In 2008 in San Francisco, Mollii Khangsengsing was a white belt on the verge of quitting. Not only was training jiu-jitsu physically grueling—she was one of two women at her gym and the smallest student, by far, at 4-feet 11-inches and 93 pounds—it had also begun impacting her psychological well-being and disrupting her daily life.
“I’m a refugee from Laos and I have PTSD and for some reason training in jiu-jitsu was one of the things that triggered it,” Mollii says. After a year of fighting through anxiety that originated on the mats but attacked at all hours—in bed, exiting the freeway, you name it— she decided jiu-jitsu wasn’t worth it. “I called one of my teachers and basically told him, I don’t want to do it anymore. I quit.”
Her instructor had another idea: Why not start a women’s training group? With some encouragement, Mollii put the word out. The early sessions were just her and one other woman, until they gradually recruited more members in the following years.
From nearly the beginning, Sweaty Betties have hosted seminars with the likes of Leticia Ribeiro, Bia Mesquita, and Penny Thomas. The workshops have grown into week long camps—they’ve hosted several in the Bay Area and last year celebrated their 11th anniversary in Maui—but the goal has been constant: get more women on the mats.
We chatted with Mollii for a bit about Sweaty Betties’ humble beginnings, her self-defense program at Four Elements Fitness in Oakland, and her plans for the future.
How did you start training with Leticia Ribeiro?
She was the first woman that we brought to the seminar. I’d seen pictures and videos of higher-belt female jiu-jitsu competitors and I’d seen Leticia Ribeiro competing and kicking ass. And she was a black belt then and I’d never met a black belt female before. My friend gave me Leticia’s number, and I called her and I’m like, “Listen, we’re in San Francisco, we want you to come and do a seminar, but I have no idea what that entails.” So I talked to her a little bit and she gave me the perimeters of what she required, which was 25 women. I hung up the phone and immediately I was like, “I only know one woman, I don’t know 25 women!” So I just went and created a flier and went to competitions … I opened a phone book and found jiu-jitsu gyms and I mailed fliers and before you know it, I don’t know where these women came from but—all over—they registered for the seminar. So we surpassed the 25 requirement, and the gym couldn’t take more than 30 people … so we added a second workshop and that reached the capacity. And I was just like,”Whoa, what?” There were women coming from Portland, all over, it was really awesome. So that’s how I met her. We’d run camps for her and workshops at least once a year, and then sometimes I’d fly to San Diego to train with her.
Do you have any camps or events planned for 2020?
We don’t have anything right now. In all honesty I’m more focused now on growing and strengthening the programs that we have in the Bay Area. One of them is the Girls’ and Women’s Self Defense.
How long have you been teaching self-defense at Four Elements?
Two and a half years plus, but I was teaching self-defense before I came to Four Elements. It started out where I was using the space to teach self-defense and then about a year ago we partnered up with Four Elements and started the Girls’ and Women’s Self Defense as a nonprofit program. I’ve never experienced an awesome gym like that. It’s owned by two women and we have four female black belts teaching at the gym. We also have an LGBT jiu-jitsu grappling group there—one of the first that ever existed. It’s a really awesome, supportive, just great gym to be a part of.
Attendance at your camps has exploded in the past 11 years. How else has Sweaty Betties changed since the early days? What are your biggest goals now?
I feel like when I first started [Sweaty Betties], the phase one of our group was just to get women on a mat, right? To just get women to believe that they deserved to not only take up space but learn and get benefits from all that jiu-jitsu can offer. But now I feel like for the last year or so that we’ve been entering the second phase, which is about installing women in the position of leadership, and to create opportunities for women.
In the future we’re thinking about starting a nonprofit organization, to keep expanding and growing and using jiu-jitsu as a platform to grow the community and using it to empower women and girls. I think most of us that do jiu-jitsu know what the benefits are. In Sweaty Betties we have a saying that the culture places value on how women look but jiu-jitsu places value on what your body can do. And I really want to show people that it is true—particularly girls and women that have never experienced martial arts or jiu-jitsu before.
With the growth of the art and women’s competition in the time since you started Sweaty Betties, how often do you meet women who are in the same position you were in when you started? Who are ready to give up and maybe feel like jiu-jitsu isn’t for them?
Oh, I’ve run into them a lot. Sweaty Betties is a training group, but because of my background, to me the group is much more than training jiu-jitsu. We hear all the time about how to sharpen your techniques—there’s YouTube, articles, all kinds of stuff—but when you train in martial arts like jiu-jitsu it’s also very mental and emotional. So I am very open about my history with the group and the students that I teach. Because it’s really normal to go through phases where you’re maybe doing really great and other times not so much. And I think the times that it’s challenging it’s quite valuable to have like-minded people that you could feel safe and supported to talk to and help you through the process, which the Sweaty Betties has been for me all these years.
What would you say the biggest challenge is for women in jiu-jitsu right now, and for LGBT women specifically?
Finding a space where you’re included. I would say that’s probably one of the things that we hear all the time of people who come to the gym—having a safe space. And not only does Four Elements provide that, but it’s a nonprofit program so it’s basically like, if you don’t have money you can come and train. So it’s great for that. But I would say that’s probably one of the biggest challenges—is to find a space and a program that caters to that particular need.
Even now I feel like there’s a lot more opportunities for girls and women, much more than when I started, [but] we have a long way to go.
Laura Hawkins is a blue belt training out of Olympia, WA. She likes cats, coffee, and constricting the blood flow of her enemies as well as her friends. Mostly her friends.