WINNING STRATEGY: Rayna Vallandingham Knows How to Say No on Her Terms

Rayna Vallandingham began her journey in martial arts at the age of 2. At 6, she earned her first black belt. And two years later, she won her first world championship — her first of 13 world taekwondo titles.

Now 20, the Indian American taekwondo master has continued to mature both in and out of the dojo. Unfortunately, oftentimes the rest of the world has yet to evolve as quickly. “[Growing up,] you always had those ‘brave’ boys who would tease and say you kick like a girl,” she says. “And now that I’m 20, nothing’s really changed. As a black belt, you’re always taught that you’re only supposed to use your martial arts and self-defense. So I would just stand there. But it’s sad that people feel the need to do that.”

Vallandingham spends about two hours per day practicing martial arts; in addition, she logs several strength training sessions. She’s also parlayed her success into multiple jobs: a martial arts instructor, fight choreographer, and content creator with more than one million fans on TikTok. (If you haven’t seen her whip a pair of nunchucks or backflip in a swimsuit or evening gown, you’re missing out.)

Like anyone who ventures onto the internet, with fans come trolls and anger, particularly from old-school martial arts traditionalists who disapprove of her Gen. Z approach.

Unsurprisingly, she’s unapologetic about the way she expresses her art and uses her podcast, The A THREAT League, to vent frustrations and talk shop with co-host and choreographer Samantha Long.

“I’m doing something that’s not really been done before, in the sense of taking martial arts and adapting into content creation,” Vallandingham says. “That’s where some the hate comes from. And I’ve just decided to commit to that and feed into it and be true to myself and who I want to be. Hopefully that can inspire a lot of people to be authentic to themselves as well and not care about what other people say.”

However, there is a fine line to Vallangham’s finesse with the spoken word, especially as an ambassador to the immortal icon of martial arts: Bruce Lee himself. She says she got the opportunity to work with the family representing the global icon after they got a glimpse of some of her viral martial arts social media exhibitions. Now representing her childhood idol, she knows the responsibility of being of the female artists to be honored with this partnership.

“It was such a huge blessing, and just a cultivation of everything I have dreamt of, because I always saw that for myself— to make a similar impact that he’s had on the world ever since his career flourished, even it was for a short amount of time,” she says. “His impact is going to inspire generations and generations to come and, and he inspired me and so I would love to do that for all those little girls out there who are told that they’re not strong enough to dominate a sport like martial arts.”

Her mission statement, she says, is to be the female Bruce Lee. Her Winning Strategy to achieve that includes staying true to that mission—even if means saying no to opportunity, while continuing to spread out her skillset, learning losses, and still having fun as a “beginner.”

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Courtesy of NATHAN TECSON

1. FIND YOUR PURPOSE, THEN STAY TRUE TO IT

My advice to someone who is presented with an opportunity that they don’t really know how to navigate is to sit down and write exactly what you believe your purposes and goals are. Take this opportunity that you’ve been given and think, “Does this align with this and this and will it get me to where I’m going?” If it doesn’t , then I’m a huge believer that everything is meant for you and will never pass you by. That will always resonate with you.

So if you’re presented an opportunity, and you have a bad feeling in your gut or you feel something negative brewing inside of you, I’d try and stay away from that, even if it promises you fame, money, anything like that. In the end, it’s just not worth it—believe me, everything will work out for the better. And soon, you’ll see that you’ll start attracting things that really align with who you are and what you desire.

Once I was once offered to do a voiceover for a character on a show, that it didn’t align with my values. To me it seemed like kind of a racist take on a martial arts spin off. I was like, I could be into rewriting the story of what it takes to be a female martial artist, but the original is not aligned with who I am and who I want to represent. So even though it had the potential to be huge, I had to turn it down.

I also got offered a contract to be with WWE, and although it’s not to say that I would never do it, it just didn’t align with who I was at the time. I’m going to build my career.

First, I want to be an action films. I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing with content creation and paving that path and then go back and maybe write my own story there. So there’s been so many times where I’ve had to reevaluate what’s important to me and what I want to represent in this industry before moving forward with these opportunities that obviously would catapult me.

Rayna Vallandingham performing a taekwondo stance in the desert
Courtesy of Alex Miller

2. RAYNA VALLANDINGHAM KNOWS HOW TO FIND VICTORY IN DEFEAT

I was conditioned to winning for a really long time, because as a 7-year-old black belt, nobody was really on my level. But as I grew up, and I took some time from martial arts to focus on school and figure out what I wanted.

When I went back [to taekwondo], I wasn’t at the top anymore. It was really difficult being in that environment because it was new to me and something I had never experienced. You don’t remember having to work up from the bottom. So that was one of the most defining moments in my life, because I could’ve said, You know what, time passed, it’s just not for me anymore and left it there.

