After years of abuse at school, Claire Tietgen wanted to die. Now, though, she's found a reason for living thanks to Mixed Martial Arts.
Tears stream down her face. She remembers feeling ostracized, alone and being verbally, emotionally and physically abused.
"I want to die," she writes in one of her diary notes.
Claire Tietgen is only 12 years old.
"Some of the messages that I heard were like 'You don't belong,' 'You shouldn't be here' and I'd have people just exclude me from things," Claire says in a YouTube video made when she was 11.
"A boy punched me in the face in 2014 for no reason." If this were simply a tale of a young girl being bullied and fed up with it, then that's one thing. Yet it goes far beyond settling and wanting to die. No, Claire Tietgen found a reason to live after all.
Who would have believed it would have been through the eyes of a 35-year-old man seeing great potential within minutes of watching Claire take part in a grappling session. Austen Ford is that man. Claire found Mixed Martial Arts as her salvation.
The journey to the mat and a special weekend at an Ultimate Fighting Championship card in Las Vegas, though, has not been easy.
Claire initially experienced bullying in the first grade.
"In the third and fourth grade, it was seriously bad," she said. "That's when I realized that it was people picking on me and stuff like that."
"Bullying is such a sore subject because it's about picking on someone who can be perceived as weak," Ford said. "When you see her crying in that video, there is nothing staged about her emotion."
Charles Tietgen, Claire's father, saw the emotional grind that his daughter went through every day at school in their hometown of Kansas City, Kan.
"The bullying problem grows seriously," he said. "Five years ago, my daughter would come home and cry every day. This took place despite more school counselor meetings than I can count. Claire was an easy target. She stayed in the same school.
"We knew about the bullying all along. Socially, it was a little complex. She's had one, maybe two friends in five years. She's gotten cussed out to her face. The boy who punched her in the face ... it was over nothing."
To highlight how much Claire has been through around bullying, Charles and his wife Denise put together a nearly nine-minute YouTube video showing Claire at a young age along with some of her diary notes ... in her own handwriting:
"Do you ever feel like you're broken and don't fit in?" she writes.
"Today is Jan 28 2014. I've been being bully for about five years 1/20" another handwritten entry explains.
" ... If I die before my life gets happy, I hope that my family will miss me."
Later in the year, though, life took a strange and beautiful turn for Claire, Charles, Denise and the entire family.
As owner of Brass Boxing and Jiu-Jitsu in Kansas City, Mo., Austen Ford has trained some fighters that have found their way into UFC's infamous Octagon. He, too, has fought within both a boxing ring and the Octagon.
It was upon Charles hearing about an MMA youth class offered at Ford's gym through a client of his that marked an initial turning point in Claire's journey. "It clicked from Day One," he said. "We tried to build self-esteem as parents, and that was a mistake. From Day One, her coach (Ford) was just like 'Oh my God, look at this.' She received such praise. Upon leaving the gym that first day, I could tell what a difference it made in Claire."
Ford remembers that initial meeting, too.
"Well, Claire's story started at an old location in October 2014," he said. "I did get a little background on her before meeting Claire, so I got to prepare a little. Honestly, I was like 'No problem, let's do it' after talking with Charlie. When I heard what he was telling me (about the bullying), my snap reaction was to get in their (bullies') faces." Ford is a husband and father of three children.
Claire was initially put through some athleticism tests, just to gauge where she was physically.
"My thought was 'Is this going to be a good fit?'" Ford said. "I tell her to do a forward roll and a cartwheel, and she does it pretty well. I bring in my son, who is around her age, and he's been grappling for a long time. You have to fight, yet do so in a safe place."
"Last year, when I wanted to get into MMA, I was a different person before getting into it," Claire said. "I'd never heard of MMA until eight months ago. I was watching a movie and I loved it because it showed a lot of physicality between these machine-type of people. I knew that I wanted to get into boxing."
Needless to say, Ford was really impressed by what he saw out of Claire's efforts ... especially in holding her own against his son.
"There was an immediate shift," Ford said. "I talked to Charlie a few hours after the first class and he explained to me how she was lit up. He has to say things over and over to me. Charlie said to me that she's never gotten in the car and talked about 'This is what I want' on Day One.
"The permanent change is taking time. We're talking about years of abuse within her. We're still in the honeymoon phase as far as I'm concerned. It is something we're going to deal with in her life. No one is going to respect her. You don't do what we do in the gym in the outside world. Change happens every single day. We're on the sunshine side instead of the dark side.
"I'm often blown away at kids' abilities to compete," Ford said. "One might as well put 'Olympic wrestling' on Claire's resume after what I saw that first day. I didn't know a lot about her issues. Charlie had to explain her issues to me. Combined with the confidence that I had in myself, I said to him 'I got it.'"
