Inspiring Loyalty

This is a bit of a follow up to my “When the Vibe Changes” post from last month. That post circulated more than I thought it would! It opened up a dialogue for a lot of people to talk more openly about things – both locally and elsewhere. Things have changed significantly since then and needs an update!

As people began sharing more about the changes that made them leave my old academy, it was apparent that the teachings of our association head were no longer respected or taught, along with other issues. Long story short, my old academy has been dropped from the team association – our coach finally had enough of the centralized drama stemming from ongoing policies that don’t match his philosophies.

My loyalty is to my coach because he has earned it over the years of having my back and investing in me. He returns that loyalty, and it is obvious even to people outside of our association how much he cares for all of his students. Yes, even the troublemakers (you know who you are!)

When I tell people how amazing my coach is they just don’t get how he can inspire such a loyal following and assume it must be cult of personality. Then they meet him and say, “oh I get it now!” See he genuinely gives a shit about seeing people succeed and surpass his abilities. If you look at the black belts he has produced, you will notice they are all unique with different styles and methodologies. He doesn’t try to mold us in his image, he instead seeks out what makes us tick and nurtures that into its own thing. His affiliation has grown in the mid-south so much in the past several years, and that’s without him ever actively trying to coax people on to the team, in fact he wasn’t even intending to run an affiliation but the black belts under him all requested it. He inspires people to want to follow, and he is a good enough person that he understands the responsibility of that.

This is what differentiates a coach from an instructor (by my definition at least). An instructor gives you valuable knowledge for you to then implement. A coach goes deeper and develops more than just technique, they develop mindset, philosophy, and individual training plans based on a student’s strengths and weaknesses. He actively watches the trends in Jiu Jitsu and if he sees something that he thinks will work for a student, he takes the time to study it and help a student integrate it into his game – even if it’s something that is outside of his personal style. For example, spider guard was just coming onto the scene when I was a white belt. He saw it being used at worlds and brought it back to show me saying “I can’t do this with my hips, but you are gonna love it!” I remember staring at him in disbelief that I would ever use this ridiculous looking technique… But he was right, and I still actively use it to this day!

You can’t demand loyalty from people under you. Loyalty is something that is awarded to you by virtue of proving your merit and care. If you have to demand that people are loyal and respect you, all you will be is a dictator who rules by fear (which can look similar but will feel hollow upon receipt).

A major goal of mine is to one day be able to inspire people the way he does. At any rate, I look forward to the future and am allowing myself to feel true excitement and anticipation again! I see my surgeon again in 4 weeks and will find out if I need another procedure on my knee to break up scar tissue. Either way my prognosis is excellent for return to full impact with zero restrictions, it’s just gonna take a little more time.

Jiu Jitsu and Autism Pt 4

It’s been requested over the last couple of years that I write a follow up post to my “Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers” series from back in the day. I thought I had gotten everything out with that series, and honestly it was a scary one to publish since I hadn’t disclosed my diagnosis to many people at that point. This might be a rehashing but there’ve definitely been changes since I wrote that piece 8 years ago! (Click Here to check out the article that started it all)

Two big changes:

The Aspergers diagnosis is now defunct and dated (as are the terms high/low functioning), my diagnosis is now simply “Autistic”. The other change being that I was promoted to my black belt last year.

So where does that leave me?

I’m still me. I’m learning and unlearning a lot through work with my therapist. Autism seems to have taken a recent spotlight through media representation, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Education and awareness is good in general, but media will of course represent the extremes of something from their own vantage point, not understanding what actually goes on in a brain that is wired differently than theirs. The stereotypical autistic person they usually end up portraying is the sensationalized version that is a small fraction of the diagnosis spectrum.

Sensory Issues:

Since my last posting on this topic, I have had to stop driving a car. It is just too much input/reaction for me to safely handle. On bad/low tolerance days I could focus either on; watching my speed, staying in the lines, or driving directions. I got speeding tickets because I was having to focus so hard to keep my car going where I wanted it and safely avoiding all the other moving (and stationary) objects that I just didn’t pay attention to speed, or I would be swerving in and out of lines while watching my speedometer. It all added up to more stress than it was worth to me. I switched to a combo of bicycle and the bus. The bike is easier because I don’t have to watch a speedometer, and can stop easily if I need a focus break. It was less convenient on the surface (especially given the state of the bus system in Nashville), but a better choice overall.

