Marcela Soto is a Phuket based Muay Thai fighter who works as a nutritionist at Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort. Hailing from the tropical island of Costa Rica, the diminutive brunette is a picture feminine beauty and health. But appearances can be deceiving – beneath Marcela’s beaming smile and friendly manner beats the heart of a fierce warrior. In conversation with RealLifePhuket.com Marcela spoke about breaking into the male dominated world of Muay Thai, her passion to succeed, gender equality, the women who inspire her and her new life here in Phuket.
I’m from Costa Rica which is in many ways quite similar to Phuket. If you love Phuket you're going to love Costa Rica. It’s a small country with a beautiful natural environment and lovely warm tropical weather. I am from the capital San Jose, but it’s not a big city like Moscow or Bangkok, it’s small, actually the whole country is quite small. I lived just one hour away from the beach, and my parents have a beach house, so I would usually spend half of the week there.
In Costa Rica we have an expression 'pura vida' which literally means 'pure life' and it sums up life in Costa Rica perfectly. We don’t have big issues, our country is very secure, I love it, and I guess the only reason I decided to move to Phuket was to train in Muai Thai.
I’ve been an athlete all of my life. Before I ever started training in any combat sport, I loved swimming and would swim twice a day. In Costa Rica we have good waves and when I was growing up I spent every weekend surfing at my parent's beach house. That’s something I really miss because here in Phuket the surf is quite seasonal and the waves are not as good as back home.
I thought a lot about whether to go to Bangkok or Phuket. But I decided that I really didn’t want to go to a big crowded city. I wanted to train and fight real Muay Thai and when I first came here to Phuket it was incredible – it felt like home.
One day in Costa Rica my friend took me to a Muay Thai gym and told me 'you're gonna love this'. So that’s how it all started. Over time I started to get better and eventually my trainer asked me if I wanted to have a real fight in the ring. But in Costa Rica there are not many girl fighters, so I went to the USA to participate in a championship competition – but it didn’t go very well. I felt so frustrated and couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but then I realized that these girls were much more experienced and had competed in many more fights than me. Another problem was my weight, because I’m very light, about 50 kilos, and there are not many fighters in this weight category in America. So the decision to go to Thailand, the home of Muay Thai, seemed like the best way to get more experience and be able to compete against more girls in my same weight group. So when I graduated from university, I quickly organised everything and travelled straight to Thailand.
I was lucky to get sponsorship from a gym, which is really difficult – that doesn’t normally happen. Since that day I lived the life of a professional fighter and have had to deal with all the challenges that came with that. I trained hard and had fights every two weeks. All I did everyday was train, eat and sleep. That was my life for about four years – from 2010 until about 2014.
I went back home for one year and then my husband got a job offer from a Phuket-based gym – that's where I train now. So I decided to apply for a job as a nutritionist at Thanyapura, because I didn’t want to be just a fighter anymore. Now I have much more balance in my life, which is very satisfying.
As a nutritionist, I work together with a chef to help make balanced and healthy meals. He is the main creative person behind a dish, but when we finally finish a new dish, we both try it and discuss what should be changed or added, or what kind of sauce would work well with it. The excellent food at Thanyapura is a result of a lot of hard work .
I am not completely vegan but my diet is about 80% plant-based. In the morning I can have a few slices of fruit, than I go for a run, than right before training I would usually have some matcha tea with almond milk. Then after I train I have breakfast at Thanyapura – maybe eggs with avocado on toast. For lunch it could be beans or fish, or sometimes chicken. At 3:30pm I have a snack – usually something light like fruit and cashews. Than I train from 4:30pm until about 7pm and after that I will have something for recovery – maybe matcha tea with almond milk again. In the evening when I get home I usually cook something for myself and my husband – most of the time it would be something with protein and plant-based – for instance tomatoes with mozzarella and pesto.
If you really want to dedicate yourself to this sport, and become a real fighter, you have to come to live in Thailand for at least a year. It’s different to the way you get trained in any other part of the world. Here it’s totally challenging. As for the money, you have to have at least 30,000 baht per month for the gym and living expenses and that's still really basic. You have to be ready too – it’s not going to be a holiday! You will have to train 6-7 hours per day and it’s really hard.
I've really adopted the Muay Thai lifestyle and even though I was disciplined in my training back home before I started fighting, I am even more disciplined now.
I look up to Valentina Shevchenko as a inspiring example of an extremely focused fighter. Her hard work and dedication has led to success in both Muay Thai and MMA. She says that in the macho world of combat sports, women have to work even harder than men to succeed.
It would be a lie if I said that women are treated the same as men in this sport. In Thailand, just 20 years ago, women were not allowed to fight at all, and girls are still paid much less than men in professional Muay Thai. There are only two big stadiums, and because I am a women, I can’t even enter the ring in them. But it is good to see that more and more people are coming out to watch female fights – I’ve really noticed the difference in the last year.
I know some male Muay Thai fighters who get paid three to four times more than me, even though they fight at same level as I do. What it boils down to is that guys can live on the money they get for fighting. For girls it’s much harder and I really admire Thai women who make a their living through paid fights only.
I don’t consider myself as a feminist, but I try to be equal. I hate it when I hear people say ‘Oh, I don’t like to watch women playing football, because they play like girls’. But things are changing, now it’s fascinating how women can be so inspiring through their sport. Men don’t watch them just thinking about their their gender or beauty but because they are really good at their sport. Of course we are different physiologically – but in my case it just made me want to work harder to achieve better results. Maybe I’m not as strong but I can use my intelligence to plan good strategy.
Don’t give up – that’s the most important thing. When you see me fighting, you might think that it all comes naturally. But I didn’t. I had to work hard and I still do.
Avocado and quinoa
Costa Rica and Phuket
Things you miss the most from home
Family and my dog
You can book training class with Marcela in Thanyapura Phuket, for more details please visit thanyapura.com.