Shanda Maloney was sitting in her office as UFC's social media manager in Las Vegas.
Her job is to make sure the organization's competitors, brand and upcoming cards receive worldwide attention. It was through one of these social media platforms that she saw Claire's video.
"When I found Claire's YouTube video, I'd seen a couple of other friends of mine Tweet it out," Maloney said in a conference call that Claire and Charles also were on from Las Vegas. "I saw the video myself while working at UFC's headquarters and cried.
"My nieces get teased about their mom's Lupus. I'm trying to mentally prepare them for corporate bullying," she said. "Claire's video touches my heart. I wanted to make sure that I could get all of the parts together and get them to a UFC card."
Claire's hero is UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey.
"Ronda lost her father at a young age," Maloney said.
"I talked with the PR and marketing team because I felt like I just had to figure out a way to get her (Claire) to Vegas."
She also managed to get UFC President Dana White involved. "I asked Dana if I could set up a meeting and show him the video.
So, the longer video starts to show the transition into an MMA fighter and up comes a certain date," she said. "Dana sees that date and looks over at me like 'She died. Why are you showing this to me?' But the date actually was to point out when the 'old' Claire ended and the 'new' Claire began.
"He must have not gotten two more minutes into the video and called Ronda on his own phone. He told her about the video."
Maloney was able to get tickets for Claire and Charles to UFC183 on Jan. 31. The father and daughter had access to the VIP Experience, the Q&A session, and got backstage to meet other UFC fighters like main eventers Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz, among others.
"All of them shared their own stories about bullying," Maloney said. "George St. Pierre himself talks about how bullying motivated him to find MMA."
Ford said getting to a UFC card all started with a dream. "We created that dream in a couple of months," he said. "She feels strong. She has a purpose in mind."
Charles said, "Ten months ago, I had a child who lay in bed and cried all day. The negativity is just building up and this bullying has affected her. I brought her out here to Las Vegas and this has saved her life. She is not even the same. I can't say enough about the UFC. When someone like this comes along and honors her work, it means a whole lot."
For Claire, the UFC experience will not be forgotten. "I will remember this forever," she said. "I feel absolutely amazing."
Claire will have a few more memories to tuck inside later this month.
The UFC is taking Claire to Los Angeles so that she can have chicken wings with Rousey, and that's scheduled around her next title fight against Cat Zingano on Feb. 28 in UFC184 at Staples Center. "It was so amazing at the UFC card here in Las Vegas," Charles said. "Dana walks across the floor three times to make sure everything is just right for us. One of those times, he gets his phone out of his jacket, calls Ronda himself, hands the phone to Claire and she spoke with Ronda."
The Tietgens created a website (www.welcometothetietgens.com) that shares Claire's story as well as both long-form and short-form videos about her journey through bullying. Ford's voice narrates both videos, filled with pictures and video clips of Claire winning and proudly showing her first-place medals.
Besides Claire, Charles and Denise have an 18-year-old son, Charles, and a 10-year-old daughter, Abby.
Their message is clear: bullying is dangerous and, yes, even deadly.
Claire said her siblings have friends. Well, Claire does, too, in her own corner. Ford said, "I know her school days are better. It was at the end of school last year, when she was at a new school, that she was punched in the face.
Now she's back to her original school and original place where the bullying took place." "The same things are happening, but the way she reacts to it is different," Charles said. "Abby will come home and start crying. Claire will look at her and say, 'Abby, just get over it.'
Now one's inspired to take her new stance." Instead of a "Why does this happen to me?" mindset, Ford said Claire is more like "Deal with it" these days. "She's very proud of her newfound happiness.
Now it is settling in - the 'new' Claire is integrating into the 'old' Claire. She can't be totally fixed overnight." Nevertheless, Claire is pretty clear about the bullies that cross her path these days.
"They are threatened by me. They try so hard. It was 10 months ago. I'm still fighting back," she said.
Claire's newfound path is one being closely watched by Ford. "It makes dreams look like hopes," he said of his student's life today. "Charlie calls it 'hope-ism.' Now that it has happened, she will feel like she will do anything. I can't think of a better person to know that person's dream is possible. These things do happen."
The young girl who, at one time, wanted to die and simply hope that her family would be happy after she was dead has a healthy pulse.
She's also quite aware of how much bullying affects millions of other kids across the United States every day, too.
Her advice? "Get into a sport that you love and tell them how long you've been bullied for," she said. "I'll help you and I'll be there for you through all of your ups and downs. Find something that you love."
Claire found it.
Photo: Flickr/Gracie Hagen