More recently I have started paying closer attention to my tactile sensitivities. Can I push through the day with a jacket sleeve touching the base of my thumb or an odd feeling fabric making up my gi pants? Yes, yes I can. But these little stressors add up and if it’s something within my own control, shouldn’t I control it and make it easier for me to handle the things I have no control over? As such I’ve done a closet purge and gotten rid of items that I find uncomfortable, got myself a floofy fleece hoodie to relax in at home, and am eyeballing an oversized Totoro plushie I found online.

I recognize now that while I can’t tolerate light physical contact, firm to hard is actually soothing. I’m guessing this is another reason why Jiu Jitsu is a good activity for me!

Pattern Recognition:

I’m starting to make some realizations about how deep my penchant for pattern recognition goes. I have realized that I don’t read people’s facial expressions emotionally, but I can recognize a change in their behavior pattern that tips me off if something (positive or negative) is up. So, the better I know someone (and get the hang of their normal behavior) the better I can read their emotional changes.

It’s frustrating because I can predict to pretty good accuracy an issue down the road – but no one takes me seriously if I try to point it out. Then the crisis hits and they all scramble to address it and I just heave a sigh.

In Jiu Jitsu it has definitely been an asset! When I figured out the mechanics of a triangle choke, I was able to easily apply the same thing from all angles (inverted reverse triangle finish anyone?) Learning my training partners’ movement patterns helps make me seem like I know a lot more than I actually do.

Special Interests:

My primary special interest has remained Jiu Jitsu – I’m going on 11 years now of it! It brings me great joy that I’m surrounded by people who don’t think it’s odd if I want to talk for hours about training techniques or theory.

It has been particularly difficult for the past few years. First, we had all the gym shutdowns with the coronovirus, and then just as we were getting into the swing of training again I had a very bad injury. I’ve been recovering for over a year now and haven’t been allowed to train properly (at all in the past 5 months post-op). I had the best possible sports osteopathic surgeon piece my knee back together again – he is confident I will be back to full impact with no restrictions, it just takes time.

Not being able to participate feels like a part of me is just a dark empty space that nothing can fill. I’m back on the outside looking in again. I have tried my best to keep myself engaged through teaching and watching film, but it is a pacifier that can’t be sustained. It has reached a point where I can actually see a life for myself where I never train again, and it terrifies me. I am determined that I WILL be back!

Social Stuff:

Being around the Jiu Jitsu community has made me feel much more competent and confident in social settings. Overall, I think the sport attracts the awkward misfits who are more accepting and forgiving of the awkwardness of others.

I have never dated, and probably won’t in the future. It is so difficult for me to maintain friendships that adding deeper levels just seems an insurmountable task to me, more trouble than it would be worth. Just know that if I count you as a friend, that means something.

I find it difficult to make a good first impression without feeling like I’m putting on a show of something that isn’t who I really am. The term is “masking” where I hide my natural pattern of speech behind a mask that is more socially acceptable. Everyone has always told me to “just be yourself and people will appreciate the real you!” – but in my experience that is a well-meaning lie. The real me is awkward, makes people uncomfortable with bluntness and vocal inflections, doesn’t have a filter on facial expressions, etc. Probably the reason that, while growing up, the other kids in my peer group thought I was “creepy.”

Nine times out of ten, if I greet people with the real me, it just doesn’t begin or end well. So many of my (now) friends have said that when they first met me, they thought I hated them. If I wear my goofball mask it is a predictable role that other people know how to relate to right off the bat. It’s less stress in the moment, but more stress in the long term. Sometimes I’m so exhausted when get home that I just sit down and stare at a blank wall for a solid hour before I’m able to start to relax with a book or movie.

That said, it’s better than it was before. I’m more aware of my limitations and am getting better at regulating myself. Controlling the things in my environment that I have control over means I have more energy to deal with the ones I can’t control. Since people with Autism have to expend more mental/emotional energy to do simple daily tasks, I have to conserve my energy where possible in order to make it through the day.

