If you go through life with a plan, you will learn that not always does the path we follow lead to where we thought it would go. Kay Stephenson’s life journey has led her to places she never expected and to places where she found unimaginable happiness and fulfillment. Having earned her black belt in six years and racking up accomplishments in several Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) tournaments along the way Stephenson has found her true calling in nursing. Stephenson earned her black belt directly from Renzo Gracie in 2012, becoming his first female black belt. A responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. She says that through all her accomplishments she most of all wants to be remembered for being a great mother, friend, and coach.
How long have you been training? What motivated you to start training?
I have been training BJJ since 2006 when I was 28 years old. I had been involved in competitive Tae Kwon Do for about 8 years prior to that. I was looking for a way to broaden my skill set and Judo seemed like a great art, so I studied that for nearly a year. I ended up moving and was looking for a new place to train. I researched Bjj and checked out Renzo’s gym. I was hooked from the first class I watched. I still remember some of the moves Magno Gamma showed in his class. I guess I felt a calling from a young age to learn how to fight.
What do you do for a living? What do you do for fun?
I am a Registered Nurse. I work in Cardiothoracic Surgery. At one point I tried to leave Nursing to focus on competitive BJJ. I actually performed worse at that time. I realized that a great part of my identity is being a Nurse. Once I accepted the fact that my path wasn’t to dedicate my life solely to competition, I felt a huge relief. After that point, around the time that I got my black belt, I began to enjoy BJJ so much more. Training and taking class is what I do for fun.
Where do you train and how often?
Most of my trading has been at Renzo Gracie HQ. Until 5 years ago I was training 7 days a week, sometimes two and three classes a day. Nowadays I have a 2 year old and I can only train 2 or three days a week if I’m lucky. But that’s OK with me. I am enjoying being a mother. If I can make it to a competition class, or John’s class a few days a week that’s great. Otherwise I always have Saturday Judo in Fort Lee NJ with great group of Sensei, and my little boy.
Do you think there is a responsibility that goes along with being Renzo Gracie’s first female black belt?
I do think that there is a responsibility with being a black belt, and a Renzo black belt in particular. I feel that I have a standard to reach, set forth by all of the great black belts Renzo has produced. So many great Professors and Coaches have come from this Gym, I cannot even count them. Shawn Williams said it best when he talked about Renzo teaching his students how to teach. There is a responsibility instilled to always remain active in BJJ, and more importantly, pass on knowledge. It is a lifelong pursuit.
What has been your biggest obstacle on the mats? How did you overcome it?
Believe it or not, I feel that my own ego and attitude have been my biggest obstacles on the mat. I had to learn how to appreciate my training partners and not use them to get better. I had to learn how to balance BJJ in my life. I had to learn to accept that I will never be as strong as other people, but, I can always make my technique sharper. Today, I struggle with focus during class. For so many years I have been satisfied to just accept being taught. And, that worked because of the great teachers which surround me. I realize now that I really must take initiative and take what is being taught and study it in depth on my own time.
What has been the most beneficial part of BJJ for you? How has BJJ changed your life?
I cannot separate BJJ from my life. The critical thinking skills I have developed through regular practice help me everyday to deal with emergencies and uncomfortable situations. I have developed lifelong relationships on the mats. My son even owes his existence to martial arts. I look forward to a future on the mat with my family.
Girls in Gis staff writer
Shama Ko is a brown belt with Gracie Humaita out of Austin, TX. She has been a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner since November of 2003. She is a photographer, writer, community organizer and activist. She heads the Girls in Gis organization or as she calls it the “movement”. She describes herself as both a lover and a fighter. She loves to laugh and not take life too seriously.