KOI-CHAMPIONS: THE SAMURIDER

The first instalment of our KOI-Champions, we interview martial artist and stuntwomen, Shaina West.

WORDS BY REBECCA RHYS-EVANS

As part of KOIBIRD Breaks a Sweat, an edit which we hope to encourage women to take up unconventional activities and forms of exercise, we are launching our KOI-Champions series. In light of Women’s History Month, the series will spotlight various female athletes and professionals that are known for their hobby, and in some cases, line of work. Our first KOI-Champion is Shaina West, who you may already follow on Instagram (@thesamurider) for her fierce martial art movements, fruit ninja abilities and incredible knife work. Also a professional stuntwoman, Shaina has taken her love of anime and comic books and made a career as a real life superhero, working on Marvel films, with PlayStation and so much more. We catch up with her to talk about her journey in becoming a self-taught martial artist, the importance of exercise and her career highlights.

Tell us a little bit about how you became a martial artist and how long you've been doing it?
I was 21 when I decided to teach myself martial arts, which is considered quite late in life. I’d never had any experience in it before and had just got my first big motorbike, I  had a pretty serious accident where I broke my neck and hand and during my recovery I just had to stay at home and watch a lot of my favourite films and TV shows, which incidentally included a lot of my heroes. I’ve always had a deep buried interest in superheroes, comic books and video games and I guess I exposed myself to them enough in recovery that I was just tired of feeling broken, and instead felt inspired to go online and watch martial arts videos and teach myself to be a real-life superhero. It’s now coming up to six years since I started!  

Are a lot of martial artists self-taught? Or are you in the anomaly?
I don’t really meet many that are self-taught, no. I do meet people who have a huge interest in teaching themselves, but most professional martial artists start at a very young age.

Sounds so dangerous, you’re so brave. Have you had many other accidents since starting?
I try not to expect an accident, because I do think you get what you expect in life but yes – I definitely whack myself on the head with my bo staff almost every day.
I did have quite an injury a few years back when I was practising a gymnastics move that requires you to spin on your hand. I collapsed, putting my whole body weight on my hand and bent a few fingers back, nearly fracturing two of them. I would say that is the worst accident I’ve had training, that and I also recently did a job in Ghana with Sony where I was using a machete and I cut myself… but it wasn’t too bad!
 


“THERE’S A SAYING I LIVE BY; ‘HEALTH IS WEALTH, MOVEMENT IS MEDICINE,’ AND IT TRULY IS FOR ME.”
 


Your parents must be livid – proud but terrified every day. Would you describe yourself as an adrenaline junkie?
That’s a good question – and when I think about it, it’s not so much adrenaline I chase, it’s life. It’s so complex beyond our comprehension, there are so many experiences out there to be had, I feel if I’m not grabbing them, then I’m wasting the opportunity.
  


Would you jump out of a plane or bungee jump, or have you already?
I haven’t, but I’d be open to it. Falling through the sky is such a crazy experience, and one that we should probably all try once before we die.

Let’s talk about Street Gym. With our active edit we’re really wanting to push unconventional sports and activities, and these days there’s so much more on offer than just pilates and spin classes. Can you tell us a bit about the project?
Yes! It started as a movement called Block Workout by a group of guys who named it after the housing blocks they lived in. They couldn’t really afford a proper gym membership, so started using their own environment around Brixton. They’d do bodyweight lifting, crawl in the mud, circuits etc. 5 years later they were able to open a gym, they were given just an abandoned warehouse by the council that they managed to renovate. It became a community gym where for a long time it was free to attend, people were just doing it out of their pockets. Now it’s more of a community hub and I’ve been attending for 4 years.