Anxiety:

I had a 3-day long anxiety attack last week. I learned something new from my therapist through it. Since my brain has no filter for the world I will eventually hit “critical mass” and my brain/nervous system just says “no.”

I say it’s like boiling a pot of water. Everyone else can boil their pot uncovered but I have a pressure cooker lid firmly in place. The pressure that would normally just dissipate from the act of heating up the water (aka, functioning in society) has nowhere to go for me.

Even as I explain it, it sounds like I’m just making excuses. Especially when people try to relate by saying “I think everyone is a little autistic” – which to me sounds like a minimization of my own difficulties. I can function if I try hard enough, so I must be lying or exaggerating. The toll it takes on me though is not sustainable over the long term.

In Closing:

Not a ton has changed really. I am still me. I am just trying to learn more about myself so that I can be a better human. Achieving my black belt was a huge saga that I will one day possibly share, but I need to be a little further removed from circumstances before I do that.

As I have risen in the ranks, I have felt the responsibility to look out for my fellow students. I would spend my weekend rehearsing all possible questions and interactions that I could come up with so that I could have an answer for someone as opposed to my classic deer in headlights stare. They know I care, even if I’m still a bit rough around the edges.

I’ve been more open about my diagnosis in the past couple of years. I think it’s because I have come to accept it more and feel more confident. That said, I’m actually awaiting an official assessment through an ADA approved evaluation center. I’ve been diagnosed by several therapists but if it’s not done through the approved evaluation center it’s not considered “official”. It’s an expensive drawn-out process, which is why I haven’t done it before – but with the salary from my new job I will be able to afford it!

12 Weeks Post Knee Surgery

I dislocated my knee during a light sparring round April 17th, 2021. I didn’t let my partner know how bad it was because it was a freak accident and didn’t want him to feel badly. Thankfully I was able to quickly get in with one of the top Sports Orthopedic Surgeons in the area. He specializes in high impact athletes (16 years working for an NFL team) so I knew if anyone could get me back on the mats it would be him!

My diagnosis was a torn and frayed PCL (opposite of the ACL), torn LCL, several tendons torn, and basically the entire outside of my knee was mush (posterolateral corner/PLC). I have underlying hypermobility and joint instability (It’s a degenerative condition), so the Dr said it was difficult to tell how much of the instability was caused by the damage, and how much was just my normal baseline. (He said my “good” knee felt like a bad knee – but it is functional for me). He wanted to opt for more conservative treatment at first. “I have enough people to do surgery on. I don’t want to put you through surgery if I don’t have to.” I appreciated that approach since I do not have health insurance and would have to pay out of pocket for any expenses.

I did twice a week physical therapy, with regular check ins with the doctor. The idea was that we would let it heal and stabilize on its own as much as possible. When I plateaued that is where we would decide how functional I was. I hit the plateau early November and was able to walk around with a brace on, but my bones were shifting too much for me to be able to train safely. We scheduled surgery for December 16 (after I got back from coaching students at Worlds).

Surgery day was fun. I was actually a lot calmer than I thought I would be and looking forward to a nice nap. I was the doctor’s first surgery of the day – and must have really thrown off his schedule because it took him three hours to put my knee back together (his surgeries are usually about an hour). He said it was like trying to stabilize jello. I now have a few donor grafts and several screws holding my joints together, they also gave me a round of PRP in order to help speed healing. He had to drill through my bones 5 times in order to anchor everything. He had to get “very aggressive” and as a result they had to put me under very deep anesthesia; it took me 3 hours to properly wake up afterwards. He was however very pleased with the surgical outcome and confident it would heal strong and be more stable than my other knee.

The first week was super rough. They gave me opioid pain meds for 10 days, but I switched to Tylenol after the first few days. It was hard enough to get up to use the bathroom without dissociative drugs in my system. The anesthesiologist took me seriously when I told them I metabolize nerve blocks quickly so he must have given me an extra special dose – I couldn’t feel my lower leg for the entire first week. It’s probably a good thing based on all the work that the dr did.

