New self-defense class finds power in fear

10:25 PM, Dec 20, 2010   |    comments
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LONGMONT - Lilli Cotterill has been afraid most of her life. As a young girl, she watched her step-father beat her brother. When she was older, she was raped.

"Just even saying it out loud makes me feel quite vulnerable and ashamed," Cotterill said.

When she spoke with 9Wants to Know, it was the first time she'd told anyone about the rape, other than her fiancé.

Over the years, she'd done what she could to regain the feeling of control. Cotterill, who is from Bristol, Colo., took martial arts and learned Taekwondo. But nothing erased the fear that she'd be attacked and hurt again. Even as she talked with us, her long brown hair fell into her eyes, the tears welled and she shook.

"In a way, you feel prisoner to your memories and try to keep it under lock. I want to be OK with it. I just want to be freed and I hope that's going to happen," she said.

Cotterill wanted to be free of her history so much, she signed up for a self-defense class where she knew, sooner or later, the instructor would attack her and make her re-live her worst moment. If she could fight off the instructor successfully, she knew she'd have a chance at writing a new ending to her story.

"I'm hoping that I will put a few ghosts to rest," Cotterill said.

The class is called FAST Defense or fear adrenaline stress training. It's taught across the country by Bill Kipp and his wife Debra Thomas. The class began as "Model Mugging" in 1988 and evolved to FAST Defense in 1998. In the two decades that they've taught the class, the couple may have prevented thousands of men, women and children from becoming new crime victims.

"It's the most rewarding thing in the world when I can see a student come in who really lacks confidence and in about three hours, their whole demeanor has changed and you can see you've had a direct impact on their life," Kipp said.

In class, Kipp first teaches students how to avoid looking and sounding like a victim by walking confidently and speaking calmly with commanding words.

"Our philosophy is that we do everything we can not to fight. That is the best self defense of all. And then if we do have to fight, it's not a game. We're going to jab the eyes, we're going to knee the groin, we're going to do whatever we have to do to get out of there," Kipp said.

When words fail, he teaches a few simple moves to help you get away. Sharp nails to the eyes, hard knees to the groin. During the attack, he makes you shout to get a shot of adrenaline.

"If we don't control adrenaline, it controls us," Kipp said. "This is not a game about playing fair. This is about saying: 'I'm worth fighting for and I'm going to survive.'"

Kipp knows the fears his students face. When he was 5, he had to defend himself from an abusive big brother who routinely beat him unconscious.

"I tried to out run him, he'd hit me harder. I'd try to fight back, he'd hit me harder. So my conditioned survivor skill was to curl up in a ball and take it," Kipp said.

Like Cotterill Kipp spent much of his life trying to prove to himself that he wasn't weak. He was the captain of his Lacrosse team, he was in the Marine Corps Special Forces, and became a martial artist. Still, there were always moments where he'd feel paralyzed instead of powerful.

One day that all changed. Kipp was walking with one of his friends when they were surrounded by a group of men who started a fight. Kipp found himself on the outside of the circle and could see his friend getting pummeled inside. His instinct was to run. Instead, he stood his ground and he used the adrenaline pumping through him to get angry and fight back.

"All of a sudden, all of the fear and paralysis turned into this really power-house focus and incredible strength, and all of a sudden, the adrenaline became my best friend, where for so long, it had become my worst enemy because it made me freeze," Kipp said. "The fear doesn't go away. The fear is there for a reason."

He decided to focus on that new-found strength and teach others how to turn fear into power with his class called FAST Defense.

Cotterill was in one of his outdoor classes in Longmont in September. Shy and quiet, she sat next to her 12-year-old son, listening to everything Kipp said about not giving criminals a chance to hurt them. Next to her sat Karla Schwenn, a woman who'd been beaten down mentally and physically in a 20-year relationship.

"I know there's a lot of buried trauma and a lot of buried fear," Schwenn said. "But I know I can do this. I can overcome this fear and get beyond this."

To do that, Schwenn, like Cotterill, agreed to use her newly learned self-defense skills in a real attack from Kipp and the other instructors at the end of the class.

When the time came, Kipp dressed in long pants with padding and pulled on helmet. He strapped more pads to his chest. For a few minutes, he was going to be his bully brother and attack others.

"What it allows me to do is to take all of that energy and emotion that is trapped in from my brother and to use it in a positive way. As such, it's incredibly healing for me," Kipp said.

One by one, the women stood in the grass, eyes closed, waiting for an attack out of the darkness. Cotterill pictured her rapist. Schwenn imagined her abuser.

His scream hit their faces first as he grabbed their necks trying to choke them down. But having just learned their self-defense skills, Cotterill and Schwenn fought back and yelled, "Eyes! Eyes! Eyes!" and "Knee! Knee! Knee!" as they dug nails into Kipp's head and bent him over with their legs. They won their fights.

Heaving, shaking with adrenaline, ready for more, neither woman looked like the same as she did when she had walked into class.

"It feels really amazing," Cotterill said as she moved away from Kipp, who was still laying on the ground from her attack.

"I do have my life back," Schwenn said. "I do. I do. I have my life back."

For more information on FAST Defense, visit

If you have any news tips, please e-mail Investigative Reporter Deborah Sherman at


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