From hiding under benches at her first martial arts class to becoming a 13-time World Champion in Taekwondo, Rayna Vallandingham knows a thing or two about rising to the challenge. Early on, her parents deemed her a shy kid, and thrust her into nearly every sport possible in an effort to get her involved. By the age of 6, Vallandingham knew it was time to focus on just one, and martial arts was the easy choice. Now at 20, she has built a life around mastering the art form while presenting the most unabashed version of herself.
Vallandingham’s childhood was mostly spent working for hours in the dojo or training on the beautiful beaches of her hometown, Encinitas, California. “You know when you can feel that [something] sets your soul on fire,” she poses, “and it’s your passion, your purpose, the reason you’re on this earth to impact it in a positive way?” Despite having a strong sense of direction at a young age, Vallandingham acknowledged she was on a different path than many of her peers. “When I look back on the fact I missed recess, my friends’ birthday parties, and holidays because I was competing or training, it can feel a little heavy because I did miss that part of my childhood,” she explains. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world because I was in the dojo doing what I love.”
Though Vallandingham knew martial arts was her calling, she inevitably faced people who tried to put it into question. “When I was a kid, maybe 7 or 8, every boy would tell me, ‘You kick like a girl, you punch like a girl,’” she recalls. “They meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. I’m like, yeah, I kick like a girl! Girls are so powerful, they’re so strong. And as far as I was concerned, they did the highest, most beautiful kicks and form.” She similarly recalls telling her instructors that she wanted to be like her childhood idol, Bruce Lee, and being met with, “but you’re a girl.” From that point, she had her mind set on becoming just as legendary. “I want to inspire young girls and the next generation,” she shares, “so when they walk into a dojo, they can be like, ‘I wanna be like Rayna Vallandingham,’ and it immediately resonates.”
There were a few male martial artists posting content on social media before Vallandingham jumped on it, but it was the women who were found few and far between who inspired her the most. “If they can do it, I know they can believe in me to be able to do that as well,” Vallandingham expresses. She started off by asking her parents to film videos of her in her backyard—“Okay mom,” she’d yell, “what combo should I do?” By remaining consistent, her content started blowing up, and moms around the world were telling her their daughters had begun taking up martial arts because of her.
On top of sports, Vallandingham was also interested in the entertainment industry early on, taking up acting at the age of 8. She quickly realized she could combine both her passions to create a new lane, which was hard for onlookers to wrap their heads around at first. “I’m not this straight-laced martial artist in a uniform, I’m doing it in clothing I love, that I think is dope in a cool setting,” she says. “I do what I want, that makes people uncomfortable and comes with a lot of hate. I’ve just been continuing to strive and change the industry in that way.”
When Vallandingham felt it was time to take things to the next level, she packed her bags and headed for LA. “As soon as I was able to support myself with brand deals or collaborations, it was truly an aha moment because I never thought that was possible,” she says. “I gave up martial arts when I was 17 because I just didn’t know where it could take me. I knew I didn’t want to go to the Olympics, I knew I didn’t want to compete anymore, I knew I didn’t want to be an instructor. I was trying to think outside the box and be like, ‘How can this evolve further, and how can I introduce this to the entire world?’”
With hard work and patience, Vallandingham soon found herself in places she used to only dream of. In 2021, she worked with Bruce Lee’s family for a collaboration with the clothing brand Superare, and has since partnered with huge names like Quest and Under Armour to expand her holistic vision. These days, you can find her performing fight choreography for music videos and social media content, which is all culminating towards her ultimate dream of becoming an action film star.
Amidst all these experiences, Vallandingham recently decided to get her first tattoo—“KAUR” written on her torso. The word translates from Punjabi to “lion” or “princess,”and it is dedicated to her grandparents who came from Punjab in India. Her grandpa took her to her first martial arts classes, and when she’d be terrified to show what she could do, he’d say, “Come on, kaur, you can do it.” “If I’m ever doubting myself,” she says, “I can just look down at my torso and be like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been doing this since I was 2, I can do it again.’”
The traditional martial arts community is known for being “super clean cut, almost like the military,” Vallandingham says. “Old-head” martial artists might call out the influencer for having tattoos, but it just makes her want them more. With them, she can prove to others that they can do whatever they want. Her future tattoo plans include getting a katana on her neck. “Picture this,” she says, “it would be so cool to be on the big screen and be a kick-ass female character that just has a sword on her neck. And then if people wanted to dress up as that character for Halloween, they would have to put a sword on their neck.”
If there’s one thing Vallandingham hopes people can take away from her content, it’s the inspiration to reach one’s full potential. “I truly want to inspire people to invest in themselves,” she explains. “I think there are too many people nowadays who just kind of settle for less and don’t give themselves the fair opportunity to be able to pursue what’s waiting for them. I think if people don’t give up and realize this is a crazy world where anything can happen, I know I’ve done my job.”