Living the BJJ Van Lifestyle 2

We all have those “What if?” moments in our lives. These moments can impact our lives in ways we cannot even possibly fathom. They can even be as small as changing to a new fabric softener, a different restaurant, or taking a different way home. They can be major changes such as leaving a significant other, moving to a different state, or changing career paths. Some people, like myself, seem to be stuck in a holding pattern. I don’t like to vary very often. Everyone who goes to a restaurant with me knows exactly what I am going to order. They even  immediately pass the pepper my way because I am going to add at least half the container into my ranch dressing. Is it bad that I am constant in some aspects of my life? Not necessarily, but sometimes I wonder what if I take that tiny small step and try something different? How would my day/week/month/year/life be different if I chose a path less taken? Well, that is just what Heather Raftery has done.  She has taken the path less traveled. Heather travels all over the U.S. sharpening her Jiu Jitsu skills while living in her van off and on. She is an up and coming black belt on the Atos team. I certainly admire her ability to step out and do something not many of us have the courage to do. I got an opportunity to pick her brain a bit and this is what we learned.


How did you get interested in the sport?

During college, I began traveling a lot internationally, and my dad became worried about my safety… probably because he knew how reckless and impulsive I could be. So he told me that I needed to learn some self-defense. I had a friend who was kickboxing and really enjoyed it, so I decided to sign up at a local gym that offered classes. A couple weeks into it, I noticed a bunch of guys rolling around on the mats at the same time as my kickboxing class. At the time, I had no idea what jiu-jitsu was, or even MMA. The second I stepped on the mats, I was in love. 


What made you decide to hit the road?

I’ve always been a bit of a traveler. Before jiu-jitsu, I rode horses competitively, and we were always traveling to some other state for competitions. I began traveling internationally in college, and after I started jiu-jitsu, it was only natural for me to gravitate to competing and traveling for jiu-jitsu. As a purple belt, I started becoming interested in the van- life movement, and after I sold my VW beetle and bought a VW van (I was a brown belt at this time). It became my goal to fix it up and try that for a little bit, which I did for about two years on-and-off, especially when I lived in San Diego and was training at Atos HQ. Right now, I’m not full-time van-life anymore, but I do live in the van to training camps and on long road trips. 


What does a typical day look like?

Hahaha, there is no typical day for me. As a freelancer, I’m able to break up my day however I want, so I usually try to get at least one S&C session in 4-5 days a week at Gym 244, then jiu-jitsu training 5-6 days a week. When I’m traveling, I spend my working hours at a coffee shop or using the WiFi at a laundromat (because in 50 square foot of living space, you can’t let your dirty laundry pile up). 


What do you wish you knew before you started this journey?

That’s an interesting question. I try not to look back at the things I’ve done and consider what I could have done differently. Every moment, every experience, good or bad, is a learning opportunity, and what I do now is the accumulation of what I’ve learned.  

Do you think traveling benefits your training rather than just being at 1 gym?

Oh, absolutely! Particularly for competitors, I think it’s really beneficial to expand your horizons and learn from many different sources. Of course, wherever I’ve lived, I’ve usually had one gym that I frequent the most, but I’ve never been hesitant to go to open mats or attend classes at other academies, and learn from people whose games are different from mine. There’s so much to learn within the world of jiu-jitsu, it’s impossible to learn everything from one place.


What tips would you give to someone who also wanted to travel as you do?

It’s easy to think “this isn’t the right time” or “I’ll wait until this or that.” If you think like that, you’ll never do it. Just make the leap, and make it work. Trust in your ability to figure things out, and don’t be afraid to seek help if you feel like you’re getting over your head. People are always willing to help. 


What/who inspires you? It can be personally, spiritually or in the sport.

I can’t name just one person. I’m inspired by people everywhere I go; mostly people who are driven and who are willing to put in the work to make their dreams and goals a reality, whatever it may be. I am inspired by people who selflessly give a piece of themselves to benefit the greater good. I’m inspired by people who aren’t afraid of putting themselves in uncomfortable situations, if it means achieving something really great. I’m inspired by people who truly live each and every moment of every day, for the joy and thrill of living and learning, not just for the Gram.  


What are your future goals?

Try to make my mark on the jiu jitsu community… something positive, that’ll inspire others to do the same.



About the author:

Kim Morris

Staff Writer

Kim Morris is a purple belt with Combative Sports Center in Manhattan Kan., under Joe Wilk. She has been practicing Jiu-Jitsu since November 2013.

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2 thoughts on “Living the BJJ Van Lifestyle

  • Patty Hinger

    Great article. As someone who likes routine and has a hard time stepping out of her comfort zone, I find Heather and many in the jiu jitsu community very inspirational.