It’s March Madness. The best of the best in college basketball compete to determine who will garner title of “THE BEST” and bragging rights ‘till next season. The history of the tournament, narrowed from the sweet sixteen, to the elite eight, then the final four until the Champions are crowned dates back to the 1800s. We don’t have to go back quiet so far to trace the lineage of the Elite 8 American Female Black Belts that forever changed the course of BJJ history. Cindy Omatsu, Kris Shaw, Susan Arbogast, Kathy Brothers, Felicia Oh, Jocelyn Chang, DC Maxwell, and Gazzy Parman all set out on a path in a virtually unheard of sport for women in the US and stayed the course. 20+ years later each of these women has made her mark, earned her stripes, and is still VERY relevant to the game in one way or another. These women grew up in this world together and catching up with them to find out their take on life, BJJ, and each other from then and now is a history lesson worth sharing.
These women are legends, and for all to start the marathon and still be in the race together is an accomplishment in itself. Kris Shaw gives ALL the credit for this distinguishing part of the BJJ revolution to Luiza Machado. These women may not be who we know them as today if it weren’t for the Machado brother’s mom. “I have to believe she raised her boys to see women as competent and capable individuals. They broke from tradition and allowed women to train. Five of the eight are Machado. On my bucket list, shake Mrs. Machado’s hand.” Cindy Omatsu has been humbled by the experiences she has had. She had no idea her group of peers would be making history. “It means more to me knowing that these women black belts are the pioneers and that I have gotten to roll with them and know them outside the academy as well. Shaw had similar thoughts, “I was having fun. I was kicking and getting my butt kicked.”
BJJ??? The definition is not so easily explained now. It had to have been nearly impossible back then. Omatsu’s family was part of the very few in the know, “my mom and dad were watching the UFC in the early 90’s on TV one night. They both said ‘come watch this with us.’ how funny is that! So when I decided to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu she knew it was like wrestling. I think she was happier I was doing BJJ. I was rock climbing a lot and she had seen some videos of me climbing and told me in Japanese ‘ABUNAI’ which means dangerous.” DC Maxwell’s mother was also one of the few that was very supportive of her daughter’s choice. “My mother understood, because it was my business for so long. What she never understood however, was how few others knew what BJJ was. I finally just asked her to stop bringing it up, because I got tired of having to explain that BJJ is different from Karate.”
Inspiration comes in many forms, for women training/competing in the 90s ratios worked against them and finding female inspiration wasn’t easy. You don’t want to offend your own Professor but woman to woman, there is comfort in knowing what you are doing can be done and that alone keeps you going. Leka Vieira was that very inspiration for Omatsu, “I remember being a purple belt and one day I was training at my academy. I heard Leka Vieira was coming to the academy and that she was a World Champion. She came and we rolled ha ha she rolled and I got my butt kicked. I asked her how are you pinning my leg down and she showed me. After asking Rigan’s permission, I went and started taking privates with her and so did some of the other women. She was my size, my weight, a female, and knew what I was going through getting frustrated at times training with the men. When I took privates I would anxiously go back to the academy and roll with the guys and work the techniques on them. They would ask, “where did you learn those moves?” I would say LEKA!!!” Shaw’s perspective on her original inspiration was not much different “Luciana ‘Luka’ Dias, Leka Viera, and Leticia Ribeiro. Luka was strong; – Luka was strong, Leka was heart, Leticia was the technician.”
Even the best of the best knows that running a marathon takes a toll on the body and the effects will be different for everyone. After over 20 years of training for DC Maxwell, “these days it takes a lot longer to warm up and to recover between hard trains. Some days, I feel like the sum of my injuries. I watch who I train with, because sometimes lower belts think a black belt means you are invulnerable. I’m a light feather weight, so I have to be double careful. I’m grateful for every day I step on the mat.” Omatsu began training in her mid 30s so for her, “at 34 years old when I started, I felt like I could do this forever. At age 42 I was in the best shape of my life and still felt like I could do this forever. At age 51, I completely tore my ACL and didn’t get the surgery and I don’t do stand up and still feel like I can do this forever. Now I am 54 years old and as long as I listen to my body and my injuries and rest I feel I can do this forever. Ask me in another 5 years!!!”
These ladies began their journeys in the 90s and it begs the question, of all the combat sports that were and are known, why did they gravitate to BJJ? In Omatsu’s case she had been training at the IMB Academy with Richard Bustillo learning Kali, Jeet Kune Do and Kickboxing. “In July 1994, at Gold’s Gym in Redondo Beach, I passed by the aerobic room. I saw a lot of guys rolling on a big mat, at that time a lot of women were being attacked in the South Bay so I thought if I am attacked what would I do? I stepped into the aerobic room and introduced myself to my first BJJ instructor Renato Magno. He taught the class for the Machado Brothers. I looked around and I was the only woman in the class. The first day I was taught how to tap, hip escape drills, and an armbar. Then Renato let me roll a little bit with the guys although I had no clue what I was doing. The one thing that I will always remember is the first time I rolled and my opponent grabbed my wrist. I felt his strength and power and realized why a woman may give up when being assaulted. It made me want to learn more. From day one I was hooked and went twice a week because it was included in my gym membership. After a year of training there I signed up at The Machado Academy and am still training 20 years later!!!! How time flies!!!!”
