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The Desert Warrior Week 2024 combatives championship came to a close on May 23 and one of the competitors is blowing up on social media. Staff Sgt. Diane Kancauski ate a hard slap to the face like it was breakfast and returned the favor via a double-leg takedown during the final round of the championship. 

“So the first smack was the one that kind of dazed me,” Kancauski said. “So after he did that, I looked at him and I took the line from the movie ‘White Chicks’ and said ‘My turn.’ We both kind of laughed and that’s when we both relaxed.”

She placed second in the Desert Warrior Week combatives championship and is gunning for a first-place podium finish next year. Though the video of that smack followed by her takedown has circulated on social media, there’s another video of her choking out a male soldier from a standing position, literally lifting him off his feet. 

“To be fair, I actually had no idea I was picking up the guy,” Kancauski said. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy’s really flexible.’ Everyone said I was carrying him around and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.”

Kancauski didn’t grow up fighting, instead playing soccer and softball. So where did she find the grit to take a hit that has you on the verge of passing out? 

“You can’t teach that,” said Staff Sgt. Luke Duran, one of Kancauski’s trainers. “Somebody either has it or they don’t […] She’s all heart and a fast learner.”

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Kancauski’s heart and drive come from a deeply personal place she hasn’t been comfortable discussing. She had endured an extremely abusive relationship and when she broke free, she found her way into a fight gym — it’s all history from there. 

“I felt so powerless. I felt — just, I don’t know — what he did to me, I did not want that to happen again and I didn’t want it to happen to others as well because I’ve seen it happen on multiple occasions,” Kancauski said. “That’s why I want to be able to protect people and defend them and myself as well. So from there, just kind of started rolling in. I was like, ‘Hey, I actually kind of like this.’”

She fell in love with grappling and rolling on the mats. She was stationed at Fort Stewart and was starting to improve when a non-commissioned officer she was training combatives with at the time ripped her arm out of the socket during a psychiatric breakdown. While awaiting her shoulder surgery, her friend got into a car accident with Kancauski in the car, further damaging her shoulder. 

Kancauski has experienced a lot in her 10 years of service. She’s overcome a serious shoulder injury, survived a rollover accident, reckoned with endless cat-fishing attempts that use her likeness, modeled for a military-centric brand, and lost a dear friend to suicide who endured an abusive relationship similar to Kancauski’s. 

After about three years of recovery, Kancauski was eager to get back in the gym and has been training hard since last year. There are both male and female classes at her jiu-jitsu gym and she almost always goes to the men’s program. 

So, when she was paired up with a man for the finals in her latest combatives competition, she went in fearless despite not having a lot of strike training and her competitor being a trained boxer. She was nervous but driven by a mission to show other females they could compete in the largely male-dominated sport. 

“I just wanted to show them, ‘Hey, we can do it, too. We can fight. I just want to inspire other women,” Kancauski said. “Sure enough, after this competition, I actually had quite a few women come up to me and they’re like, ‘I want to do what you do’ and I was like, ‘Oh, you want to beat men up, too? I did not know that I had such an influence.”

For anyone who wants to start training at a fight gym, Kancauski recommends checking to see if your base has a martial arts program, and if they don’t, check the local area for civilian gyms. 

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