Spotlight: Shannon Rike Henry

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"It’s about power. It’s about precision." — these are the words Shannon Rike Henry teaches her Self Defense for Women class. It’s not just about physical practice. It’s about the mental practice — being aware of your surroundings.

Henry has been teaching Self Defense for Women at USC for three years. But it’s not only the moves that empower her students — it’s her story behind them. At 16, Shannon was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend.

“I didn’t tell anybody,” she said. “I was changed that day.”

After the encounter, Henry struggled to lead a normal life. It wasn’t until she sat down with her family and psychologist years later that she began to rediscover the caring, kind-hearted person she once knew. But the events of that day would never disappear entirely. She describes their lasting effects like a “videotape” on replay in her mind. And that videotape scenario resurfaced when she was pregnant with her first child. She recalled the day when she and her husband visited their doctor for an ultrasound. When they were told they’d be having a daughter, Henry burst into tears.

“I’d have nightmares that something would happen to her.”

Henry discovered SASS, Surviving Assault Standing Strong, upon speaking with her pastor, Ed Carney. He developed SASS Defense in 1997 and was teaching classes at USC. Henry found what she had been looking for. 

“If you train me,” she said, “I will never stop, and I will train every girl that comes to my class.”

SASS Defense has trained not only students, but also military, SWAT teams and police forces. The instructors, which include USC graduates, travel around the world empowering women with the knowledge to defend themselves. Henry was invited to the White House last June on behalf of SASS Defense to participate in the United State of Women conference hosted by Michelle Obama. She described it as “a powerhouse of women” all working toward betterment and equality.

“We’ve taken it and run with it,” she said. “But USC is home.”

Henry never saw her attacker again, but she said, “If I saw him now, I would want to thank him in a weird way for empowering me. Without that experience, there are thousands and thousands of women that would have never been trained.”

Students are constantly sharing their experiences with Henry of how her class has helped them protect themselves from potential attackers and operates as a form of recovery for women who have been victims of sexual assault.

“You take the class, and you change that tape to where you do win.”

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