She will never forget the flimsy excuse he used, how he was going to show her the California he knew, starting with the Santa Monica Pier. They had barely touched down and were hardly unpacked, yet he persisted. It was after midnight, though time did not deter him. Nothing would. He had something in mind and had a boyish way of coaxing her into taking a walk, so she obliged.
Strolling alone and holding hands, they were lost in conversation, drowning out the creaky sound of loose wooden boards under their feet. A radiant moon pierced the darkness surrounding them, reflecting off the Pacific Ocean below. It was perfect, as perfect as a scene gets for what he was about to do.
She could not feel the nervousness coursing through his hand, but he had to be twisting inside with anxiety, even though he knew what the answer would be to his life-altering query. After a deep breath, Shawn Tompkins finally mustered up the courage to wheel around on one knee and propose to Emilie Stout.
It is a priceless moment in time Emilie, now Emilie Tompkins, perpetually embraces, a keepsake locked in her memory trove of a soulmate, best friend, confidante and loving husband. Shawn Tompkins was all of those things to Emilie and many, many things to the numerous people he touched, nurtured and helped transform into not only elite MMA fighters -- but into good human beings.
He was universally known as “The Coach,” so well respected he did not need a name. If you walked into the Tapout Training Center or Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts in Las Vegas or the Adrenaline Training Centre in London, Ontario, Canada, and asked for “The Coach,” invariably a grinning, gregarious 5-foot-10, 215-pound ball of granite would be bounding your way with an extended hand.
Tompkins trained a distinguished list that includes Mark Hominick, Chris Horodecki, Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort and Sam Stout, Emilie’s younger brother. They were “his boys,” the ones upon whom Tompkins left an indelible emptiness, the ones with whom he lived and died each time they stepped into the cage. They were the Tompkins troupe, wandering through small towns like vagabonds in those early days, with their gear and junk piled into a van. There was Tompkins, constantly leading, playing the ever-vigilant den mother to this bunch of jovial marauders. No wonder he swam inside them. When they fought, he fought. When they lost, he lost.
On Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011, the tension caught up to him. Tompkins, the man that impacted so many as everyone’s “coach,” possessed a great beating heart that gave and gave and gave until, finally, it was not able to give anymore. Tompkins never woke up, dying suddenly, unexpectedly, of a heart attack at the too-young-age of 37. In his charismatic wake, he left a huge gaping void in their lives: Emilie, Stout, Hominick, Silva and Horodecki. So they move forward as one, constantly in touch with each other, forever bound by that common bridge, a cable-strong thread that fortifies them with the need to continue what he built with Team Tompkins.
Perhaps the toughest of them has been Emilie. She does not embody the tragic widow of 30 -- and it is not a good idea for you to view her that way. She finds it remarkably easy to talk about Tompkins, maybe because he enhanced what was already pretty remarkable to begin with: a head-turning, stunningly attractive blonde with the unbending sensibility of a Midwestern girl next door. Emilie was the rock in Tompkins’ life, his go-to person any time he wanted to knock around an idea and see what response bounced back. They were a team, and they shared everything.
Now she finds herself starting all over again. She has the strength and willingness to do it, and she has Tompkins. It is a blessing mixed with a good visceral tug. The hurt cuts deep.
“It’s something I struggle with day to day. I like to think that whatever I do I’m trying to impress him,” said Emilie, who remains involved with MMA through the Tapout Training Center. “The hardest thing to explain to other people who miss Shawn, his big personality and his importance to so many people, is that I see Shawn every single day.”
Emilie cannot escape him, nor does she want to. Each time she steps into the Tapout Training Center, she is greeted by her late husband’s beaming face, which adorns a banner that memorializes him and hangs across the front lobby. Emilie rotates various pictures of the two of them together on her computer’s screensaver. If she wants to see a movie, she resorts to thinking it is probably one Tompkins would have liked. She misses all that they shared.
They originally met at a party, the 19-year-old drawn to the larger-than-life tattooed 26-year-old talking about conquering the MMA world. They were both from London, Ontario, and were frequently around the same group of friends.
“I wondered who this new guy was in our group, so I went up to him and started talking and, a week later, he asked me out on a date, and we were together every day for 11 years,” Emilie recalled. “I still lived with my parents then, but I probably drove Shawn crazy the first couple of years, always stopping by his house every day. When I first met Shawn, he was running his own kickboxing/karate school gym. He’d travel one weekend a month, and I used to think it was so much time apart.”
Emilie knew Tompkins was a kickboxer nearing the end of his fighting career. She attended his demonstrations while she was working toward a teaching degree, cringing in the shadows each time he lay down on a bed of nails or had a cinderblock crumbled over his stomach.
“I remembered when I dated him people would ask what my boyfriend does, and I’d tell them he runs a boxing gym, or he teaches kickboxing and simplify it a little bit,” Emilie remembered.
“I was always amazed how passionate and driven Shawn was about MMA. We used to watch Pride [Fighting Championships] together and see Wanderlei fight. I’ll never forget Shawn telling me, ‘I want to train a guy like that one day,’ and he eventually did. That’s the more amazing part. I watched from the ground up how Shawn made his dream turn into reality.”
The last time Emilie saw him alive was over Skype. Emilie was in Las Vegas, where Tompkins established himself as one of the top trainers in the business and dropped anchor at the Tapout Training Center. He was home in London, Ontario, preparing Horodecki. Strangely enough, Emilie was struck with a sudden melancholy chord by their few weeks apart, to the point it caused her to cry -- and Emilie is not exactly a crier. It was an eerie sixth sense that overwhelmed her. Not long after, that day arrived.