I spent my first few weeks post-op with my leg locked out in a splint 24/7. I was allowed to be weight bearing “as tolerated” but until I regained sensation in my foot, I kept that to a minimum. I was on an ice sleeve machine for 5 out of every 6 hours and sleeping with my leg elevated to keep swelling to a minimum. Physical Therapy started the week after surgery right after I finished my first post-op visit where they removed my stitches and half of my staples (there were 39 total staples holding the side of my knee closed, the other half were removed a week later). Physical therapy at this point mostly focused on controlling swelling, isotonic muscle work, and passive prone mobility (bending my knee while I was face down).

At my 3 week checkup, I told the doctor that I had managed to complete a 300-hour game on my Nintendo switch (The Witcher), and he told his PA “Let’s get this girl moving”. He gave the PT clearance to start unlocking the hinge on my brace so I could start bending my knee while walking and pushing my range of motion more. He told me I could be as weight bearing as I was comfortable to do, so I found I could stand for a few seconds with my weight evenly distributed. I also got to remove the steri strips that were on my smaller incisions. The larger one (about the size of my hand from wrist to fingertips) I had to keep taped up a bit longer.

At the 7 week mark I hit a wall for range of motion. For the PCL ligament, they had to keep my leg locked out straight for the first 6 weeks because in that position there is no pressure on the new ligament. This enables all the bone grafts to start healing and the ligament to stabilize in its new home a little bit. The more the knee bends, the more pressure it puts on the ligament. Only time I was allowed to have my knee bent was twice a week under the direct supervision and application of my physical therapist. So now that it was anchored, we had to start stretching it out more aggressively. 90 degrees is what you need to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. I was stalled out at 35 degrees and crying/sweating buckets when the PT would push to stretch it more. We were way behind schedule, so my PT called the dr’s office and they put me on a steroid pack for 6 days. With that we were able to get past the hurdle to 50 degrees. It’s very useful that my PT clinic is connected with my dr’s office, and they can share notes back and forth in the same system.

Since then, range of motion has still been a game of slow improvements. I see the doctor again tomorrow for my 12 week follow up and I know they were hoping I would be past 90 degrees by now but I’m barely passing 75 right now. I may be looking at another steroid pack, or possibly some injections. We shall see what the doctor says tomorrow!

On the positive side, I’ve been walking with a much more even gate. Doing light leg press exercises, single leg balances, and even walking across the floor without my brace on at PT. My hope for tomorrow’s appointment is that the doctor will okay me to get rid of this massive post-op brace and switch to my smaller custom brace for walking around. I plan to ask if he still thinks I have a chance of being able to safely compete at the World Pro tournament in November. Before surgery he said absolutely yes, but I know he had to do a lot more work in my knee than initially anticipated.

Here’s hoping!

With Great Power…

So I’m a black belt now. What does that mean exactly?

It simply means that I was too stubborn to quit and demonstrated that I can persevere long term and become good at something. This does not make me a honorable person who is worthy of your highest level of respect – I still have to earn that by demonstrating long term that I am a worthwhile human being. I know plenty of black belts who I have zero respect for, due to their actions as human beings.

Being a black belt does not give me a license to bully or harass those below me. My task is to make the path easier in that regards. Just because I was given a hard time going up through the ranks, does not mean I have the right to make things difficult for others as well. I choose to break that pattern. I choose to nurture other students and create a safe retreat for people to work hard without extra distractions.

So all that said as preamble… a lot of people are finally starting to talk about sexual harassment and bullying among the ranks of Jiu Jitsu. It’s both heart breaking and refreshing at the same time. We like to foster this fantasy that earning a black belt also perfects your character, but a rotten foundation does not lead to a stable house. I know black belts who think that since they paid their dues that it gives them license to do whatever they want – when it really is the opposite. There’s this thing called power dynamics, think “with great power comes great responsibility”. I must hold myself to a higher standard now that I know people are looking to me to model behavior.

So… Dear Black Belts/Upper Ranks:

Yes you worked hard to get to where you are. You should be very proud of your accomplishment! Now regardless of if you are an official instructor or not, you are a teacher. This is the way.

