A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Albert Einstein said the only source of knowledge is experience; Susan Arbogast, Kathy Brothers, Jocelyn Chang, DC Maxwell, Felicia Oh, Cindy Omatsu, Gazzy Parman, and Kris Shaw have that in abundance. These ladies started out on a journey once upon a time and yes one can deduce that BJJ helped them to live happily ever after. The reason why each woman started training varies but they ALL stuck with the art of Jiu-Jitsu and 20 years later are the 8 female American black belt pioneers that women practitioners have to thank for paving the way, weathering the fray, and helping to jump start a brand new day. Susan Arbogast, Jocelyn Chang, and Felicia Oh are an integral part of the Elite 8 responsible for the female growth in BJJ today.
Professor Jocelyn Chang’s segue into BJJ was for one of the most practical reasons on earth, safety. “Reading about rape on campus was always a concern, especially since I attended college in the evening. I’m very petite so I knew that if I was faced with an attacker, I wouldn’t have a chance to defend myself. I explained this to my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) and we researched which martial arts would be a good fit for me. We decided on BJJ because that particular martial art was made for a smaller opponent to equalize the size and strength of the attacker. Other martial arts require punching and kicking and because I do not have any strength, my punches would not be deemed effective.” Professor Felicia Oh on the other hand sort of stumbled into BJJ, “…after a bad camping trip, my friend’s husband told me about it on the way up. On the way back, I thought it might be good to try something indoors.”
The growth of BJJ for women over the last few years has been OUTSTANDING but was not a surprise to Chang, “…it was bound to happen like most sports that start as male dominant. Although it is still very male dominant, I’m proud of all the women who have started and continued to grow in BJJ.” Professor Susan Arbogast also thought the growth was inevitable. Oh however, “…never really thought about it. I think the overall growth of the sport for both men and women is awesome.”
Oh has a VERY different and important perspective, “[…] I guess I didn’t really feel it was hostile. I had worked in pre-dominantly male environments and had played sports growing up so I didn’t really think about it too much. I started at Jean Jacques Machado’s academy and everyone was supportive. Especially at the beginning, the guys that were with me in the beginning were all very supportive and encouraging. I’ve always sort of just pursued what I enjoyed doing regardless of what other people thought. BJJ is a difficult sport with a high attrition rate for both men and women. I don’t think MORE women were quitting before…there just weren’t as many women coming in. Now there are a lot more men and women coming in…and staying! It’s a hard sport. I don’t believe you can really do it for anyone else or because someone else wants you to. It’s just too hard and there’s too much blood, sweat and tears involved to be doing it for anyone else or any external reasons. I guess some people do but eventually it’s just not worth it. You have to do it because you want to do it for you.”
When you become enraptured by anything, you seek inspiration to help guide you along the way as you become more and more obsessed with your passion. BJJ is no different. For Chang, “…the person who inspired me is my Professor, Coach, and friend Leka Vieira. When I first met her as a blue belt, she beat me up and humbled me. She made everyone (men and women) tap out purely on technique and not strength. From that day on, I saw the advantage of her techniques as a female and wanted to model my training after hers.” Arbogast too, was inspired by the art of Jiu-Jitsu and the confidence she gained from it. Oh on the other hand, “…I didn’t know anything about BJJ when I started. As I learned more in those first few years about Jiu-Jitsu and things like ADCC, I started to realize how lucky I was in the first place that I went to was Jean Jacques’. I was a part of that environment, getting to see Jean Jacques preparing for ADCC’s, seeing the top guys and all the black belts at the tournaments as well as, watching the whole evolution of Eddie Bravo was pretty amazing.”
As confidence grew, so did their desire to compete. Lack of opportunities didn’t quell the urge. Chang started competing as a blue belt, “…back then, there were not very many girls to compete with. Since having my black belt, my confidence has grown and now I’m just as competitive.”