I read you love anime, what’s your all-time favourite anime film?
Oof, that's hard. I would have say a series, not a film, called Naruto. It’s one of my major inspirations for my martial arts, I’ve been watching it since I was 12, when my older brother introduced me to it. It’s much more than your average television, it’s so deep it’s like reading a Paulo Coelho book whilst watching this ninja anime TV show!
There’s actually a symbol that the show plays on, it’s called the Will of Fire and I actually have it as a tattoo. What’s special about this is symbol is that it means something different to different beholders. For me, my three mantras are to be strong, to fight for what I believe in and to do what I love. I used to struggle badly with anxiety, and I got it as a mental seal in the place where it would physically manifest, and every time I saw it acted as a reminder to do what I love and not what I thought I had to do, and ever since then my life has completely changed for the better.

You have one of the coolest jobs in the world, if not the coolest – not only are you a martial artist you’re a stuntwoman. What's that like?
It’s amazing, there’s not a single day where I don’t wake up grateful. I have to say it’s really hard work. I get hurt a lot, it’s exhausting but it always gives me something to strive for, and for me there’s no greater feeling than accomplishing a move or stunt that I know will be a challenge.

What’s the best project you’ve worked on... which one are you most proud of?
Oh that’s so hard, can I pick three instead?!
First would have to be Black Widow, that was one of the highlights of my career because I had spoken into existence about wanting to work on a Marvel film, in fact I sort of made an exclamation at the Film Institute in front of a crowd of people, I just said “I’m going to be in a Marvel film one day. And I’m not saying that because I have the job now, but because I want it more than anything and I will do anything to make it happen.” And then three months later, I got the call and it was a reality. I got to do really cool stunt work on that project too, including wire work from the ceiling and a chase scene. Firearms, knives, all kinds of weapons, probably as big as it gets when it comes to film productions.


“THERE’S CERTAINLY A DEFICIT FOR BLACK STUNT WOMEN, WITH ONLY 2, MAYBE 3, IN THE WHOLE OF THE UK, OUT OF A TOTAL OF AROUND, THAT’S JUST 0.5% REPRESENTATION.”

The next project that really stands out for me was a job I did for PlayStation in South Africa. I played lots of different game characters from Call of Duty, Red Dead Redemption FIFA, Monster Hunter… it was just incredible. And final one would be the most recent job I did for Sony in Ghana, which was great because I got to be a female warrior. It was probably the most intense job I’ve ever done, lots of choreography, I had to use a machete and I got injured (again), but it gave me a great sense of accomplishment, and I really can’t wait to see what it looks like.

And working in the film industry, one that was, or really still is, very male dominated, is it the same for the stunt film industry? Or has it grown to become more balanced?
I think it’s very male dominated, as we step into new age productions, we’re seeing more of a balance but often it does feel like a bit of an exclusive boy’s club. In some respects it's understandable as it is a physical job, but there’s certainly a deficit for black stuntwomen, there’s only 2, maybe 3, in the whole of the UK, out of a total of around 400 people, so that’s just 0.5% representation. There are numerous occasions where there’s a need for a female actor but due to the lack of choice, sadly a male actor will play a female and just wear a wig.

Oh wow, that's really sad, hopefully things will change in the near future. Speaking of future, what’s next on the cards for Samurider?
Lots actually, some of which I can’t speak about! I’m doing a lot of campaigns with Everlast and Superdry which I love as I love to work with activewear, but I’m also training really hard at the minute for some film projects that I can’t unfortunately speak about yet, but stay tuned!

You’ve spoken quite openly about it being a very low point of your life that led you to follow this dream, to train and become a martial artist. How important do you think exercise is to mental wellbeing?
Oh my god, SO IMPORTANT! There’s this saying I live by; ‘health is wealth, movement is medicine,’ and it truly is for me. I owe all my successes to the lowest points in my life – they were catalysts in making me what I’ve become. From my injury and recovery from the accident to my chronic anxiety in the past, I’ve had to channel this negative energy into physical, kinetic energy, and when I did it was instant relief.
 
You sound like you’re really living your dream, I have to ask, what is success to you?
I feel like success is fulfilment and fulfilling your destiny. To reference Paulo Coelho again, your only obligation in life is to fulfil your destiny. I have an unrelenting faith in the success of life, and the importance of following your gut and doing what you love.

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