You can be a badass killing machine without being a douche canoe.

If you make a racist or sexist joke, a lower rank is going to hear that and think it is an acceptable behavior. It’s a trickle down effect that influences the entire culture of your training space.

Mimicry is real – meaning people will model behavior that makes them seem like part of the group. Good or bad.

Don’t protect one another. If someone is being a creep to other students, you need to draw a hard line and call them out on it. Friendship can only go so far and some behavior cannot be excused by “they mean well”.

If you want your gym to be a safe haven of badassery, then do that. Cultivate the culture and boot out the bad eggs.

Dear Lower Ranks:

We appreciate you and love that you are starting this journey! It takes guts to step on the mats the first day. Whether your goal is weight loss, confidence, recovery, becoming a ninja assassin… your reason is valid!

You deserve to train in a safe environment.

Just because someone outranks you, does not mean that they have the right to make you feel threatened or uncomfortable.

If you get creepy vibes from someone, please tell your instructor. If it is the instructor giving you creepy vibes, tell your gym management. If the problem is systemic and you aren’t taken seriously, then go to a different academy. Training is hard enough without dealing with emotional turmoil from bullying or harassment! Some things aren’t worth pushing through.

If you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe training with someone, say no to training with them. There are people who I will not train with even if my coach tells me to. If he wants to know details, he asks me after class. I am working to instill this in my students as well. Right of refusal applies here!

In conclusion:

I had a meeting with management at my academy a few weeks ago along with an HR rep. They have promised to toe a hard line on zero tolerance of online and in person sexual harassment/bullying. They banned a member on the spot for sexual harassment. We have police officers in our academy who have given us a legal course of action we can take if needed as well. The amount of relief I have heard from our female members is both gratifying and saddening. It is going to be a tough road ahead as things get unearthed, but it will be worth it.

Chasing Challenges

I have been out with a knee injury for the past several months.

It has sucked pretty badly.

I saw all my friends training and competing in events. While I was happy and excited for them, I had sub-feelings of envy and frustration that I tried my best to shove when issuing congratulations or encouragement to people. It’s not their fault that I was sitting out and I didn’t want my feelings to color their experiences. I have had some of my experiences soured in the past by other people doing just that. I won’t be that person.

I’m super happy to announce that my Dr was not horrified at the thought of me returning to competition next month! So I have been cautiously training this past week – getting back into shape sucks. I’m up 8 lbs from my normal competition weight and my cardio sucks so badly that I can’t sit down after class because I know I might not get back up for hours.

I love it.

During the time off I have been planning out my approach to this next season and doing a lot of searching for my own motivation. I took it back to my day 1 roots and realized that my motivation has remained the same – I’m chasing the challenge. This is why I got into Jiu Jitsu. I was overweight and unhealthy – but was bored to tears just working out at the gym because there were no concrete hard goals. I remembered how much I enjoyed doing TaeKwonDo and Hapkido as a teen and decided to find something similar to push myself with.

It was pretty hard. And there are so many layers of difficulty! Once I could make it through class all the way without nearly passing out – I decided to try a competition. I won 1 out of 4 matches and got hooked. I made measurable progress and worked my way up to a silver in both the European Championships and the Pans. Just as I started to get comfortable and see an end goal come closer (gold at one of those events), an awesome thing happened!

I was promoted to my next belt rank and started all over at the bottom of the divisions – losing most of my first matches (badly) and scrambling for improvement once again. I went through the “blue belt blues” – trying to readjust my mentality to focus on long term improvement while dealing with the bubble pop of going from the “top white belt” to “bottom blue belt”. This is where I really started branching out to compete in different countries around the world in order to test myself in as many different ways as possible. With each test, I learned a little bit more about myself and became better.

Again, just as I reached the level of comfort, I was promoted once again to my current belt rank (purple). This time, however, I anticipated the bubble pop and did not let it get me down. It is just a period of mental adjustment to a new level of intensity and goals. The main difference I’ve noticed is that people take me a lot more seriously as a purple belt than as a white or blue belt.

So here I am in my purple belt phase. I wouldn’t be able to summarize it properly until it has past and I am looking back at it. But I’m going to enjoy it and milk the entire experience for as much as I can get out of it.

