A Woman’s Place

It takes a certain type of woman to forge her path in what is considered to be a man’s world, but when it comes to the business world and being on the mats, Ann-Marie Bernitt is boss. Her petite structure and sweet demeanor will have you fooled. But make no mistake, this lady is a beast. 

Ann-Marie Bernitt is a 2nd degree (almost 3rd degree) black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She has studied under Master Luiz Palhares, Master Pedro Sauer, Master Renato Tavares and earned her black belt from Professor Shawn Hammonds. When she is not on the mats, she is a business consultant and strategist for a global Fortune 500 company owned by Warren Buffet. In her free time she loves to train BJJ, attend/teach seminars, stay active outdoors, bake, and play with her cats. She also shoots competitively and assists in teaching carry courses and ladies basic handgun courses.

Bernitt began her Brazilian Jiu Jitsu journey in 2002 when it was seldom that you would see women on the mats and even more seldom that you’d get a match at a tournament with someone your belt, weight, age or even gender. However this wasn’t a challenge that Bernitt backed down from. Here is what she has to say about her journey.

How did you get involved in training BJJ and what was it that initially attracted you? 

I had always wanted to train in a martial art as a kid but my dad, who was a special agent for the FBI, told me the popular stand-up martial arts simply weren’t effective in the street. So he taught me some street skills. I then met an Army Ranger who trained combatives.(He has been my BJJ training partner since 2002 and outweighs me by 100 pounds). He told me about the Gracies, showed me Helio Gracie’s Gracie Jiu Jitsu book, and demonstrated some moves on me. He explained that 95% of all street fights and attacks go to the ground. He also explained BJJ was for the small person, the weak person, to be able to escape, control and/or submit a much larger and stronger person. I was sold! I found an academy an hour away and would make the round trip four to five days a week to train and even trained at home, despite working a full-time job. Jiu Jitsu was so effective and fun; I was hooked and I never looked back. 

What was it like training as a female early on when you started? Were there a lot of women training?  

There were very few women training in my state and none at my academies, so I always went against guys who outweighed my 104 pounds by a substantial amount.  I had to prove myself on the mats. I also had challenge matches against guys who didn’t believe that I could beat them with jits, especially as small as I am. Occasionally, women would come and train for a while, but then leave. Competitions were interesting because there were only two divisions for women back in the day: white belt and blue to black. I was ranked top three in the nation in the heavyweight division weighing in with my gear at only 105. It was a different time then. If there weren’t women to compete against, you competed against the men.

What is your fondest BJJ memory? Why? 

My fondest memory was being able to train with Grandmaster Helio Gracie. It was such an honor, and he was so cool. I am so thankful he brought his art to the United States and shared it with the world. Because of my exposure to Gracie Jiu Jitsu, I am thoroughly trained in and teach self-defense, combatives, weapons disarms, rape prevention, women empowerment, and street fighting in addition to BJJ. Self defense is important to me because I was a victim of assault, and I want to empower others to be able to defend themselves. I also love the sport of jiu jitsu and competition.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten in BJJ? 

I was at a blue belt test, the only female in a room full of about 50 men, and Master Pedro Sauer took me aside and said, “You see all these men? You will have better technique than all of them because even a man who tries to use perfect technique can still cheat with strength. You, however, cannot cheat with strength, so anything you get against these guys in jiu jitsu, any escape, any guard pass, any position, any submission you get is because you used perfect technique. So your technique will be better than all of theirs put together. Never quit.” 

I never did quit. Despite being told that I didn’t know my place as a woman, surgeries, broken noses and grappling large guys day in and day out, I refused to quit.

If you could go back in time what would you tell the white belt you? 

Drill more. Drill as much as or more than you grapple. Drill, drill, drill. Don’t fight strength with strength–always focus on technique. Perfect your technique and then add pressure and strength. Be selective with your training partners and take care of your body. You have nothing to prove. Be humble but at the same time be confident in who you are.. Hold your head up high and ignore the naysayers. And never make an excuse to anyone for who you are.



 Shama Ko

Girls in Gis staff writer

Shama Ko is a black belt and program director at Girls in Gis. 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.

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