As we’ve all tried to adjust to what the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ‘scene’ looks like during a global pandemic, I had the great pleasure of interviewing April Parks. She is a BJJ Black Belt out of Syracuse, New York and founder of Grappling Getaways: grappling camps with world-class Jiu Jitsu instruction in exciting destinations.
April trains at RCJ Machado in Syracuse, while working full-time as a social worker in the Syracuse City School District. April began training and competing in Jiu Jitsu as a mother of 4 children—and is now 38 years-old with her eye on winning Worlds as a black belt. She was promoted to black belt alongside her fiancé and main training partner on the very same day.
What sets April apart as a female competitor is not only her grace with the balancing act of family, career, and training, but also her inner drive to forge her own path as a competitor. In our interview, April shares her training regimen and the unexpected challenges she has faced as a competitor. She also gives a look into the origin story for Grappling Getaways.
Katie: First of all—how are you adjusting to life in the time of COVID-19? Are you still able to train at home given the circumstances?
April: I think, like most people, I’m doing what I can. I really try to stay positive and focus on what I can control. I support friends, family, and my female training partners. I’m lucky enough to live with another black belt—my fiancé—so I’ve been really lucky to train with him as much as we can at home.
K: It sounds like you have always had a competitive spirit since your early days as a track & field athlete. When you began training in jiu jitsu, how did you know you were ready to start competing—and how did you know you were ready to step into world-level competition?
A: When I first started training, my coach said that he saw a lot of potential in me and thought I would do really well competing. That was sort of the first seed that was planted in thinking I could possibly compete in jiu jitsu. Then I began training. I wasn’t really at a big ‘competition school’. I feel that for women who are looking to get into competition, it’s hard when they don’t have that culture at their school, because you’re like, ‘what do I do, how do I get there, who’s going to help me prepare for this… is anyone going to go with me?’–and I didn’t have any of those questions answered. I just knew that I wanted to compete.
I decided to just do it—if I had a grappling dummy, I would do hundreds of armbars. I would run, I would sprawl, I would do anything that could benefit me in a competition. I would just do it with high repetitions.
My fiancé has always been my main training partner. He has always worked very hard to help prepare me for these things. To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After I had done only one competition, my team called me up and asked if I wanted to do the NoGi Pan Ams. I had just gotten my blue belt a couple weeks before that and I literally just jumped in.
The competition was awesome. I believe I placed 3rd that year, and it sparked this passion in me, like ‘wow, I really think I could’ve won that! Let me train really hard and come back next year.’ I came back the next year and won Pans. I thought if I won Pans, I could win Worlds. I decided at that point, I wanted to win everything. Once you believe that, there’s no stopping you.
K: What kinds of roadblocks did you come across in your journey, or situations that held you back as an athlete?
A: Women who train in jiu jitsu… There are so many obstacles. There is so much adversity. In the very beginning, it was an issue of how would I raise my young children, how would I work full-time, how would I train for high-level competitions and balance it all? I had the added challenge of aging.Trying to compete in the Adult division when the Masters division didn’t have many women. I am currently 38 years-old still competing in the Adult division since I was 32-33 against women who are 18-19 and training full-time with big teams and coaches who were coming with them to tournaments. Here I was, a 33-year-old woman, working full-time with 4 kids… wondering how I’m even supposed to compete. All I have to go on is this belief in my heart that I can win. You have people telling you you’re crazy.
Also, I tore my ACL and meniscus on both legs in 2 different tournaments at purple belt and was competing through injury.
As tough as this was, I think women have a very different journey in jiu jitsu. I was always alone at these tournaments. I didn’t feel the same level of support that I saw many male athletes getting from their coaches. I felt so alone sometimes.
All of that seems so tough—until 2018. I got 3rd place in the Brown Belt World Championships Adult Division, and I really thought I was going to win. I said I gotta come back and I’ll win the World NoGi. I trained for 6 months, and had destroyed my body. And the whole time, my oldest daughter, Anastasia was experiencing some unknown medical ailments. That summer, we discovered she had Cushing’s disease, a syndrome caused by an unknown tumor.
