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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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Karyna Yoong Karyna Yoong

Former Kickboxer Brings Lessons from the Ring to SDSU

Malaysian international student Karyna Yoong fought in the 2014 World Kickboxing Championship.
By Michael Klitzing

San Diego State University psychology senior Karyna Yoong isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with a challenge. Even as the Malaysian native stares down the uncertainty common to all international students approaching graduation, she exudes a level-headed confidence that’s impossible to miss.

Yoong has faced tougher fights, after all. And it certainly helps to have the wisdom of a martial arts master resonating in your head. 

“He always mentioned how important it is to train your mental strength and your confidence using the power of visualization,” Yoong said, referring to her mentor, Bathi Allimuthu

This approach, which Yoong sums up as “the mental aspect of winning” has served her well. In just three years’ time, Yoong went from a 16-year-old struggling with low self-esteem, to a seasoned fighter. It was a transformation that has impacted her life far beyond the ring.

Discovering potential

Yoong’s pursuit of kickboxing started as a hobby and a way to stay fit. It became more serious when Allimuthu, a former taekwondo world champion who has trained several kickboxing world champions at his center in Kuala Lumpur, took Yoong aside and asked if she wanted to make kickboxing more than a hobby.

“I think he saw potential,” said Yoong, who has practiced American and Muay Thai kickboxing. “He asked me if I wanted to start training for actual competitions, so that made me feel like I was really working toward something. It made me feel like I was good at something.”

She became very good, indeed, graduating from sparring to smaller tournaments and fights at her center, to eventually fighting on the world stage. Yoong’s career culminated in Wanning, China, where she represented Malaysia at the 2014 WKU World Kickboxing Championship.

The body-mind connection

These days, Yoong’s kickboxing career, outside of occasionally working the punching bags at the Aztec Recreation Center, is on something of a hiatus. As a full-time student holding down a job on the side, she doesn’t have time to train regularly. She also doesn’t have a car, so getting to one of San Diego’s Muay Thai gyms is tricky.
Karyna Yoong kickboxing at the Aztec Recreation Center
Karyna Yoong kickboxing at the Aztec Recreation Center

But the lessons of kickboxing have served her well at SDSU.

“I think it has benefitted every aspect of my life; it’s why I’ve started dabbling in meditation, mindfulness,” Yoong said. “Especially when I’m under high pressure, like in a job interview, I try to mentally prepare myself before throwing myself into it.” 

Yoong, who calls herself a shy person by nature, hasn’t shied away from much since coming to the United States. 

For the past two years, she has gone into San Diego elementary classrooms to teach children about Malaysian culture through the Intercultural Ambassador program. Now, as part of a field placement for a psychology course, she is volunteering at SDSU’s Adaptive Fitness Clinic, which provides access to fitness for people with disabilities. In assisting the clinic’s personal trainers, she works closely with patients, including stroke survivors and people with cerebral palsy.

“I feel that a lot of us tend to ignore or dismiss the minority of people who have physical or mental challenges,” Yoong said. “It’s not because we don’t care, but because we just don’t know how to interact with them in a social situation. I feel that now that I’ve had this experience, when I encounter people with physical and mental disabilities, I’ll be more confident in interacting and be able to make them feel more comfortable.”

What’s next for Yoong

While Yoong’s major is in the sciences, she has discovered a knack for communication that she now hopes to turn into a career. Over the summer, she completed a digital marketing internship in Bangkok, Thailand, at the tech company GoPomelo. This semester, she’s working as a student assistant at the International Student Center, running its social media accounts.

Where these experiences will take her after December is anyone’s guess. As an international student, she has three months after graduation to find employment so she can stay in the United States for another year. If that doesn’t happen, she is open to opportunities elsewhere, but isn’t ready to go back to Malaysia just yet.

“I want to travel and work all over the world,” Yoong said. “After the U.S., I’m thinking of applying for jobs in Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia. Interning in Thailand, I met so many people from all over the world, and I was like, ‘Wow, there are so many opportunities out there.’ I shouldn’t limit my choices.”

Wherever she goes, the lessons learned in the ring—the mental aspect of winning—will surely follow. 

See kickboxer Karyna Yoong in action and learn more about her story in this video. Connect with SDSU international students from all over the world at the 61st International Peace Village, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Nov. 16 at Montezuma Hall.