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December 2007 was a memorable month for master's chemistry student Tatiana Vassilieff, to say the least. Though the end of term brought impressive and hard-fought MSc designations to many students wrapping up their degrees, including Vassilieff, the 25-year-old Parisian was surely the only one who would also add "World Champion" to her resume.
On December 8, in Trèbes near Toulouse in the south of France, Vassilieff won the savate world championship in the under 48 kilogram "combat" category, out-pointing her Tunisian opponent in a majority decision. The victory makes Vassilieff the first-ever Canadian to win a world title in savate, a French martial art that resembles kickboxing but has its roots in street fighting.
Winning the championship belt certainly packs an impressive punch, but the fact that Vassilieff balanced a backbreaking physical training regimen while finishing her graduate degree in chemistry only adds to the lustre of her accomplishment.
Though Vassilieff was considered a long shot at the championship event, she didn't let that deter her from spending long hours in the lab during the day while giving up her evenings and her social life to train. "For the last few months, since July, my schedule was really busy. I was in the lab from 9 to 5 and after that I had to train five or six times a week at night," she said.
Her gruelling workout schedule involved cardio, weight training, technical training to rehearse the kicks and punches, and plenty of sparring. "My master's advisor was Dr. Ashok Kakkar. I'd sometimes go to the lab exhausted after training. Two or three times I had black eyes, but he was very understanding."
Remarkably, Vassilieff discovered savate a mere three years ago at McGill. A friend suggested she give it a try and despite her initial reticence about the martial arts, she was instantly hooked. She explains her meteoric rise to the top in a very matter-of-fact way: "I really love it, so when you love something you're really motivated to do well."
As for the reaction she's been getting about her new title, the pint-sized pugilist finds the feedback amusing. "It's funny because people have this image of the boxer from the movie Million Dollar Baby. I'm not that kind of really tough, really huge girl. Everybody's shocked when they hear that I'm actually the world champion."
The newly graduated Vassilieff returned to France last month where she plans to build a career in the pharmaceutical or cosmetics industry—perhaps she'll develop a product to cover the black eyes of aspiring savate champions.