What will the story of your life reveal? In the end can you honestly say that you lived life to the fullest and grew from your experiences? Throughout our lives we all take on many roles and live through many adventures. We all go through the natural evolution of life starting from when we were once a child, than a young adult and then onto adulthood. We take on various roles through out these phases for some we become a wife, a mother and a grandmother and so on. Each of our journeys are so very special and unique. There are highs and lows. It is in the good times we find unimaginable happiness and joy. It is through the hard times that we develop character and learn lessons that help us grow stronger and evolve. Through it all we learn who we are at the core and realize what matters most.
Natalie Whitson has lived many lives through her fifty three years on this earth. She holds two degrees in Art including a master’s degree in painting. She a mother and wife. She took on Olympic-style fencing at age 36. Having grown up with no interest in sports it wasn’t until after the passing of her father that she says she needed to take her life in a new direction. It wasn’t long before she found herself emerged in the world of Olympic-style fencing. She began coaching at her club, serving on the board of the Oregon Division for USA Fencing and she even wrote a book called Advice To A Sword-Wielding Maniac. For the next 14 years she became very active in the Fencing community. She says it was at a at the end of a long, rather disappointing day competing at a national fencing tournament in Minneapolis when she came to the realization that at 50 years old she was at the end of the road of her fencing career and she needed more. If she was going to give it her all and see how far she could go she would have to find a sport that afforded her more training opportunities than her current sport.
She had previously been taking kickboxing but wasn’t interested in doing it competitively. It was when she saw little three and four year olds kids’ training Jiu Jitsu at her academy that the thought occur to her, “You could compete in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Now you just need to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.” On a dare, she told one of her fencing friends, who also did Jiu Jitsu, that she would try out Jiu Jitsu for the summer. She took her first official class on June 1, 2014. What was meant to be temporary for the summer, on off season for fencing, soon became full time and when fall came around she decided to quit fencing entirely for Jiu Jitsu.
How has training Jiu-Jitsu changed your life?
In the short-term, Jiu Jitsu has gotten me in much better shape. I’ve become more flexible, I have better muscle tone, and I have a better sense of balance. On a more profound level, I’m much more confident in myself, in my physical abilities, and in my mental capacity to deal with stress and change. I feel that after being able to get on a mat and go toe-to-toe with someone who’s actively trying to choke you, the day-to-day stresses of your workplace just don’t seem to be as threatening. I’ve also, at the same time, learned to relax. People in Jiu Jitsu are very, very nice, and welcoming. It’s tons of hard work but at the same time you usually find yourself surrounded by a very supportive network of people, which allows you to reach your goals.
Why would you recommend it to others?
The attributes which I believe recommend Jiu Jitsu to others include gaining a wonderful sense of trust with other like-minded people. A lot of times in our daily lives, people can find themselves physically or mentally isolated. In a very real and immediate sense, learning Jiu Jitsu allows you to break down barriers with other people. You have to learn to trust them, and it’s fun when you do so. It also has a wonderful side effect of allowing you to transcend things like anxiety for a few minutes. I find that when I think too hard about my problems, those thoughts are magically cleaned out of my brain after being forced to focus on the task in front of me during an hour of intense physical activity. In short, while you are doing Jiu Jitsu, you can’t worry about unimportant things. You always leave the gym with a renewed perspective on life. At least that’s the way I find it.
Why would you recommend Jiu Jitsu for women?
I’ve always wanted good self-esteem, although I’ve often lacked that in my life. In this day and age, I think it’s even more important as a woman to be able to have a sense of confidence, and self-worth, and I believe that Jiu Jitsu gives that to you. Although I never thought of myself as an athlete, now at the age of 53, I am. In any case, as a woman, a lot of people depend on you. Jiu Jitsu allows you to develop the strength to handle all these demands, and more.
How do you find time for yourself when juggling work and family?
I have to take time for myself. Like they say on the little speech on the airplane, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help others. I’m a fulltime grant writer at a nonprofit and that can sometimes be stressful. My husband is also undergoing the disability process and that can be stressful too. I also try to support my adult daughter. When I go off to Jiu Jitsu, it gives me a chance to recharge my batteries. It helps that I consider the people at the gym my friends (these are people who I met at the gym who have now become my friends, not the other way around, although I have certainly encouraged my non-Jiu Jitsu friends to give the sport a try.) I also go to the gym directly after work, rather than head home and then try to make it to the gym later. I have to remember that my priorities are my family and then my work and then going to the gym, and thank goodness that takes care of most of my social needs. When you’re in Jiu Jitsu, or at least training seriously, you don’t usually go out and drink or party so it’s just as well that I spend my time at the gym.
Can people be “too old” for Jiu Jitsu?