Shaw’s reason was one that many can relate to. “I am uncoordinated, clumsy, ornery and opinionated. Staying close to the floor, no katas to memorize, and no silly kiss-the-ring rituals made BJJ perrrrfect for me. It was the ying to my yang. I sat in a chair and programmed all day. As a software consultant I did a lot of soft-shoe to the clients every whim so being able to beat someone up at the end of the day felt glorious. BJJ kept me sane.”
BJJ for women has far exceeded its expectations and Omatsu never saw it coming, “I remember when there were maybe 2 tournaments a year, Joe Moieria’s and Cleber’s. That was a long time ago!!! It’s amazing to see how many tournaments and how many BJJ academies there are now!!! I am so proud of the women who have stayed training at their academies when I am sure they are outnumbered and out powered by the men, proud they have stuck with it and earned their belts, and proud of those who have become tough competitors.” Shaw shared her sentiments, “in 1999 Dave Meyer said to me, look at that picture, see how it is a wheel? Everything goes around and right now we are just about to crest on a very big explosion of BJJ. Within 3 years we went from something like 3 schools in LA/Southbay to 10. I thought THIS IS IT! Now starts the decline. I’ve thought that every year since and every year 10 more schools in LA/Southbay. It is AMAZING, the growth. Where I am really set aback is the growth of women’s Jiu-Jitsu. I am honestly shocked when I go to an open mat and am met by 80 smiling faces. It is beautiful.”
These women came up through the ranks during a time when BJJ wasn’t women friendly. The irony being the sport is ideal for a smaller body type. Dealing with hostility was implied and each women still withstood whatever may have come their way. Kris Shaw was use to being in scenarios with major disparities. “I’m a computer programmer, also a very male dominated field. I am one of very few women who received her black belt from a woman and I was a part of a very strong women’s team.” Omatsu made it through because there was no hostility, “I am very fortunate to have found The Machado Academy to be my home for BJJ!!! I never felt threatened or uncomfortable in this male dominated martial art. The Machado brothers have always encouraged me to learn, grow and do my best!! My teammates always looked out for me as if they were my brothers and I never had a problem finding a partner to drill with me and I never felt left out.”
Training can take a toll on the body but as a competitor some develop another mentality that also effects how and why they train the way they do. Cutting weight is not uncommon for BJJ competitors however, it can lead to long-term issues. These women started out when there was not an abundance of women’s divisions or competitors. If you were a competitor cutting in order to compete was and still is a reality. Maxwell was a competitor and can attest to the fact that there was a major disparity in the beginning when it came to tournaments for females. Local tournaments were few and far between so Pans, Mundials, and Masters were what she looked forward to on an annual basis. As far as body issues go for Maxwell, “I’m a fairly normal female, in regards to body image, no better or worse. What BJJ did do, was to give me more confidence in my physical capacities.”
Although these women have been through such a special journey together their experiences have come with their own set of personal challenges. They maintained their relationships with each other but it wasn’t always easy on the flip side of things due to the nature of this sport. Shaw’s case is nothing if not comical, “finding a boyfriend, finding a mate was challenging enough already but throw in BJJ Badass and watch your prospect run out the back of the bar. (true story)” Maxwell had a broader view on training and the impact it has on personal relationships. “I’ve been involved with a few people who didn’t train, and it was fine. I was training when we met, so they knew what they were getting into. On the other hand, I’ve seen more than a few training or coaching relationships that were ruined by becoming romantically involved.”
Personal relationships are one thing but when training, one also develops a kinship with teammates and the Professor that becomes just as personal. Leaving a team can have an adverse effect on those relationships and after training for 20+ years these ladies have had their gains and losses in the teammates and Professor arena. Maxwell changed Professors many times but remained within the same competition team. When owning an academy losing students has a different impact. “I co-founded and ran a BJJ academy for about 15 years in Philadelphia. For me, the most difficult part of owning the academy was switching mental gears from taking responsibility for the Jiu-Jitsu experience of the customers/students, to just being a student during class and enjoying my own learning and training. I’ve lost training partners, but maintained the friendships to this day. When you own the academy, losing a teammate usually meant losing a student. Losing students is another thing, because they’re customers, but customers for whom you’ve often made an extra effort, and with whom you’ve shared experiences. A few former students have acknowledged the positive role that my academy had in their early training, which has been very satisfying.
Omatsu has faced a similar experience since she began training with the Machado Brothers in ’94. “ Rigan ended up selling his academy and I continued to teach there. After awhile I realized that I needed to find a new home to teach. I was having a hard time accepting that I wasn’t teaching at a Machado Academy and I felt lost. I started teaching my class at Nick Curson’s academy” Unity” and from there went to teach at Jocelyn and Glenn Chang’s academy “Let’s Roll.” I settled in at Lets Roll and it made me feel better and more at home since both Jocelyn and Glenn trained for many years with the Machado’s!!!”
