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!

So Close!

The Countdown is ON!

At this time next week, I will be on my way to California for the IBJJF Pan Championship tournament! I’m right on track with my weight, have energy for days, and am really looking forward to closing out a division with my team mate, Katie! There will be a live stream available for all the matches, so when I get my details I will make sure to share them.

This will be my 6th time competing at the Pans. My goal is to compete in the adult divisions all the way through at least one year as a black belt. When I competed in Atlanta I had one of the girls react in shock to the fact I was in the adult division. I suppose 32 seems old to a 19/20ish year old!

 

Abu Dhabi

Today I got my plane ticket to the Abu Dhabi World Pro booked. This has been a Jiu Jitsu bucket list item for years – and I decided to just do it. Maximus Kimonos has been awesome enough to supply me with a white gi for use – along with some cool no gi stuff. Give them a look-see and mention my name to get a 10% discount. I can say the gi is super comfy and very light weight!

I’m not yet sure which of two possible days I would be competing at the World Pro. My flight gets me in too late for day before weigh ins the first day, but in time for the same morning weigh ins. Of course if I compete the second day I will be all good for the day before weigh ins. Lodging and my flight to NYC still need to be arranged, but one thing at a time!

Upcoming Events

Well first off, Merry Christmas to all! And if you aren’t the Christmas type, I hope you had a good day off from work!
The gyms were all closed yesterday, so I went to see the new Star Wars movie again with a team mate. Today it is back to the grind! BJJ gym is still closed today, but I am meeting up my regular drilling partner before heading off to my shift at work. Gotta get those reps in!
The current attack plan for the first few months of 2018 is:

January 15-22 – European Championships in Lisbon, Portugal.

I can only afford to be there for the days that I could possibly compete. Gotta get back to work by the 21st. At least jet lag doesn’t exist to me anymore for a Europe trip (after a few trips to Asia).

February 3 – Atlanta International Open

This is an easy day trip for my crew since it is only a 3ish hour drive from Nashville. I’ve kept my one day off from work as a Saturday – so I can make it easily to these day trip events without having to barter time off from work… I’ll be doing plenty of that already this year.

February 17 – Team Shawn Hammonds Team Training

One of the funnest events of the year! Last february we had over 30 black belts on the mat and so many people that it was just wonderful chaos! I was promoted to purple belt at the 2017 team training and I look forward to seeing all the promotions this next year!

February 24 – Mexico City International Open Gi and No Gi

Past experience has taught me that I need to arrive several days early in Mexico City – in order to adjust to the altitude. I haven’t worked out a flight yet, but it is on! Barring work putting their foot down (I have a pretty flexible job).

My concern here is whether there will be any purple belt ladies competing here or not. But I think it will work out! Plus it will be great to see friends again!

March 7-11 – Pan Championships in California

I’m waiting on the preliminary schedule to be released before I start thinking about booking a flight. Gotta go out there, smash, and then get back to work.

Since I am a part timer at work, I’m fairly flexible with time off. I just have to at least make an effort to find someone to cover my shift and I’m good to go. I’ll be making trips as short as possible though because I do need a cash flow to make all this happen. It’s a balancing act that I think I have finally gotten worked out!

I will hear from the Japanese Embassy in a few weeks about my application. But I’m not gonna just sit on my hands in the meanwhile! Gotta keep moving and trying to be a little bit better every day! (Except for yesterday… yesterday I ate half a pie)

New Routine

The past few months now I have finally gotten something I have wanted for years: a self-motivated drilling partner who is enthusiastic about getting up early for an hour or so of extra work on the mats before morning class!
So every morning, we get in at least an hour of work -focusing mainly on transitional movements. It has been paying off since he went from silver and bronze at a local event to gold at the IBJJF Cincinnati Open. I managed a bronze in the open and got an “attagirl” from coach. I don’t think coach has ever seen me work a passing game at an event before, but he said I looked really smooth. I even got compliments from other girls coaches for fluidity in transitions. So… gonna keep at the morning drills!

My current daily routine consists of a 6 am wake up, drilling starting at 8:30, sparring class at 10:30, and work from 1-5. I can fit an evening training session in periodically but I find with the early morning wake up (gotta take the bus from across town), I get pretty wore out by the time I’m off work. When I get closer to events I push through for several nights a week, but when I’m not feeling the pressure of a looming events I just go home and get some sleep. Yea, im getting old; ready for bed by 9 now.

I competed in the Asian Championships this year as a middle weight and brought home a silver medal. I felt really good and strong at that weight – without sacrificing speed. I am contemplating continuing the next competition season at middle. Plus is that I get to compete at a very natural weight for myself – where I’m usually training at. Down side: no abs… but aesthetics have never been a huge deal for me. I’d rather be strong and enjoying my Olympic lifts. Can’t do those and make light anymore!

There is the very real possibility that I might move to Japan for a couple years starting this summer. I received a very strong recommendation for an exchange program and will hear back from the embassy in a few weeks. The final decision if I am offered a spot on the program would depend on location in Japan – whether there is a good Jiu Jitsu academy nearby for me to train at. There are so many factors at play that I haven’t even shared much about this option publicly. All I can say is that I will be giving this next competition season everything I have. It’s scary, but it is good to have options! One thing that will never change is that through all of it I will eventually earn my black belt from my instructor Shawn Hammonds.

Well that’s it for my “sitting at the bus depot downtown” update. Maybe I’ll come up with something more eloquent later?​