“Shawn promised he would be back and he told me how much he loved me and how much we both looked forward to being back together,” Emilie said. “I was at a hotel pool with my friend Angelica, and we both thought it was strange my family kept calling her. She answered and it was my brother, Sam, who asked where I was. Angelica handed me the phone and Sam immediately passed the phone to my father. I got scared, because I thought something had happened to my mother. She’s always been the one in my family that’s been the messenger for important things, but I could tell something was wrong.”
Then the words spilled out, almost surreal like, from Emilie’s father: “Shawn is gone. He went to sleep, and he didn’t wake up.”
The news stunned Emilie.
“It’s one of those things you remember every second of, because you don’t believe what you heard,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. Sam was too distraught to talk, because Shawn was more of an influence on his life than anyone else. Shawn was everything to Sam. He taught Sam how to be a man. Then I remember Sam saying, ‘I love you, and I’m going to need you so much.’ I got off the phone and told my friends, ‘Shawn is gone.’”
Then Emilie collapsed.
* * *
Stout appeared to be a teenager without a direction -- until his sister came home one day with this cool-looking dude who was into kickboxing. A basic misconception holds that Sam introduced Emilie to Tompkins, but it actually was Emilie who introduced her boyfriend to her younger brother, separated by two years. Stout was 16 at the time and did not take sports seriously, other than banging around playing with friends recreationally.
However, this new man in his sister’s life saw something in Stout, something he did not detect in himself at that early age, so he began training with Tompkins, and the two began butting heads because “The Coach” demanded perfection.
He demanded an effort, and, at the time, Stout had no other driving motivation than meeting girls. He used to come home frustrated, telling Emilie he was a clod with two left feet, and that this thing Tompkins was getting him to do was a fruitless endeavor that would not amount to anything.
“Oh, I remember,” said Stout, letting out a slight laugh. “It was a little frustrating at first. I had my moments of doubt when I wondered if I wanted to keep doing this. One time, I was about to go on a trip with some friends, and I remember Emilie telling me to go back and work with Shawn. I was like, ‘I’ll get back to him later.’ But Emilie put me straight, telling me Shawn was investing all of this time and effort into me, and, at some point, he wanted to get some return on it. I stayed home and worked with him.”
Their relationship grew beyond mentor and pupil. Tompkins was the kind of coach everyone wanted to please, the great hooded sensei on the mountain top, the Yoda in the cave with all the answers who did not pass out words of praise that easily. However, when you got one, you clutched it like a piece of gold, and Stout yearned for his approval.
“Way before Shawn and my sister were married, I considered Shawn like my brother. We were close,” Sam said. “I wasn’t a criminal by any means, but I had no direction as a teen-ager. I met Shawn through Emilie, and I remember when she used to bring him around the house. To me, I was, like, ‘Wow, this guy is cool.’ He invited me to watch a kickboxing show at his gym and had me run gloves down to the fighters. I remember thinking I wanted to do this. From then on, I was hooked.
“Shawn and I got really close. People comment on the closeness of our team. It started there,” he added. “Because MMA wasn’t legal in Ontario, we’d hold these smokers in local gyms and, a few times a year, travel all over the place to these small shows, taking 12-, 15-hour drives all packed in a van. It’s some of the best memories I have coming up. Shawn was my coach but also a mentor to me. I aspired to be like him. Whatever it was, with training or girls, I spoke to him about everything under the sun. We were brothers by choice, which made it even more special.”
Stout, Hominick and Horodecki went everywhere together. Tompkins was always behind them, this living, breathing, walking life force. He had an uncanny, unerring eye for picking up weaknesses in opponents. Each time any of them won, they habitually sought out Tompkins before anyone else. As the victories mounted and the Ultimate Fighting Championship came calling, Stout began noticing something else: Tompkins stressed over the fights far more than any of his fighters.
“That’s because he wanted us to win so badly,” Stout said. “Shawn had a bad family health history. Because he was constantly traveling, he didn’t always live the healthiest lifestyle, but I think it’s the stress that killed him. Shawn carried so much stress into my fights, into Chris’ and Mark’s fights. Shawn would win or lose with us; he had guys fighting every other weekend, and he carried that stress with him all the time. Not all trainers do that; they don’t care like Shawn cared about us. He was so emotionally invested into his fighters and the sport that the stress contributed to his passing. I really believe that.”
Stout was taking a five-hour drive home from a cousin’s bachelor party on that fateful August day. His cell phone battery was almost zapped when Roy Stout, his and Emilie’s father, reached him with an ominous tone of urgency in his voice, telling Sam to get home as fast as possible and to “expect the worse.”
“I got scared it was something involving my mother, because my mother is always the one that makes those kinds of phone calls,” Stout recalled. “Shawn wasn’t even a consideration, because Shawn was invincible in my mind. I remember stepping on the gas and freaking out. When I got to the house, my father told me Shawn had a heart attack and was dead. I couldn’t comprehend it. My father was trying to get a hold of Emilie through her best friend, because my father wanted to make sure Emilie was with someone when we called with the news. I started calling Angelica, and we were lucky that they happened to be together. My father told her, and that’s when the nightmare all started.”
Finish Reading » “Shawn wouldn’t want a sad picture of us mourning him. He would want us all remembering the good times we had to take that with us. I remember all the good things about him and honor him that way. I know that’s how I would want to be remembered.”