It’s all just practice for my black belt anyhow – so it’s okay to try things out and mess up. The failures aren’t as bad as I think they are, and the successes aren’t as glorious either. They are rungs on the ladder of improvement.

So now that I’m back into active training, my first order of business is to get my cardio back so that I can train effectively. I’m still at a high risk for re-injury so I am being very cautious who I train with and how. I also need to drop back down to competition weight, which shouldn’t be too hard now that I’m cleared to train again.

During the time off to heal, I focused on my mental game and also on building my own personal business. Now I have a strong foundation to work from and I can’t wait to see what I can do! I’ll be testing myself once more at the Master Worlds next month in Vegas – it’s going to be awesome!

Rewards of Good Foundations

I have had an incredible year so far! I’ve visited six countries, been inside two world wonders, and brought home two international gold medals (Abu Dhabi Grand Slam and Mexico National Pro). I’m back to full time training, and can actually afford to eat properly again.

I hear the phrase “man you’re really lucky to get to do all that!”, but it’s not really luck. What looks like luck is really the past several years of quiet grinding that no one really sees. Why? Because it’s not shiny, it’s not pretty, and no one really cares about those boring details. It is the slow process of constantly shifting toward my goals that have gotten me into a place now where I am able to once again train full time, travel, compete around the world, and still be able to pay my bills.

If you want something badly enough, you will find a way to make it happen. It might take time but if you stick to it in the shadows, it will eventually come to light and you will find yourself one day waking with the realization that you have been accomplishing goals set years ago.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from this year so far.

Dancing to greet the bride and groom at a wedding in India

Taj Mahal

Wearing sari and eating all the amazing food

Team training: our ladies team is growing!

New fan girl photo with “Chew Jitsu”

Taught a couple of classes in Mexico City

Made it to the #1 world ranked spot

First place in Mexico

Learned to make Pastel de Nata in Lisbon

The Pyramids

Won Abu Dhabi Grand Slam

My Weight Class Journey

I remember when I first started training Jiu Jitsu. It was toward the end of January so everyone was thinking about Pan Ams and weight cuts. At that time, I was thinking everyone was crazy, and that I’d never do that.

My perspective has changed over the years. In my eyes, the purpose of weight classes are to try to eliminate the size factor so that it is an equal footing test of skill. If skill is matched, size will win. This is why it’s always a huge deal if someone from the middle to low end of the weight classes manages to win the open weight class. Their skill level was high enough that day to overcome the size differences.

So how does someone determine which weight class they should be competing at? I think it’s a process of experimenting to find where you feel strongest. 

I’ve competed from 125 up to 155 and have found my sweet spot right around 135. When I’m not competing, my weight naturally stabilizes at around 142 – so with extra cardio and clean eating I can make 135 within a couple of weeks.

I can make 125 with a very tight regimen of cardio training, long sparring sessions, and calorie restriction. I did it twice in one year for Pans and Worlds. It is an achievable division for me, but only if I’m able to take 6 weeks off from work to focus on the process. I’ve been having to adult a lot the past few years and have not been able to have another go at it. Maybe this next year it will be possible?

I competed my first year as a purple belt at 145. Lots of reasons why there, and I determined that it is a reasonable division for me. It’s not ideal since I was at the low end of the weight class and I could feel the strength differential.

155… I just had no business in that weight class.
Weight Cuts and Aging:

As I get older, it has become more difficult to maintain a lower walking weight. I find myself having to pay more attention to my normal eating habits, change up my cardiovascular routine, and spend more time on recovery and prehab exercises.

In the golden days of my youth, all I had to do was cut out pasta for a week in order to make 135. Now I actually have to do a structured meal and conditioning plan in order to make the same weight. I like to blame having more muscle mass now than when I first started but let’s face it. I hit 30 and my metabolism did a “whoa Nelly” on me.

I wonder sometimes if I might eventually shift up to the higher weight class – but I am resisting that option. It’s just gonna take a little more dedication and focus on my part, and that’s a good thing!