I trained full-time and won the NoGi Pan Ams that year at Brown Belt in September. The next week, doctors told us that Ana was going to have to go back-and-forth from Syracuse to the National Institute of Health in D.C. for testing during her senior year. We had to fly down each weekend for testing. I tried to train in the hotel room and hospital room, while Ana told me, “Mom, you don’t quit—I don’t quit—this is your dream, you still have got to go to the World Championship.”
I remember the exact moment the team of doctors told us they found the tumor and it had metastasized—she had cancer. I collapsed—I was like… I don’t care about jiu jitsu. I can’t do this anymore.
That was the toughest time of my life. I love jiu jitsu, but obviously your family always comes first. As much as I would love to focus on jiu jitsu and training full-time, there are other things in life that take precedence. My daughter was sick, and she told me to keep training while I did burpees in her hospital room trying to keep our sanity. I took a bit of a break after that before coming back to the scene in 2019.
K: What does a typical day of training look like for you?
A: I have a group of women who I instruct in basic self-defense, boxing, cardio kickboxing, and general fitness. I’ve done this for about 8 years. I wake up at 4:45AM, meet my girls at 5:30AM before work, get home at 7 for the assembly line of getting kids ready to go for school, then I go to work, get home, and then train jiu jitsu.
I want to motivate girls everywhere. You don’t have to train at the most elite academy to meet your goals.If you have a mat and a training partner, and that training partner can help you to be your best then that’s all you can do. You can’t control anything else. Give it your best.
That’s why I’m so proud of my 2016 World Championship win—it was literally won by training with one person on a 10’ x 12’ mat in the middle of my living room.
K: What was the inspiration or ‘origin story’ for Grappling Getaways?
A: When I went to tournaments early-on, when we all first started training, we never had any girls to train with, ever. If you’ve ever rolled with a girl, chances are it was at a tournament and it was the first girl you’ve ever rolled with. At a tournament, I met Valerie Estes-Masai from Buffalo and Julie Mana from Albany. With all these women who were training in upstate New York, no one was organizing opportunities for girls to train with each other. I called them up with the idea that we host something where women could come together and get to know each other while training. We hosted our first world training camp in 2017. The girls had such a great time so we decided that each year we would have these camps where women could enjoy the intensity of the training in addition to sharing the unique female experiences that they couldn’t voice among their male peers.
Fast-forward to 2018, I had just torn my ACL. I was supposed to go to the Mexico Open and had already had all my flights booked. A friend told me to reach out to Mexico’s first female black belt, Itzel Bazúa. I didn’t even know her, but she was just like, “I’m going to pick you up from the airport, you’re going to stay at my house, and I’m taking care of you!”
When I arrived, she had a beautiful home with her school literally on the top floor.. It was the dream. Before then, so many people had told me ‘you’ll never have your own school’ and ‘nobody pays to go to seminars with women’… and I don’t know if I believe them because I saw Itzel’s school—a highly-respected female instructor with so many students, male and female… never once did they question her talent because she is female. I was so inspired by her kindness and respect.
Grappling Getaways was created when Itzel asked if we would be doing a fall camp—.I talked to all the girls and we decided we would rent a big house , bring our own mats, and we were going to the Adirondacks to get to know each other. You had no idea who was coming–women flew in from France, from Canada, Mexico, Florida, Texas. Everyone that showed up was so pure of heart that friendships formed instantly. It was all organic and beautiful.
K: You have traveled all over the world for jiu jitsu—what is your favorite place?
A: Mexico City, it is probably my favorite place in the world!
K: What about the traveling wish-list?
A: I would love to go to Abu Dhabi. I also have a dream to have a Grappling Getaway camp in Santorini. It is so beautiful and I would love to share that experience with people.
.K: What’s next to come—post-COVID?
A – Once we return, my top priority is competing to be Black Belt World Champion. I’m 39-years-old so it is time-sensitive. I think it is a crazy goal, but I think I’m also just crazy enough to do it.