Oh was also an avid competitor, “I did my first tournament after 6 months of training. I regularly competed at tournaments. It was just something I did. There were a lot of tournaments in LA and Grapplers Quest was the big No-Gi tournament in Vegas. They didn’t have any women in ADCC and it was also the time when MMA was illegal in California. ADCC started the qualifiers for 2003, I think. Eddie won that one. Then in 2005 ADCC invited women. In 2006 I won the North American Qualifier and my spot for ADCC 2007. I made it to the finals and lost a close match. I was 39.”
Body issues can occur for athletes however, as a cancer survivor, BJJ helped impact Chang’s body in the most positive ways when returning to training post chemo. According to her when she started BJJ, the only body issues that she had was due to her petite. “…I never had eating disorders that I had to overcome. What BJJ did for me was make me stronger, healthier, and more confident (especially when recovering from my cancer treatments). BJJ is not very forgiving so when going through the stress of chemo and radiation therapy, I was able to bounce back and train 2 weeks after my last treatment.” Contrary to Chang, Oh, suffered previously from an eating disorder. BJJ helped her body image tremendously. “…As a kid, I was a gymnast and ended up being bulimic from 13-21 years old. BJJ let me use and appreciate my body for its abilities and what it could do vs. how it looked. Working out was about competition and performance instead of body image. BJJ is a great sport because you don’t have to be a specific size or shape. You make BJJ fit to your attributes so you never have to wish you were something else. If a move doesn’t work for you, you can find another move that does.
The young and the restless or rather training and travail is the soap opera that can unfold for the men and women who opt to train with companions. Chang’s then boyfriend and now spouse introduced her to the sport so she had more training and less tribulations. “…I was lucky that I didn’t go through any trials or tribulations with my boyfriend and now husband. My husband, Glenn Chang is the person who got me started in BJJ. He trained BJJ himself and was very supportive and accepting of the idea. When I expressed a concern about safety, he bought me a Gracie Rape Safe Class as a gift that started on my birthday. I didn’t appreciate the gift until many years later as a purple belt. That is when I told him that it was the best gift ever.” Oh unfortunately, faced the travail, “…I had a boyfriend/husband/now ex-husband who trained. I’ve seen it happen a lot of times where it’s very difficult to train with someone you are involved with especially if there is a big size difference and/or you (as a female) outrank him, lol. It is sometimes difficult to train with the additional emotional component although I have also seen some partners train together really well.
Running an academy while training is another thing these women can expound upon. Arbogast has been in business for an exceptional amount of time. Alongside her husband she has run a martial arts club for over 25 years. “…This has been primarily BJJ for almost 10 years. There are always challenges involved but overall we really enjoy it. People don’t come in unless they really want to so there is always a high level of enthusiasm.” Chang says, “Running an academy is very hard work, especially since I had to compete with schools that had a top Brazilian Instructor. When I decided on this venture, I thought to myself ‘how hard can this be?’ It turns out that it was harder than I thought. Student retention and loyalty is the hardest thing. You can spend a lot on marketing, but if you don’t have the “Name,” the students don’t always come. It’s especially difficult because I’m female and from experience, most men do not want to be taught by a female. It became very difficult to compete with the various schools. My goal was to have something I can retire from. With the pressures of competing with schools and not getting the return that I wanted, I finally made the decision to close the academy in 2015.”
Having trained for 20 plus years, these ladies formed an amazing bond. Teammates come and go but that bond remains. Oh says, “It’s hard because you don’t see your friends on a regular basis anymore. It’s like anything in life … there are changes and you deal with them. Most of the changes I’ve experienced were usually due to life circumstances and location type issues. It’s a long journey and so many things can happen. Kids grow up, people get married, move, change jobs, etc., I have some old training partners and we still try to make the effort and get together and roll once in a while or at least hang out at tournaments. It’s always so much fun to see old friends and catch up. I think you have a different kind of bond with people when you train together. I think Jiu-Jitsu gives you a different connection to a person, your experience with that person is raw.”