Each woman welcomed a challenge and when facing other female competitors, each experience built upon their foundation. Shaw, described the sisterhood, the glue that held them altogether. “Cindy, she called everybody sweetie?” ‘Are you going to run the dune with us?’ ‘Cindy, do I ever run the dune with you?’ ‘Are you going to come running on the beach with us?’ ‘We are having an extra train on Sunday can you come?’ “Cindy was the glue that stuck us all together.” Omatsu credits ALL women for helping her “become a better student, competitor, instructor, person.” Welcoming a challenge is not the same thing as being knocked down, over, and back in order to overcome one. Fate brought these women together and by the same twist, fate tested their resolve. You could say anything worth doing is worth doing well, how about anything you love to do in spite of how well you can do it is well worth it. Life often happens and in Omatsu’s case her dreams were definitely deferred, “I had just got my black belt 2 months prior and was starting my training program for the Pan Am Tournament that was to be held in Santa Barbara. I had just finished a spin class at Gold’s Gym and as I drove home a car came out of no where and t-boned me and spun my car 180 degrees. My auto was totaled and I ended up having knee, neck, and back problems from it. I would go to class and watch my teammates train for the competition and went up to Santa Barbara to coach and cheer them on. After 3 months of physical therapy and almost a year of chiropractic care, yoga, light jogging, BJJ drills, and patience I was finally able to roll again.”
Shaw’s test is similar to one MANY parent athletes face. Especially the parent enthusiasts of something they excelled at yet their child has absolutely no interest in. “It is challenging teaching my kids to love this thing that I love. It is absolutely unacceptable that they don’t love it too. My many girlfriends are helping me to understand it always has to be their choice and that has been very hard for me”
When you have done anything for over 20 years you will most assuredly experience some peaks and valleys. The valleys develop character but the peaks make us euphoric. Shaw’s BJJ Mt. Fuji is still as clear as the day it happened, “without a doubt flying to Miami for the Pans as a team in our team shirts. Being, as I said, uncoordinated, clumsy, ornery, and opinionated, I was always chosen last to be on any kind of team. I’d never been on a team in high school. I missed that when it was spirit day or a pep rally. Silly huh? Being part of the RCJ Machado Women’s Competition Team made me dizzy.” Omatsu’s Everest has come within the last few years, “BJJ is my PASSION!!! And because of my passion for the last 4 years, I have been able to use my skills to teach self defense to teenage girls. It makes me feel that I have done a good job when their session is done and they come and give me a hug or thank me for teaching them how to defend themselves.”
Much progress has been made yet we still have a long way to go and looking toward a better future for BJJ as a whole Kris Shaw has raised some very valid points that would benefit the masses and probably help health insurance companies see BJJ Academies, their employees, and practitioners as less of an insurance liability.
Moving forward, Shaw’s stance on the implementation of across the board improvements is clear:
1. A system in place that does background checks on instructions. There would be a “health grade” in the window. You see the instructor teaching your kids class with a green check, you know somebody has taken the time to check his criminal history.
2. An international database like Judo where promotions are recorded.
3. Make a cost efficient version of the hospitals ultraviolet light disinfection system for academies to help reduce the risk of infectious disease.
You have to give credit where credit is due when it comes to those who encourage BJJ practitioners and Shaw gives that to her husband, her kids, her parents, Rigan Machado, Luka Dias, Leka Vieira, Mauricio “Tanquinho”Mariano, and all her training partners. Omatsu thanks the BJJ Community for helping out others when crisis comes. “ I have had the privilege of instructing with great people who are great BJJ technicians with great big hearts to raise money for people or families who have been need of help!!”
Receiving advice from a pioneering veteran in this sport is like striking oil in your own back yard and these women have plenty to pass along. Shaw’s advice is instrumental for women’s safety. “If it feels weird say something. We’re in a club not a cult, your opinion and voice matters. Trust your instincts. Take a first aid class and learn CPR . Put a CPR mask in your BJJ bag. Our sport is dangerous, don’t kid yourself.” Omatsu says stay the course, “I always have women white belt and blue belts tell me how frustrated they get when they can’t get a submission on a guy. I tell them that they need to give themselves credit when they pass a guys guard or get side control, sweep them or mount them. Keep drilling and training and it will come. If a guy starts using more strength and more of his weight, take it as a compliment. He is getting frustrated ;) Enjoy the experience and the journey in each belt and have FUN!!!”
Deneatra M Terry (Dee Nee truh)
Girls in Gis Staff Writer
Deneatra resides in Texas (for now). A lifelong anarchist/inner peace Seeker (irony duly noted).Proud mommy of 2 boys, all train under Bruno Alves & Jason Yerrington at Ohana Academy Stone Oak in San Antonio, Texas.