I don’t know what counts as too old. Look at Helio Gracie. I think he did Jiu Jitsu into his nineties. In the book Jiu Jitsu University, written by Saulo Ribeiro, Saulo tells a famous story about Helio. The story goes that Helio, then 90 years old, was rolling with Saulo, then a world champion in his prime, and he told Saulo, “You can’t beat me.” Now, notice Helio didn’t say that he would beat Saulo. Instead, he said that the younger Saulo could not beat HIM. Helio had indeed developed such a good defense, Saulo could not impose his game on the old man. Saulo said in retrospect that this was a valuable lesson for him, and a good perspective to have.
At the club, I’m certainly the oldest person in the gym most days, and I’m also one of very few women. Mostly I roll with guys in their twenties and thirties, who are often bigger and stronger. It so happens that very often we roll for five minutes and they can’t get the submission. While it’s true sometime back I found myself feeling badly that I was always defending, now I tell myself, “Natalie, if you can defend yourself for five minutes against some young tough buck, you know what? You are a winner.” Of course, it does also feel good to roll with women, especially those who don’t know as much as I do, and then actually use the submissions we have been learning in class, haha.
Looking at other older ladies who are around, Betty Broadhurst is a purple belt, and killing it at tournaments and in her training. And she does Gi AND No Gi. Seriously, I am in awe of this woman, and of the other upper belts who are as old, or older than I am. I want to be like these ladies when I ‘grow up’. Speaking of which, there’s one thing you probably want to explore if you can it afford to do it – to go to at least one World Masters championship. The minimum age is 30, and you’ll meet older people, both male and female, from all over the world who do Jiu Jitsu. Seriously, it’s nothing but ‘old’ people doing Jiu Jitsu and it’s the best.
We find it very inspiring that at your age you are out there giving these ladies a run for their money in the tournament circuit. What advice do you have to other mature practitioners who want to compete?
My advice for ‘older’ people who want to compete is that you should do it at least once (actually, I’d give that advice to people of any age.) I think the most valuable thing you get from competition is being able to meet other cool people who do the same thing you do. Jiu Jitsu people are beasts on the mat but once they are off the mat, they are usually really, really nice and I bet you will make some lifelong friends.
You want to make sure you’re competing for the right reason. Don’t do it because you think people EXPECT you to compete. Heck, most people are surprised you even do Jiu Jitsu and so they’re doubly surprised that you want to compete. But if you do compete, everyone is going to be very, very supportive. Any stress you feel is usually self-imposed.
The other advice is to set reasonable goals. Decide if you want to improve yourself or your game or your mastery in some way. You really have little control over if you’ll beat a specific person on any given day, so you might as well not set that as a goal (if you do win your matches, that’s icing on the cake.) Instead of “outcome” goals, pick “process” or “mastery” goals. Usually, in the end, you’ll do okay because those are things you DO have control over.
For people who think Jiu Jitsu can be dangerous, especially if you are older, what do you have to say to them?
I think doing Jiu Jitsu is a great way to fend off injury and sickness. First off, I know people who have gotten seriously injured just standing up and hitting their head on a low ceiling, or falling out of the tub. Doing Jiu Jitsu gives you a great sense of balance, and helps you avoid the falls that often “befall” old people, pun intended. It also strengthens your muscles and joints, which makes it less likely you will seriously hurt yourself if you DO fall (you also specifically learn HOW to fall.) For women, we’re always being told we need to do weight bearing exercise. In Jiu Jitsu, you are not just bearing your weight alone but you are also bearing someone else’s weight. Your bones will get stronger doing Jiu Jitsu. You are not sitting around waiting to die. Instead, you’re actively having fun while getting in the best shape of your life.
Jiu Jitsu also helps with your problem-solving abilities. A lot of ‘older’ people do Sudoku or crossword puzzles to keep their brains active and ward off dementia. Jiu Jitsu gets you using your brain to solve the puzzle of the person in front of you. They’re like some 3D puzzle, and you have to figure out how to get past their defenses and, ideally, get them to do something which is not in their best interests. Jiu Jitsu is also good for your circulation to your brain, which keeps it healthy. I would not be surprised if people who do Jiu Jitsu keep their brains active long after other people have started to ‘lose it’. Although if you ask my family, they’ll say I lost it years ago <grin.>
Natalie is an inspiration not just for the more mature practitioner but for all. At the same time that she inspires those around her she is inspired by them. She is a great leader and a team player. It is our pleasure to award her a Girls in Gis scholarship so that she may continue to be not only an ambassador for Girls in Gis in tournaments but for all women in Jiu Jitsu. Having to be the sole breadwinner of the family can be stressful and not leave much room for her to pursue her dreams. We are happy to help lift that burden as she lifts the spirits of so may around her. Good luck Natalie and thank you for sharing your journey with us.
“Train your best and have fun, because at the end of the day, that’s all we have.”-Natalie Whitson
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.