In Closing:

Weight classes are an integral part of Jiu Jitsu competition. But they are just one factor of the whole. I’ve known many people who focused so hard on making a weight class that it was a detriment to their technique and mental training. I’ve also known people who have completely neglected maintaining a healthy weight and ended up in unbalanced match ups that should not have occurred outside of the open weight division. By “known people” I refer to myself. Balance is key.

Abu Dhabi Days 2 and 3

So I’ve already shared my perspective on the competition (read it here!) so now I will share a little bit about all the rest of the stuff surrounding the competition.

img_2606Finishing Day 1: After I competed, I went back to my hotel room. I was soooo hungry, but my need for sleep won out over the need for food. So I just downed a bunch of water and passed out from about 5 pm until midnight. I then looked at the clock, rolled over, and went back to sleep until 5:30 am. I did have the foresight to purchase food from a grocery store on the way to my hotel, so I inhaled a bunch of fruit and a rice biryani.

Day 2: My friend, Itzel, invited me to come train that morning with her. She needed to get some light rounds in with someone who wouldn’t break her – so I took a cab to meet up with her at the officers club where all the cool kids (aka black belts) were housed. They had matted out what looked to be a racketball court and it was just an open mat of awesomeness. I saw a lot of people I knew and surprised a few team mates (I’m talking to you DJ and Mike) who did not know I was competing. Of course, it was the black belt hotel so I was basically a minnow in a room full of killer sharks. And of course I loved every minute of it! After training we had food and just hung out for a bit before I started getting sleepy (stupid jet lag), and decided to take a cab back to my hotel.

Side Note: taxis in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are super convenient and cheap! I’d pay under $5 for a 15 minute ride. Cheap even by my standards! Most all of the drivers speak a good amount of English and I would just show them on google maps where I wanted to go and then off we went. The drivers generally do not talk with you other than to verify where you want to go and then to tell you the cost at the end of the ride.

 

Day 3: I met up with Itzel at the competition venue (we were hang out buddies this trip). She wanted to watch the country qualifiers because she would be competing against the winner on the following day. This was also her day for weigh ins so we waited around for that and met up with a few other friends who were also weighing in. She was good for weight and then we went and grabbed a bit of food from the trucks outside the venue. I got a shawarma – what kind I have no idea. I just told them to make it good because I was hungry. They delivered!

If you are a lady competing in Abu Dhabi, you are required to wear a bodysuit’esque style undergarment under your gi for weigh ins and competition. I squeaked through with just a rash guard, but apparently if your rash guard rides up you will be disqualified on the spot. The organization does have approved one piece suits available that you can purchase, and I know a lot of the ladies choose to wear a one piece bathing suit. So… bring on the wedgies!

So closes this chapter. For days 4 and 5, I will talk about competition results for everyone, a visit to the Grand Mosque (yes, I wore the veil), the grand finale of black belt matches on the big stage, a beach visit, and some cultural observations. I’ll then devote an entire post just to the desert safari adventure  before moving on to Dubai. So until then, here’s a teaser!

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Abu Dhabi World Pro Recap

I just made it back to the states after a very interesting 10 days in the United Arab Emirates. I will work on a few other blog posts detailing some of the non-competition experiences (food, desert safari, shopping in local markets, etc) – for now I will just be sharing about my adventures leading up through the competition event itself. So… prepare yourself for informal story time!

I booked my flight before the schedule was solidified, so I ended up arriving in the Abu Dhabi airport at around 3 am local time on the day I was to compete. No day before weigh ins for me – so I was very hungry and thirsty. Female hormones decided to time their surge during this critical stage, so I did not have the planned wiggle room for my weight.

I hung out at the airport for about 5 hours, charging my devices and staring with thirst envy at everyone else who happened to take a sip from a water bottle in my vicinity. Occasionally, I would stroke my bag of sports drinks and whisper a “soon my precious, soon”. When time finally came for me to make my way to the venue for weigh ins, I purchased a metro card and made my way out to the bus stop along with my suitcase and bag. I missed the proper metro stop and therefore ended up walking about 1.5 miles in the desert heat, dragging my suitcase over cobblestone (R.I.P suitcase). When I finally arrived at the competition venue and weighed in, I was a full pound under weight thanks to that desert stroll – so all’s well!

