I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Professor Carlan Gracie, a third-degree black belt training at Brasa/Kazulu Jiu Jitsu out of Rio De Janeiro (Rocinha), Brazil. A Gracie, you ask? Yes, but not that Gracie family. Carlan just happens to have the last name of arguably the most famous family in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Can you imagine the pressure? Well, she lives it. Carlan, now 58-years-young, shared her journey in this sport and where it has brought her to today.
Danielle: Where are you originally from? Are you related to THE Gracie Family?
Carlan: I was born in the United States, but have lived in many countries including Mexico and Canada. I share the same family name, but I’m actually not related to them. If you look in the white pages in the US, there are others with the last name Gracie, so it’s not like this is a rare name. There are members of the Gracie Family who I have trained with long ago, but when I was training with them, I used another name because I didn’t want the pressure or attention while competing. Imagine being female and training with the name “Gracie!”
Danielle: It must have been exhausting to feel like you constantly had to explain yourself!
Carlan: It was! I competed in BJJ and MMA from 1997-2001. Another reason I didn’t use the last name is because in Brazilian culture back then, women didn’t fight MMA and I wanted to be able to do what I wanted without being questioned by anyone. It was important to me that no one thought I was trying to make money off of the last name.
Danielle: Tell me about your early career and how you found your way into Jiu Jitsu. What has helped you to continue training?
Carlan: Around 1981, I started Judo. It came naturally to me because of my short, stocky build. I enjoyed the throws, but in 1989, I had to stop. I suffered knee problems and I did not want to be unable to walk by the time I was 35. I found BJJ by accident! A friend had shown me a UFC tape and said that he thought I would be good at this, so I trained a year in boxing and then found Carlson Sr. school in Los Angeles, CA.
I remember walking in there and seeing only guys. Murillo Bustamante, Mario Sperry, Ricardo Arona and a young 19-year-old by the name of Vitor Belfort were training there. These guys were champions and I had no idea who they were at the time!
I didn’t get my black belt from Carlson, as he passed away in February of 2006. I got my black belt from an instructor who is now in prison for some serious crimes. When I came to Brazil, I dropped the black belt from this guy because I felt ashamed.I didn’t want to be associated with a criminal so I got tested and re-belted by Eduardo Henrique Perreira (8th degree red/white belt) who was a student of Relson Gracie.
I mostly focused on training and didn’t try to draw attention to myself as being a woman in this male-dominated sport. What has kept me on the mats at the age of 58 is a desire to share the love of this art. Due to back and knee problems, I can’t roll hard anymore, but I can flow-roll and do techniques. I am thankful that I can still teach!
Danielle: I see that you now train and live in Rocinha (Rio De Janeiro), Brazil. What would you like people to know about the non-profit work you are doing down there?
Carlan: Yes, I live in an area called Rocinha. It is a poor, working-class area, but the people here are so kind. I have a small space that I rent out where I teach Jiu Jitsu for free. I also work with a DJ project here, teaching youth how to DJ. In addition, I work part-time as a dog-walker/cat-sitter! I enjoy my work and I just want to spread the love of Jiu Jitsu to everyone! My goal is to open an all-women’s school because many women here want to train, but they don’t want to roll around on the mat with sweaty guys. The issue of sexual assault and harassment also keeps women from training, and I want them to have a safe space to learn how to defend themselves. I’m looking for help with grant-writing at the moment.
Danielle: What obstacles have you encountered and overcome as a BJJ competitor? Do you have advice for other women who train BJJ?
Carlan: When I first started training, there were those who didn’t take me (or women who trained) seriously. I just kept my mouth shut and pushed through training. I showed that I belonged there. I had short hair, so I blended in. I think there were those who thought I was a guy and just didn’t say anything. I didn’t care. I just wanted to learn. My advice for other women is that if you enjoy BJJ, don’t let anyone persuade you to quit. Stick to what you are there for, which is your own path in Jiu Jitsu. Try to train with partners that are no more than 20 pounds above your weight. Injury is a killer, not only physically, but mentally. This sport is so great for women who are learning to defend against an attack because you are also using grip-breaks and learning to establish guard and deal with someone invading your space.
Danielle: What else would you like to tell Girls in Gis readers?
Carlan: If you want to train, do it! I have Cushing’s Disease, which makes me have a “moon” face. Sometimes people ask about my appearance and I explain this. I don’t even like to call it a disease, because it doesn’t stop me from training and doing things! For women who are training with autoimmune issues, I want to encourage them to stay positive and be motivated. Most of all, to enjoy the journey!
Author: Danielle Dunrud
Danielle is a blue belt at Victory Martial Arts in Norman, Oklahoma. She is a veteran and military spouse and LOVES that she gets to meet so many different people on the mats! When she’s not training, you can find her working on her Master’s in Social Work and trying to keep up with her two energetic boys. She hopes to one day start a non-profit program using BJJ to help people work through the effects of trauma.