It’s a calm, dark morning in Seattle. My cup of tea brews as a lazy yawn escapes me. Six a.m. My cats bogards the warm spot where I once laid as duty evicts me from precious sleep. I climb downstairs and with ham fist sluggishness, boot up my computer. Michelle Rae’s email alerts my smart watch; she’s ready for our scheduled interview.
We settle in to brief introductions. I’m impressed of her tenacity and titanium clad resilience despite being twenty-four years of age. She laments about missing the dry heat of Arizona’s arid landscape, but Michigan contains the support and comfort needed while she heals; Michelle is still recovering from her second brain surgery.
Michelle Rae an American Collegiate Thrower, Softball Player, Strength Athlete under the House Strong Banner, BJJ white belt…Model. As she describes her physical therapy, I try to imagine half of her flawless face swollen and paralyzed just a few months prior. My curiosity is piqued. Behind this smile is a strength that could step into an arena of twenty men. She inhales and we begin.
How old were you when you became interested in sports?
This is what my family told me because I was too young to remember. I’m the youngest of three girls. My Dad was teaching my sister how to play softball; pitching the ball, catching, you know, all that. Well, I’m really, really competitive so I told my Day that ‘I wanna try’ when it was time to hit the ball. I was three. I knew that I wanted to do it, and I could do it, so I did. My Dad gave me the bat, tossed the ball and I had a line drive right back at him. He kept pitching and I kept hitting. It was instinctual, I guess.
My parents put me in T-Ball, despite being a year and a half younger than everyone else. It was then that I realized the passion for sports was in my blood. It’s as if my brain was hardwired to be an athlete …a daredevil. It didn’t matter if I was playing sports or jumping off stairs; I’d always been that way.
Tell us about your athletic history?
I started off in little league then club travel ball, both indoor and outdoor leagues through middle school. I tried a season of volleyball and some competitive cheer leading but didn’t stick to it since I broke my foot at tryouts. End of my cheer career! When we moved to Arizona, I returned to club softball during my freshman year of high school.
I moved away from softball my junior year. Scouts from various colleges came to see me play; during my tryouts I blew out my knee, which was the start of a string of back and shoulder injuries. By the time graduation arrived, I was burnt out, stopped sports all together and let myself heal. That only lasted a year.
I enrolled in Grand Canyon University for Sports Management when a family friend introduced me to power lifting. I was intrigued. I didn’t know it was a sport and the thought of lifting things competitively got me curious. I gave it a shot and progressed quickly. The first year I won a junior world championship and then placed third in the open. I was twenty-one.
By the second year, I realized I hit a hard wall. I was a natural athlete and I didn’t realize that when you get to a certain level that many of your fellow competitors took supplements. I refused to do so. My body couldn’t keep up with the workload, so that started more injuries. I was always sick, had multiple migraines which, fast forward, was possible symptoms of my future brain complications. Despite these issues, I still went to the Worlds, took second and then took a break.
How did you become a Collegiate Thrower?
After power lifting, I wound down a bit, finished college, but you know how it is. I went to a track meet and saw an athlete throw javelin. Of course, I thought: ‘That’s really cool! I can throw a javelin! I had a great arm in softball!’. I reached out to a local community college, expressed interest and was interviewed by a coach. I was then placed on the Track and Field team at the college for the outdoor season. The first outdoor meet of the year, I injured my spine and had issues with future meets, though I did qualify for Nationals. I did place Eighth in Nationals and became an All American in Throwing but had to stop. The previous spine compression injury would only get worse, so that was the end my Throwing career. I did coach which evolved into my introduction of BJJ.
How has BJJ impacted your journey as a strength athlete?
After I stopped Throwing, a good power lifting friend of mine, Jimmy, started training at TNT in Phoenix and invited me to check it out. I tried Jiu Jitsu and I fell IN LOVE with it! And I continued practicing until I my medical issues took over my life.
We didn’t have a ton of girls at TNT when I started, but strength wise I found that my previous athleticism gave me an edge. I admit, I did out muscle a lot of my opponents, but Scott, our instructor, reined me in and forced me to focus on the right way; technique. It was difficult to relearn how to not use my competitive nature to win, but soon I learned how to step back, be calm and see rolling as a chess game. However good I was didn’t matter on the mat; I had to take my aggression out of the process. Using your brain strategically is so much more powerful than brute strength and that’s what was so cool about it.
