With so much bad news going on these days, it’s hard to find something to celebrate. One thing we can all be happy about is that it is a great time to be a woman in jiu jitsu. When you step on the mats, or scroll through social media, chances are you see other women succeeding at the highest levels. Women are a growing demographic in jiu jitsu and our possibilities are endless. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who went before us, the pioneers who were brave enough to go first.
I asked two pioneers what led them to step on the mats. Cindy Hales, one of the Dirty Dozen (first twelve female black belts outside of Brazil) says she was inspired watching Royce Gracie in UFC and was looking for an outlet to relieve her stress and anxiety. Feeling uninspired by her corporate life, she found a BJJ gym by chance and has trained consistently ever since. Emily Kwok, Canada’s first female black belt, was unsatisfied with traditional gym workouts. She tried boxing, but it wasn’t for her. A friend suggested trying sambo, but there she dealt with sexism which pushed her to try jiu jitsu instead. Emily says she was hooked after the first class.
Being a trailblazer is not always easy. Jiu jitsu is not easy. Professor Cindy admits she often wanted to quit. Controlling her mind was a challenge in terms of maintaining a positive attitude. Injuries, competition losses, work setbacks all played a part in fighting off negative thoughts. However, focusing on what could be controlled and breaking down what seem like enormous problems into smaller goals has been helpful not only in training but also in life. It helps Cindy to persevere. Professor Emily has faced hardship on the mats, too with a toxic team culture that led her to a period of extreme stress. As a result, she suffered hair loss and seizures. She nearly walked away from receiving her black belt and a practice she loved deeply.
What made her stay? A community of caring people whom she credits for having “the strength and backbone to value principles of what is right and wrong in how we treat one another.” Emily also says that much of her mission now is to provide a different example of leadership in our sport. She also notes that we all start training to challenge or better ourselves somehow and that toxic leadership doesn’t allow anyone to be their best.
Two pioneers started out knowing nothing of jiu jitsu but they overcame serious hurdles on their way to becoming legends of our sport. They both have great wisdom to share with us because of their unique experiences: Show up. Persevere. Control your mind. Be the example you want to see. Whether we know it or not, each and every one of us is making our mark on jiu jitsu. What mark will you leave?