When you find yourself down on your hands and knees in a room full of SWAT officers, you’re bound to question some of the decisions you’ve made. When one of those officers is tucked in behind you and draped over your back, those questions in your head are asked more earnestly. For that split second five years ago, I questioned what I was doing in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class. Then I rolled him into a leg lock.
The truth is, man or woman, grappling can be awkward and that’s something that you get used to early on and then get over. In my case, I didn’t know much about the ground game when I started and so I didn’t know enough to be apprehensive. I was usually the only woman in Marcelo Alonso’s class, but nearly all the other students were police officers and were accustomed to working with women.
Like me, Jenika Gordon of Vancouver, BC is an accidental grappler of sorts and she could easily relate to the early discomforts. “It was a bit odd at first to be straddling some guy you didn't know. I mean you are rolling around and sweating and grabbing! However, I felt comfortable because each person would introduce themselves and we would do the "secret handshake" to lighten the mood before we started. Each person took his time with me and would guide me along the new skill we learned. I only had one uncomfortable experience with a new guy who got a little excited when we started grappling, if you know what I mean! I just made sure I didn't partner with him again.”
Gordon, a white belt at Gracie Barra, is athletic, energetic and attractive. If you bumped into her in a bar, without even a scowl, she’d be the first to apologize and check that your drink didn’t spill. When I asked her if she’d let me interview her about Jiu Jitsu, she immediately deferred to another female grappler expecting that I would want to talk to a more ambitious competitor.
Neither Gordon nor I went into the sport in the hopes of being the Million Dollar Baby of BJJ. Both of us are CrossFit trainers and couldn’t afford injuries, so both of us trained on the cautious side. At the time, I was only looking for something that was challenging and would focus my training when a boyfriend said, “You’d be a great grappler” for reasons I still don’t understand and based on evidence I can’t even imagine. Without any other bright ideas, I decided to try.
Gordon made her decision in much the same way. “I wanted to try a new sport and learn something new,” she said. “I was training the owner of a BJJ gym and he told me I should try it. I love sports and I thought it would be great to try something that is physical, mental and allows me to learn how to protect myself. My goal was to learn a new skill, get a good workout, and learn how to protect myself on the ground.”
On the other side of the mat, Cindy Hale, now 32, is a well respected local fighter who started grappling in 2002 and won the US Open her first year, then went on to place second as a blue belt in the PanAm games. When I started in BJJ, she was training in Marcelo's Tacoma school and students often wondered who would be the dominant fighter between the two of us. I never aspired, talk soon faded and I only ran into Cindy in passing. When I heard she was going in for surgery, I felt the need to support her and I went to visit her in the hospital the day before her Cervical Disc replacement.
Cindy is lightening fast and talented, but that’s in the job description of a 135-pound black belt. When you're light-limbed and fighting in a rough neighborhood where egos are sometimes more savagely protected than major joints, you get stacked often. Cindy knew male fighters would ball her up in order to buy time and rest. She would just fight her way out and win. I asked her if she'd train differently now and she nodded: "I'd tap." It’s not that she regrets it, exactly; she just doesn’t want to trade years of training for those little victories.
Recently she joked with me on the phone about how she’d get paired with Army Rangers and local toughs as some sort of experiment by fellow classmates. They’d say, “Let’s see what happens,” and she'd laugh, “Yeah, won’t that be fun for you.” The fun of grappling got turned upside down and strangled for Cindy, until she returned from surgery ready to look at the sport from a less competitive perspective.
That wasn’t a path I traveled, but I started in the sport when I was already 32—not that that has to matter. With a CrossFit foundation and years of work as a laborer on my father’s farm, I was blessed with above average strength that I had proudly maintained. If there was something I was trying to prove in the sport, I suppose that was it.
That desire to showcase my strength was more of an obstacle than an asset since I tended to muscle everything and inadvertently frustrate my training partners. They proved more patient than me as I forged ahead with a "square peg, round hole" approach that prompted me to yank, pull and push even harder. It’s a common mistake that usually gets you solidly submitted by the partner whose patience you’ve finally worn thin. Like all white belts, I was a bit frustrated, but unlike many new women in the sport, I didn’t decide that I wasn’t strong enough. I’ve seen women walk away from grappling making that mistaken assumption.
With greater wisdom, Gordon understood the part of the game I didn’t. “I was quite surprised how technical it was. I was finding it more challenging mentally than physically. As I got better, I found it both mental and physical, which I liked. I fell in love with it. I don't know if I would compete, but I definitely want to learn more and more about it. You learn so much body awareness and how to move when pinned down. It is almost like dancing. It just felt good. And I want to learn more about how to get out of situations where my life might be in danger.”
Gordon has reason to worry. At somewhere around 5 feet tall, she’d be easy prey without this sport. She explains, “The more skill you have in BJJ the more likely you are able to tap someone out, even if they’re bigger than you. I thought that was kind of cool. It doesn’t matter if you’re small, if you have more skill you can get out of some pretty crazy things and still tap out a bigger, stronger guy. That felt good.” And when all else fails there’s always the bag of tricks Marcelo taught me called “No you friend” moves, mentioned with a finger wag and in your best Portuguese accent.
Though I now know how to manipulate a larger opponent, the most important thing I learned was to process panic. At first, grappling was a series of erratic movements followed by an on-the-ground assessment as I lay there checking my body for trauma. That was often frightening. Now I’ve developed an awareness that allows me to formulate a strategy even in the most unfortunate situations. The ability to sort what is actually lethal from what is either simply annoying or painful is at the very least empowering and something I feel all women should have experience with.
Perhaps this is the mental aspect that Gordon touches on in her advice to other women. “Be patient; it takes time to learn the skills. It can be frustrating, but once you get some of the moves down it feels really good. You can tap out anyone regardless of size. Also, it is a great workout both physically and mentally. I love that about it. Try it—it is FUN!”
Five years later and it’s still my favorite part of the day four days a week. I train with Ben Blackstone, one of Marcelo Alonso’s most trusted Brown Belts, for a one-on-one split Muay Thai and BJJ class where I get individual attention. He has the skill to roll without using his considerable weight and strength advantage and it’s accelerated my game.
Blackstone’s mantra of ‘Position before submission’ speaks to both a more traditional teaching style of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and what I feel is a wise approach to training women athletes who will likely require precision to finish a move when potentially lacking the might to muscle it. Though I miss the broader class experience, I benefit from the ability to work through a move without getting stuffed from the start. It’s not to say he lets me finish a sloppy move, he just lets me get farther so I see my mistake.
Gordon’s coach seemed to understand this as well, pairing her with partners that could help her learn. “The coach almost always made sure I was paired with the other girl or with an experienced athlete in BJJ. That way they could coach me through the skill we just learned,” which shows that in the right environment and with the right coaching, women will be cultivated and successful, regardless of their goals.