What was also great about TNT is that we weren’t a sports Jiu Jitsu place; we focused on No Gi and self-defense. Learning how to protect myself under pressure played a big part in my growth as a woman. It’s a really cool feeling to have this peace and calm when you go out into the world and know you can handle yourself in any situation. It’s not just empowering as a woman but as a human to have the knowledge and the skills to protect yourself. I’m happy that it’s becoming popular with girls and women because it’s one of the few sports that translates into the real world.
Let’s talk about the brain surgery. Symptoms?
While I had multiple symptoms, those were not really the red flags. I found out because I had a seizure in my sleep of August 2018. I was twenty-four when I was diagnosed. Never had a seizure before. I was taken to the hospital and multiple tests were ran to pinpoint the cause.
The diagnosis is called a cavernous malformation. I was told I was born with nine clusters of tiny, entangled blood vessels whose walls are weak and constantly dilated. These clusters rupture and leak blood. It was a shock; I assumed the medical professionals would just tell me I was training too hard, or I was dehydrated, not that I was internally bleeding in my own head. It was a hard pill to swallow.
I had to be put seizure medication. It’s strange, you know, how quickly your life can change. I went from singing and dancing in my car while on Snapchat one day to having a seizure that night. I couldn’t drive for ninety days; since I was a personal trainer and a professional makeup artist, you know, self-employed, I couldn’t work like I wanted to. I had to stop all lifting and Jiu Jitsu due to the internal cranial pressure that could cause the vessels to rupture. You should’ve seen the look on the doctor’s face when I told him my fitness history before my hospital visit.
How has the multiple brain surgeries impacted your life?
I was lucky for the first surgery. Dr. Lawton, whose focus was epilepsy, is one of the best in the world; I was in good hands. After the surgery, there was a follow up MRI and three more malformations where found. When the team arrived, I thought I was going to be discharged; instead I was put under again. The second time around wasn’t so easy.
There wasn’t permanent side effects, but when I came to, there was a massive amount of swelling and the left side of my face was paralyzed. I had to undergo a massive amount of physical therapy to get the muscle control back. The physical trauma wasn’t as bad as the emotional trauma. I couldn’t smile. It was hard to talk. I still have to work through the emotional side of things, despite healing quickly.
Now that you’re on the road to a clean bill of health, what are your future plans for power lifting and BJJ?
I’m still on my journey of getting back to one hundred percent. I still don’t feel like myself, y’know. I lost all sense of true independence. It took a financial toll. Before my surgeries, I was a white belt ready to test for my blue belt. While I’m eager to get back on the mats and return to fitness, I am focusing on being healed both physically and spiritually. Slowly, I’m working out again, but I’m not brave enough to return to the mats yet. I may drill technique in the future, but I’m still nervous about rolling.
Has your medical history impacted your modeling career?
Modeling opened more doors for me. After I put my story on social media, photographers contacted me and wanted to do inspirational photo shoots that are fitness related. Girls in Gis and other fitness outlets reached out and I’m thankful for the opportunity to have a community impact. I didn’t want to be just a pretty face; I wanted a method, a story behind the smile.
Do you have any words of advice given your past struggles and current triumphs?
To be honesty, I’m still figuring this whole process out. I’m on the journey of getting to know Michelle again, this Michelle. One thing I can say is that I used to be the ‘mind over matter’ advocate but I’ve learned that when you’re struggling, it’s okay to be vulnerable, to feel those emotions in their entirety. In the beginning, I pushed my fears down and did my best to ignore them. False positivity is counterproductive; connecting to your emotions helps you get over them and grow. There were times I would just sit in my bed and cry; and that’s okay. When you’re going through a struggle, it’s okay to go through it; you don’t have to feel like you have it all figured out. And when you go through all your emotions, that’s when you can find solutions and move forward with something positive.
You can learn more about Michelle Rae by following her Instagram @iron_beautyy and as well as @teamhousestrong.
Jada ‘JC’ Brazil
Jada ‘JC’ Brazil is a voice actor, writer and cat lover in Seattle, Washington. JC is a second stripe white belt under Professor Brian J. Johnson of Northwest Jiu Jitsu Academy. She also has over a decade experience as a project manager in the Video Game and Tech industry. Thankfully, she doesn’t do that anymore. When not wrasslin’ in sweaty pajamas, she is writing comics, reading comics, lifting weights, playing video games and talking into a microphone. Her website is Cake N Iron (www.cakeniron.com) and her Instagram is @ashymcgee.