If you are part of the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community, it is most likely that you have heard the name Yvone Duarte. Yvone made history in 1990 as the first female to earn a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt. In 2021, after training for 43 years and being a black belt for 31 years, she made history again by being the first woman promoted to Coral Belt.
Yvone Magalhães Duarte grew up in the Brazilian Amazon in the state of Roraima. She spent her childhood surrounded by family and grew up exploring her vast backyard, where she learned to climb trees and swim in rivers. and creeks. Her affinity for movement was supported by her father who encouraged her to participate in a variety of sports, such as volleyball, handball, and swimming among others.
Since there were no universities in her hometown, at the age of 14, she joined two of her siblings who lived in Rio de Janeiro with their grandparents. She found it quite difficult to adapt in the beginning, and her brother, Pascoal, noticed her struggle. He was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt at the time, and he invited Yvone to watch his competitions. It was then that she started to train in order to fill the void she felt from leaving home. It was also a way for her to make friends, as well as to stay active. Most importantly, however, she was drawn to practice because of the way her brother introduced her to the sport. He said it didn’t matter if you weighed 48kg, or were short, or physically fragile – this is what jiu-jitsu was created for. He explained to her that it was a sport in which physical attributes can be made up for with technique and other compensatory mechanisms. It took Yvone a bit of time to accept this philosophy and see the efficacy of jiu-jitsu, but as she started to practice daily it started to make more sense.
Learn more about Yvone’s experience and lessons she’s learned in her own words:
Do you remember your first BJJ class? What was it like for you?
What I remember from my first lesson is that I wore a borrowed gi that wasn’t exactly my size; there was too much fabric. I remember classes started with self-defense, then we continued to “guarda fechada” (closed guard) and by the end we tried a sequence of “abrir guarda” (open guard), pass, and submit.
What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?
Challenges happen on a daily basis. Now I have been feeling challenged to teach self-defense because Brazil faces a sad reality of violence, harassment, abuse against women, and femicide. This is something that moves me, and for this reason I am implementing self-defense classes in many public universities around Brazil. As an athlete, my challenges were many, especially creating championships for us, women, who were not part of competitions.
How was it being a woman and training in such a male-dominated sport?
Yes, jiu-jitsu is a primarily male-dominated sport. When I started, for instance, we women could only sit next to the mat and practice after men were done. We gained credibility after we won the 1st championship; only then did things begin to improve. We had to slowly fight for our rights.
Did you ever have a time when you doubted your abilities or competency in jiu-jitsu? What was that like and how did you get past that doubt?
In the beginning, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t believe my physical traits were suitable for jiu jitsu. Over time, knowledge about the practice helped demystify this and build my confidence. I needed to try things out, practice and be dedicated. The results came as a consequence, as did the values and principles behind jiu-jitsu.
What do you love about jiu-jitsu?
Hahaha! It’s easier to ask what I don’t love about it!
What is your favorite technique?
I have always liked the variety of techniques jiu jitsu has to offer. Just like a game of chess, each practitioner has to anticipate and think about which piece they will move. In jiu jitsu, we focus on which position to choose and always think about the next move that can catch our opponent off guard. I particularly like back-takes, inverted leg locks, and half guard.
When you are not feeling motivated, how do you push through?
When I’m having a hard time nowadays, I don’t get ruffled. I wait for the wave to go away and just try not to spend more than a week without putting on a gi.
Jiu-jitsu training can be intense; how do you manage your energy?
I don’t train to exhaustion as I used to, so it is always a pleasure to put on the gi. When I leave practice, I go straight to the pool. It is a very efficient way to relax the mind and muscles.
How have you surprised yourself throughout your years of training?
I’ve gone through phases where I thought about stopping, but jiu-jitsu somehow seduces me, and inevitably I find myself putting on a gi again. It is always so good to be on the mat; it brings me pleasure.
What is the best advice you have received related to training? Who was that advice from?
The best advice I received was from my master, Osvaldo Alves. From his advice I hold on to two fundamental principles: (1) Do not settle or become comfortable, and (2) Do not play to win, play to finalize.
What kind of life lessons have you learned from jiu-jitsu?
Jiu-jitsu brings many benefits and a lot of personal growth can be extracted from this art. The main ones are: emotional control, knowing your limits and strengths, and being able to take in the values and principles that will improve our attitudes and our psychosocial conditions.
You are the first woman to have been awarded a Coral Belt – first of all Congratulations on such an incredible accomplishment! What does this promotion mean to you? How does it feel to be the first woman to have achieved this rank?
Being the woman in jiu-jitsu with the highest rank cannot be seen as personal merit. It was not earned in isolation, and it comes with a lot of collective concerns, as well. After all, we have to ask what barriers have been put up for so many years that didn’t allow other women to also achieve the coral belt in this day and age? Do these barriers still exist? They do and we need to tear them down. This needs to be done by the leaders in our sport and also be taken on head first by all of us, women and men in jiu-jitsu.
Nowadays, Yvone can be found teaching a variety of classes and seminars. While in Brazil, she has been working on creating female UN teams and preparing talks to promote BJJ for different groups both in Brazil and abroad. She trains with her students and in friends’ gyms and divides her time between Brasilia and Santiago in Chile.
When you dedicate your life and commit to perfecting your practice, there is no doubt that it will have an impact on not just your performance in the sport but also in your overall life. Yvone believes that even though we can all benefit from jiu-jitsu, very few understand the process of what it takes to really unlock this benefit. To truly understand the essence of this martial art, she says, “We need to take a breath, approach it with respect, and always focus on the essence of jiu jitsu.”
Success and accomplishment come from staying connected to jiu jitsu’s roots and dedicating yourself to being patient, committed, and humble through the process of learning.
If you’ve been thinking about trying out Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but have been hesitant, take Yvone’s advice to: ‘Just put on a gi and try it out!’ There really is nothing that can properly describe what it feels like or how it works, so the best thing to do is just give it a go!
a special thanks to Marta Fernandes for her help in translating this interview
Ayesha is a purple belt and currently trains in Kuwait. She is an educator, writer, and speaker. Ayesha is the founder of She is Fierce, an organization that focuses on empowering women through Jiu-Jitsu, mindfulness practices, and written expression. Her other interests include writing, cooking, weightlifting, and yoga. After 20 years in education, she has shifted gears and is currently pursuing a Masters in Counseling Psychology with the hope to expand her work with women and continue to provide them with safe, supportive spaces where they can heal, grow, and thrive. You can learn more about She is Fierce at sheisfierce.co.uk or on Instagram @fiercefitfight & @plumpetalsfit.