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But it became motivation for me to work even harder to get back to the place where I was winning again. But even then, I mean, after a couple of years of tirelessly working and knowing that I deserved that when politics still comes into play, mistakes do happen, I didn’t train hard enough.

And I went to World Championships. And the form was great. I was nailing everything.

And then I went to do the last flip, I slipped and fell. Things like that happen. I got up. I was always told, and I always did lose with grace. It was never like a question for me is like, you know what, that’s, that’s totally fine. Just motivation to work harder. But I got up, you know, I was like, okay, that happened. Let’s just make sure that doesn’t happen again. So just getting back in the dojo working even harder.

I wouldn’t be who I am today without losing because by kept winning, it would have been too easy for me. By now I would have slacked off and become lazy. So I’m thankful for those moments, because it’s given that hunger and really reignited that spark within me to keep working hard. And it’s not because I’m competing with anybody else. It’s because I’m competing with myself. And I know the standard I have for myself as well.

3. RAYNA VALLANDINGHAM DIVERSIFIES HER SKILLSET…

Some martial artists focus on their craft so much that they oftentimes forget to expand themselves outside of martial arts. I’ve always been blessed with incredible mentors who’ve told me that I need to be good in front of and behind the cameras.

You need to be a value in every single room you walk in. Even starting from a young age, I was always investing in those different aspects and continue to do so. I love choreographing, teaching, acting, doing stunts, and every single one of those falls under the umbrella of my passion—martial arts. It’s fun to be able to have all those different outlets to go to. It’s also essential now to expand your arsenal, especially in such competitive industries. And at the same time, just to feel fulfilled for yourself.

Before I could just walk into a convention center where a tournament is happening and feel very confident. Now I feel as though that I can walk into a room with producers and directors and feel just as confident.

Meeting people that I’ve looked up to my entire life working with people I’ve looked up to my entire life doing things that are fulfilling for me being able to make my own schedule, calling people having people come to me and little girls come to me and ask me Rayna, how did you do this, or Reina you inspired me so much, is it’s incredible, it’s, it’s, I don’t know how to explain it, when you have a passion for something and other people will begin to recognize that within you. It’s really special and it’s really moving. And I’m continuing to have those little glimpses each and every day.

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4. …BUT STILL HAS FUN BEING A ‘BEGINNER’

I thrive off of the adrenaline of trying something new and becoming great at it. But it’s also the realization of you don’t have to be great at everything. You can have one thing that is your purpose and passion and reason for life. But you can have other things that are just your hobbies that you have fun with. You deserve to be in touch with your inner child to be able to have fun with different things.

And I’m really learning that myself. I took dance up this year to have that outlet of just having fun and to also be a beginner again at something. To me it’s actually a great skill to have to just be a beginner at something and learn from there. Whether you’re 30, 40 , 50, it doesn’t matter.

Enjoy not having the pressure of having to be perfect. I think that if you’re an athlete, or whatever you may do if you’re great at something, you know what that feels like of having to be perfect all the time. So I would say that it’s more important than you think just to be able to get out there and try something new. And just be OK with whatever happens. It might end up becoming something you’re great at, or it might just end up being something like you falling off a skateboard every 10 minutes. But it’s so fun—it’s really important in life to to be able to laugh at yourself as well.

Rayna Vallandingham modeling in the desert
Courtesy of Alex Miller

5. RAYNA VALLANDINGHAM WANTS TO BRING OUT THE BADASS IN EVERY GIRL

There’s nothing more womanly than just being badass—that encapsulates everything that a woman is.

But I completely understand that it could be difficult to feel whether fitness is for you in what really still is a male dominated industry. It’s not always easy to go to a gym for the first time and have all these guys lifting heavy weights and going through their bro talk. Sometimes everyone looking and staring at you, especially if you’re the only woman there. It can be really hard.

If you need a place to start, I would 100% recommend just starting out in your own home.

Put on some music and dance, try a Zumba class. Anything that you like and genuinely enjoy, give it a try.

It doesn’t have to be weightlifting. There’s so many different avenues out there. You can take self defense, jiujitsu, martial arts—I recommend those! Dance, run, walk, even go to Disney and walk to 20 different rides, that’s going to be a workout. Anything you really enjoy, it’s important to capitalize on for your fitness. And be creative too.

You can even buy some nunchucks and swing them around. I was working with an MMA athlete, and he started playing with nunchucks, and was like, Oh, my God, this is gonna be my new workout. Just getting in the gym and fighting can become so monotonous at times. There are so many different opportunities for you to expand yourself. You’re worthy of investing in yourself and really finding that because it’s worth it.

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