Eric Turner says. "When she first came in, she was so quiet and so shy. She would come in and do a class and then just leave as soon as the class was over. Now, she's just blossomed into a very different person.
"Before she was just a normal person; now she has a real joy of life about her."