LINCOLN PARK — Grace Penney knew she was different as a child and often got into fistfights, but it wasn't until late in high school that she found her outlet in combat sports.
Penney, 20, has trained six or seven days a week for months leading up to her boxing debut in the Chicago Golden Gloves, but in the process has made sure picked-on youths have an outlet by starting an anti-bullying training class.
"I would have loved something like that when I was little," said Penney, who is a lesbian and lives in Lakeview. "I knew I was different, and I found an outlet in combat sports. I became my own hero."
The feisty DePaul University student said she was bullied as a child growing up in different Chicago suburbs as her family constantly moved. She found her escape during her junior year at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange when she began wrestling.
"I was a really aggressive kid. I was always looking for an outlet," she said.
Within two years of finding that outlet, Penney won the girls' high school wrestling championship in Illinois and competed in nationals.
Boxing is her next step, and likely not her last, as Penney hopes to conquer a number of combat sports on her way to competing in a mixed-martial arts fight.
"I really want to try every outlet. It's given me so much since I started," she said. "Troubles with family and friends, it's kept me going. When I come here it's all my own space."
Since she started training at Chicago Mixed Martial Arts, a new gym on Halsted Street just south of North Avenue, Penney has worked with gym owner Misho Ceko to create her anti-bullying class.
The "Gracie Bully-proof Program," named after the the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Gracie family, meets twice a week to teach children basic techniques to fend off bullies who are often bigger than them.
"If someone comes up to you, how do you protect yourself?" Penney said. "You can tell they are more self-confident [by] how they carry themselves."
One of three current students is third-grader Elliot Kovitz.
"He really likes it a lot," said his nanny, Veronica Sanchez. "He did taekwondo, but I think this is something more real for him. He doesn't focus on the fighting side of it. He's a fan of learning all the techniques."
"More real" means using real-life bullying situations in class to show Jiu-Jitsu techniques that would counter them.
"We try to imitate situations," Penney said. For example, when a Jiu-Jitsu instructor charges her, she asks, "How should I move? How should I approach him?"
On March 23, Penney will have to do more than protect herself in the ring at the Cicero Stadium when she fights in the 106-pound weight class and, she hopes, makes it through to the finals of the Chicago Golden Gloves, one of the most prestigious amateur tournaments in boxing.
"We definitely have a very good outlook. We hope to definitely make it to the finals," said her coach, Ivelin Tzontchev, one of the top amateur boxers in Chicago who placed second in the Golden Gloves in 2009 and was a semifinalist in 2010.
"She came here at a pretty good level, and we just worked with her from there," Tzontchev said.
Although it's her first competitive striking fight, Penney said she is more than ready.
"I'm not scared at all," said said. "If I'm anxious about anything, it's not doing my best."