I had about 90 minutes before my division was set to begin, so I proceeded to down a bottle of electrolyted liquid and lie down with my feet up in the warm up area. At this point the giddiness began to kick in because I realized I had made it happen and I was really going to get to go out and compete.

img_2551My match was meant to be the 5th one in my division, but since it was the first match that the coordinator found, it got bumped to the first event of the day! So this means being escorted past the curtain out to the side of the mat while the tv commentators are talking and the crowd is starting to rumble in the background. I was grinning like a fool. So happy to be there after all the work I put in to make it happen. This was going to be me showing my best game.

Finally, the referee gives the motion to start the match and everything else fades away to a pinpoint of focus. I go from grinning fool to focused animal in the drop of a hand. My opponent came at me with fury and powerful technique. I responded instinctively, just doing what I know how to do (so many inversions!). When we reached 1 minute left I looked at the scoreboard and saw that I was up 2 advantage points and could coast the last bit if I wanted. However, that is how I missed out on a finals match in Cincinnati, so I kept going. My opponent knew she only had to pass my guard in order to advance to the next round and I could feel her determination and drive. Suddenly I saw an opening and managed to lock in a submission, rolling to mount to finish in the last 30 seconds of the match. It was honestly one of my proudest matches. It was a war from beginning to end with a worthy opponent whom I would love a chance to match up with again!

I was as elated and made my way back to the holding area when the adrenaline dump kicked in like it never has before. That along with the lack of sleep and recovery time hit all at once. I was very close to throwing up and had to lie down on the floor with my legs elevated. Thankfully since I ended up being the first match of the day, they had to process through the rest of my division before they came back to me again. It was a full 30 minutes before I could sit up without nearly blacking out and I have not been that close to backing out of a match before. However, I owed it to my first opponent to continue on and do my very best! So once I could sit up, I focused on projecting a strong solid front to any of my opponents who might be watching me. Just because I feel like I’m going to pass out, doesn’t mean I need to let people see that.

My name was called for my second match and I kept that mask on as I went out. I wish there was a triumphant resolution to this tale, but alas, I was immediately pulled into a triangle and had to tap to the pressure on my neck. I kept the mask on afterwards, thanked my referee and made my way back to find ice for my neck.

All in all, this was one of my favorite tournament experiences and it was an honor to participate in it! I also earned enough points to be ranked #6 in North America! I will be back. What I will do differently next time is just book a flight arriving much earlier so that I can have time to do the day before weigh ins and recover more completely. Mentally I was more focused than I have in the past year – I feel like I am starting to be confident in my game again. I will continue to improve and make myself better every day. My next goal will be to hit as many of the Grand Slam events as possible (Tokyo is in July), and also to wreck some havoc at Master Worlds.

Motivation

When I first started competing, it was all about learning more quickly. When I started winning, I caught the medal bug and wanted to keep going. That has changed a bit in the last few years and I have been having difficulty defining what motivates me to keep at it.

External motivators are only good so long as you are in that particular environment at a certain point, it has to go deeper. For example, training with Team Lloyd Irvin leading up to Worlds has been a huge game changer for me. I call it the Jiu Jitsu pressure cooker – it’s far harder physically, but much easier mentally. I haven’t been able to make it out to see them for a while, but I need to put myself into that mental place and be responsible for my own drive. Then when I am able to go to TLIHQ I can contribute to the overall drive, instead of just feeding off it.

Okay, enough wind up. I just got out of a counseling session and we discussed specifics about things leading up to Pans next week. She was able to guide me to identify what is firing my inner motivator.My coach and team have never put the “value based on performance” burden on my shoulders. They see me training every day and know what I am capable of on my good days and on my bad days. Any performance pressure I feel, is completely self-bestowed. Here is the thing though. My coach and teammates have put so much into me over the years that THEY deserve to see me win. I want to validate that all the time they put into me was worth it.

Also, I did not realize until our annual team training that there are actually people who look up to me. If someone is going to have that kind of trust in me to use me as an example and role model, I had better do my best to live up to it!