With two decades of training BJJ under your belt, mentally you learn so much and you never stop learning. Physically you learn so much one way or another for better or worse. After all these years for Chang, “…mentally, I feel accomplished, I was able to dedicate 20+ years training BJJ. It became a part of my lifestyle. It has made me feel more confident and I feel safe. It’s made me more aware of my surroundings. Physically, training BJJ for 20+ years has made me stronger and healthier. For Arbogast’s, she is BJJ and BJJ is an extension of her both mentally and physically. “…I guess that martial arts have been such a huge part of my adult life that I can’t imagine how I would “feel” without them. Mentally and physically I feel like myself!” Oh is returning to the sport after a hiatus and things are not quite the same. She trained for 7 years then trained MMA for about 2 years then nothing for 5-6 years. “…I was really struggling with EBV (Epstein Bar Virus) and chronic fatigue. Now I’ve been training for 1 year again and it’s been great. It’s different though. I’m older. I really have to manage it and can only do about 3 days a week so I have at least 1 day of recovery. It’s very different from how I trained before and it’s not focused on competition at all. It’s just focused on having fun and being healthy.”
The one thing everyone has heard at least once when trying to explain about BJJ “Jiu-Jitsu…what is that, like Karate?” Now rewind back to when these ladies started. If people ask that now, what did they ask then, especially moms? Chang’s mom is proud of her and that is enough. “…My mother is proud of my accomplishments. She doesn’t know what BJJ is even though I have explained it. However my dad is very proud! He has always been into martial arts and studied Karate. He tried to teach me when I was younger. But I never listened. As an adult, I did appreciate his efforts and now his love for martial arts. He has always supported my efforts and is very proud of my accomplishments.” Oh’s parents are also proud but were closer to the masses in terms of knowing about the sport. ‘That Jiu-Jitsu.’ “I think they thought I was doing some sort of hitting/boxing type thing. I still don’t think my family really knows or understands but they are proud of me.”
When it comes to being challenged by each other throughout the years Chang says, “It wasn’t an individual girl that challenged my skills. All ladies of BJJ challenge my skills and continue to help me reach the next level every time I train. Because I’m only 4’9”, I feel that I’m always working the hardest to make sure my technique is spot on. But if I were to pick one girl that is constantly challenging me, then that would be myself. I am my worst critic and enemy.” Oh too is of the opinion that each of the women all teach and pushed each other in different ways.
A non-conventional sport has its own challenges and when women decide to venture into the sport the obstacles they face can be multiplied exponentially when there is such a steep learning curve. As far as Chang is concerned, competing is the most challenging part of BJJ. “…Mentally, you need to rely on yourself because you can psych yourself out. If you think to yourself that you will lose, then that is the resulted outcome. Competing is 80% mental and 20% what you know. Physically, putting into practice everything you have learned because we don’t always know how to set up those techniques so we can use them. We tend to use only what we are comfortable doing.” Arbogast’s challenges are much like anyone’s (male or female), “…sometimes it is just getting yourself onto the mat due to scheduling conflicts, sometimes it is not noting any progress due to time off or having to “train down” due to injuries or fatigue.”
These women have a plethora of reasons to lift up their voices and sing and after two decades of training they have standout moments that still remind them of EXACTLY why they stuck with this sport all these years. For Chang, her proudest moment in her BJJ career was teaching a seminar to elderly blind people in 2014. “…that same year, I was inducted into the Martial Arts History Museum.” Arbogast’s student’s successes are some of her best moments, “…In BJJ, personally, receiving my brown belt from Carlson Gracie Sr. Overall, watching the success of my students.” Oh’s memories were humbling for her “…2 moments standout. My performance at ADCC 2007 and standing on the podium at the 2007 Fila Worlds in Antalya, Turkey as a representative of the USA. That experience really changed how I saw my country and the world. It has forever changed how I hear the National Anthem.”
