‘Don’t Forget to Duck:’ Late grandfather’s words inspire gold medal at Pan Am Games

Kelsey Underwood’s fitness journey began in a cardio kickboxing class.

There, she found some much needed stress relief: a workout that packed a punch. 

And she loved it.

“The idea of punching things is very appealing,” laughs the 31-year-old.

“It’s so therapeutic.  I don’t know if you’ve tried it, but it feeeeeels gooooood,” she proclaims with her trademark wide grin.

For Kelsey, kickboxing was an escape, a break from her busy schedule.

“I was a small business owner, at night I ran the Children’s Hospital suite for the Ottawa Senators, and I was taking care of my grandfather who had dementia,” says Underwood, who also lived with her grandfather. 

“It was exhausting. When you spend every second of every day focusing on someone else, it’s hard. And it’s hard to find time to reboot.”

Her kickboxing classes offered her that precious ‘reboot’ time.  

And Kelsey’s grandfather, James Underwood, whom she loved and adored, always cheered on his favourite fighter.

“He was the most beautiful soul. He was the funniest, the nicest, he was just pure love. And when I first told him I was going to start kickboxing, he would laugh at me and say, ‘Ok, don’t forget to duck.’

In time, Kelsey advanced from cardio kickboxing to begin training for competitive fighting. 

And she was good at it.

“If they taught me a technique, I wanted to do it a thousand times until I did it right,” she says.

And every time the talented fighter went to train, her increasingly confused and forgetful grandpa remembered to echo the same words.

“Every time I told him I was leaving he would say ‘don’t forget to duck,’” Underwood smiles.

A t-shirt reflecting James Underwood’s famous expression “Don’t Forget to Duck”. A teammate wore this shirt during the Pan Am games to inspire Kelsey Underwood before her matches. “One of my teammates came out and was wearing the shirt and I burst into tears,” said Underwood. (Joel Haslam CTV Ottawa)

Kelsey didn’t know then how important that phrase would become in her future.

Two weeks before Ottawa’s first lockdown during the pandemic, Kelsey’s ailing grandpa passed away.

“I’m so grateful that he went two weeks before COVID because I spent every night in the hospital holding his hand. I put pictures in his room, and friends and family came to hug and kiss him to say goodbye,” she says.

“And if he died later, I would not have been allowed in the hospital, which means I would have gone to jail, because there’s no way I would have let my grandfather die alone,” she says.

“And my heart goes out to anyone who lost anyone during the pandemic and was told they couldn’t be there for them.  That’s just mind boggling to me.”

Her grandfather was the first of many losses for Kelsey.  She was forced to close her business.  She also lost her home.

“When the pandemic hit, I watched it all fall apart,” said Underwood.

But Kelsey’s painful losses would fuel her.

“I got knocked down really hard and I had to figure out how to get back up,” she says.

She thought about her grandpa and felt him at her side.

“I carry him with me everywhere I go,” she smiles.

“He’s a constant reminder that whenever I’m tired, to suck it up, because one day I’m not going to have this strength or this body.  I think about him and how grateful I am to have opportunities.”

Kelsey’s discovered a new family at Gracie Barra Ottawa in the City Centre.

Coaches and teammates there have helped her become stronger, as a person and fighter.

“They are all amazing. And they have done a phenomenal job embracing me and loving me and protecting me and coaching me and lifting me up.”

“She’s a perfectionist.  Trains every day, many hours a day. She wants to get the techniques right and works super hard,” said coach Mark Holst of Gracie Barra Ottawa.

“She’s super upbeat, too, and it’s important not to lose the fun in the training if you’re in it for the long run and want to go pro one day.”

As a gesture of thanks for their support, Kelsey had t-shirts made for some of her teammates with the words “Don’t Forget to Duck” plastered across the front in bright red letters. 

“So, my coaches will wear it on days when they know I need to see it, and they will say it to me on days when I need to hear it. When I’m too hard on myself, or I need extra inspiration, they’ll pull it out.”

Kelsey Underwood competing in Brazil at the Pan Am Games. (Supplied)

The t-shirt would play a pivotal role in Brazil where Kelsey had traveled with Team Canada to compete in the Pan Am Games last month.

The pressure was immense. Kelsey was the first Canadian to fight and her opponent was from the host country, Brazil.

“The stadium was filled with their fighters’ fans, and they were there for their country,” she says.

And that’s when Kelsey’s grandpa showed up in her corner with a message.

“One of my teammates came out and was wearing the shirt and I burst into tears. I gave him a big hug and I said ‘that’s exactly what I needed’ in that moment.”

Kelsey defeated her Brazilian opponent.

“Unanimous decision for me,” she smiles.

And in her next match, she faced Argentina for gold.

“The moment we touched gloves, I’m like ‘Oh, I’m taking home gold,’” she says.

“Something switched in me, and I was like ‘There’s no way I’m coming home without the win,” she says smiling.

And win, she did.

“It was an amazing fight, and she was fantastic, but in that moment, I was able to come out on top.”

“Unanimous decision again, for me.”

“Pow, Pow, Pow. She won them all and brought back the gold medal. We were super excited for that,” says coach Mark Holst.

“I will forever be grateful for that moment and cherish it,” says Underwood. 

“I wish I could bottle up that feeling and keep it for the rest of my life.”

Kelsey trains with a teammate at Gracie Barra Ottawa (Joel Haslam CTV Ottawa)

Back in Ottawa, Kelsey continues to train at Gracie Barra Ottawa and TG Athletics in Kanata where she works out regularly in the company of friends and supporters.  

Her community has been “extremely generous and kind” in raising funds, making donations and helping Kelsey realize her dreams.

When not in the gym, the fierce warrior is a tender-hearted caregiver, working with adults with special needs through Partners in Parenting.

“What an amazing job. And what an amazing way to spend my life, loving and protecting people who can’t do it for themselves.”

Kelsey’s dream is to compete in the Olympics in 2028, if her sport gets IOC approval.

And she thinks her grandpa would support that dream by offering his sage advice.

“If he was still here, and I told him I want to go to the Olympics in six years, he would look at me and say, ‘Ok, but when you’re there, don’t forget to duck.”

Kelsey Underwood on the podium, singing the Canadian National Anthem after winning gold at the Pan Am Games in Brazil. (Supplied)

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