Isla McClung, captain of Glasgow University’s Muay Thai club, and Shereif Kholeif, a former captain who is now president of the Glasgow University Sports Association, spoke to The Glasgow Guardian about the nomination.
At a time when university sports clubs are suffering like never before, the Glasgow University Muay Thai (GUMT) club has managed to adapt and overcome what the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown at them, from creating online workouts throughout lockdown to producing interesting non-contact sessions which have allowed them to continue with training. This strong work throughout the pandemic has been a continuation of the club’s great efforts in recent years, which as a result, has seen it become one of the University’s biggest sports clubs. It was this dedication which encouraged Glasgow University Sports Association (GUSA) president Shereif Kholeif, himself a former captain of GUMT, to put GUMT forward for the British Universities and Colleges Sports (BUCS) Club of the Year award. Isla McClung, the current captain of GUMT, was sceptical about their chances given Muay Thai is not an established part of BUCS, something Kholeif hopes could change in future if a BUCS league were to be introduced for Muay Thai, but is now grateful she worked alongside Kholeif and other former captains to produce a strong application. The application resulted in the club being shortlisted for the award, only two other clubs (University of Edinburgh’s Hare and Hound club and University of Nottingham’s Tennis club) from the UK made this exclusive shortlist. GUMT’s shortlisting is a great achievement for both the club, who won GUSA’s club of the year award in 2018-19, and Glasgow University Sports Association, which GUMT is a member of, considering Kholeif, who is in his seventh year at the University, cannot remember any previous Glasgow club being shortlisted for this prestigious award.
McClung has managed to keep the club in a strong place throughout the pandemic. This was perhaps made easier by the fact she has desired the role of captain since early on in her university studies: “I think I knew from first-year that I wanted to be captain of this club one day, and it has been on my radar for a while”. However, her introduction to the captaincy this summer was not as she had anticipated, since lockdown heavily restricted what the club could do. It would have been easy to accept the lockdown months as a write-off; this was not the approach of GUMT. Lockdown only seemed to increase the dedication of McClung and her committee as the team produced workouts, at one point up to five a week, and wellbeing talks which kept their own members engaged, whilst also drawing outsiders to their workouts. Kholeif describes seeing “people that weren’t even involved in university sport or members of other clubs getting involved in Muay Thai workouts”. To be able to galvanise others, at a time when it is an achievement to engage their own members, is no mean feat and was just one of the reasons why the club was shortlisted.
McClung acknowledges there is a great team behind her: “Every single member of our committee has contributed massively over the past few months...it’s not even been me telling everyone what to do. People have been coming to me and suggesting we could be doing a bit more in this area.” The hard work goes beyond just the committee though, as McClung also reserves special praise for their coaches, Tommy Young and Martin McCann, who she considers a “huge asset”. Isla credits the coaches, who part-own Everyday Athlete gym near Cowcaddens, with being creative in keeping the workouts interesting, even at a time where no contact is allowed. McClung describes how “a lot of traditional contact sports are not able to put on training at the moment. But we’ve been able to deliver non-contact sport and fitness, safely and outdoors, which is really down to the coaches.”
McClung is a humble captain, eager to credit others before herself, but she is undoubtedly a key cog in the GUMT wheel. Few groups in society have escaped the wrath of the pandemic, but GUMT membership still stands at a very healthy 150 people, and McClung deserves to be credited for ensuring the club gained some new members. McClung, a fourth-year psychology student, put her dissertation research, which is about first-year students' sense of belonging through sport, to use to find ways of engaging people to come to the sport at this time. Her strategy obviously worked as the club had to put on extra taster sessions due to high demand.
GUMT’s strong work seems relentless and goes beyond engaging people to participate in Muay Thai. Currently, many members, including McClung, are participating in the GUSAxSRC Sustainability Challenge where GUMT members have made a variety of pledges to help positively impact sustainability, from going vegan to avoiding takeaway coffee cups for a month. McClung, who has chosen to give up fast fashion, believes the challenge has been great as it has “encouraged people to think outside of the box when it comes to sustainability”. Doing their bit for such an important cause is demonstrative of how GUMT use their club for good, and, with positive actions like this, it seems almost certain the club will continue to go from strength to strength.
GUMT will discover on 8 December whether they have won, but whatever happens, it is a phenomenal achievement from the club which seems to typify the best of what university sport can be. Elite-level competition has its place, but when McClung describes how people approach her to say that Muay Thai training is the highlight of their week, you feel that is the true essence of university sport. Coach Tommy Young, who has been involved with the club for 17 years, sums it up well when he speaks about how Muay Thai can benefit mental health, particularly at a time where Covid-19 restrictions can put a strain on this. Young said: “I have seen how important the club has been to its members in helping them battle with constant restrictions or the changing face of university life. Learning focus and discipline at the same time as having a place to be with others in a safe, outdoor, sheltered area has really kept up the student’s morale and enabled them to hit their studies knowing they have a place to relieve some tension.”
They aren’t merely a club, they are a community where people can lean on each other, a place where people feel free to express themselves, a comfort blanket through the stresses of university. They are Glasgow University Muay Thai club.