BJJ needed a revolution, DC Maxwell, Cindy Omatsu, Felicia Oh, Kris Shaw, Susan Arbogast, Gazzy Parman, & Kathy Brothers unknowingly answered the call. A few decades later, here we sit in awe of these ladies that started from the bottom and are still here. According to Chang, “What brings all of us together is the desire, dedication, and love for BJJ. These qualities are what continue to grow women’s BJJ.” Arbogast’s views are the same, “I have seen and still see the way woman take a special interest in other woman and promote their training in martial arts.”
These trailblazers have made their mark in history and will forever be remembered and none of them had any idea when they began their journeys what impact 8 individuals would have on an entire community. Oh was not thinking about history in the making, “I think we were all just individuals who enjoyed doing what we did.” Chang’s thoughts were also not so far reaching “…I had no clue that we would all be part of history for women’s BJJ. I personally would like to be remembered for being “great” at teaching kids. 95% of the kids that I have coached have all won medals in kids’ competitions. Kids these days are so vulnerable with the elements of their environment. I feel compelled to teach them skills that may one day protect them; although I hope they never have to use it.”
Moving forward these women don’t want the progress to stop. Arbogast wants to continue on her current path with her students in her academy, “…I want to have a positive impact on my students (in all martial arts disciplines).” Chang has high aspirations for the sport as a whole, “I’d like to see a unified BJJ Federation that is recognized as one… just like Judo. This way BJJ can one day make it as an Olympic sport. The problem right now is that there are multiple Federations and each one is trying to beat out the other. There is no unity.”
Advice from these women is as good as gold and for a brand new white belt starting out here’s what Chang has to offer, “…do not give up even if you feel beaten up. Do not be afraid to take chances and to make a mistake because you will always learn from it.” Oh’s advice is just as sound, “…keep doing your best and trying to get better. Don’t worry about anything else and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.” Arbogast’s advice are words to live by, “…surround yourself with good instructors and training partners.”
To ALL the women in the world of BJJ Chang commends you for starting this wild adventure called BJJ, “…you will have your highs and lows. But don’t give up. BJJ is an education of learning and finding oneself. It humbles you to the point that you know what self-respect is. If life happens, BJJ will always be there for you. Never stop doing BJJ because it is the true foundation of health; mentally and physically. Arbogast wants you to getcha roll on… ALWAYS, “…if you truly love the art don’t give up because of life happenings that can initially appear as setbacks. You can always be practicing something even if your body or time schedule is not allowing the intensity/frequency level that you “think” is necessary to continue.”
These women have been through the trenches together and just keep rolling. They have had love and support that kept them along the way and for that, credit must be given where it is due. Chang gives that to, “…my husband, Glenn. I would not have started BJJ if it weren’t for his gift of BJJ as my birthday present. I’d like to thank Cindy Omatsu. I started training with Cindy when she was a blue belt. She is so encouraging and a great person to train with. I’d like to thank my coaches, Chris Haueter and Leka Vieira for teaching their secrets to me and beating me up to withstand bigger opponents. I’d like to thank Sensei William Ford for giving me an outlet to teach BJJ at his dojo, especially giving me the opportunity to teach a seminar to elderly blind people, and for recognizing my talents and for nominating me to be inducted in the Martial Art’s History Museum. Lastly, I want to thank my family for their support.” Oh gives thanks to, “…everyone I have ever met trained or competed with. Everyone teaches you something. And all the promoters that had events and all the gear and clothing companies that helped support and grow the sport.”
They have been there, done that, and risen through the ranks together. We have the utmost respect for these women for paving the way. Each time you step on the mat just think of the 8 that made your journey that much easier, think of the 8 that have made it possible for every single female world champion to stand on that podium beaming with pride. Think of the Elite 8 and be thankful for the glass ceiling they broke through. As Innocent Mwatsikesimbe would say, “It’s quite a scary path to walk on when you have no one’s past experience to lean on, or learn from. It’s all new and unchartered. But nothing is finished unless it is started. 8 started a revolution and we are reaping the rewards.