Professor Yvone Magalhaes Duarte opened the door for women in BJJ by becoming the first female black belt in the sport (October 1990). Alessandra “Leka” Vieira de Souza kicked it down in 1999 when she became the first female World Champion of the sport. This fabulous trailblazer is an integral reason the sport has been elevated to level it is at today. BJJ and soccer are the go to sports in Brazil but Vieira was an up and coming handball player. Fate is a funny thing, one could say it is unfortunate that a knee injury ended Vieira’s career as a handball player. She could have been an Olympic gold medalist in the sport. Fortunately for those of us in the BJJ world, fate had very different plans for this world class athlete. At 16 Vieira started her journey in BJJ, 6 months in, she was a blue belt. She knew what she was getting into and how she would be perceived but was not discouraged.
Vieira received the typical response from her family and friends when she decided to pursue the male-dominated sport of BJJ. The standard side-eye and oh no she didn’t mattered not. Those that doubted her only pushed her to work three times as hard. The odds were not in her favor but from the moment she put on her first kimono, she has never looked backed. BJJ was beyond hostile for Brazilian women in the 80s and 90s but her love, passion, and devotion for the sport “was and is bigger than any adversary.”
As a teen practitioner Vieira had to learn her lesson the hard way and learn it she did. It was challenging for her having to take her lumps day in and out from her male counterparts with no end in sight but she kept coming back for more. Her proudest moment in BJJ is still her ability to keep going regardless of whether or not the odds were in her favor. In a sport where it is very difficult for even men not to become frustrated at times and air out said grievances, Vieira clearly was exceptionally unique. In spite of all she was facing she trained, did what she loved, and she “never complains about anything.”
Shortly after becoming a fabulous first (1st female World Champion) Vieira moved to the US in 2001 where she faced another challenge. BJJ was not nearly as big for women in the US and the consensus was it never would be. That was an affront to Vieira. She made history in 99 only to be told that American women will NEVER want to be touched in the way that BJJ requires, so it won’t catch on in the USA. Her response was succinct “BS.” She has been key in helping discredit that very stigma. She opened her own gym in California, held women’s only classes, and proved the stigma was BS. She currently operates CheckMat Valencia (grand opening Nov 15) for kids, women, and men.
The challenges in BJJ are never ending. Moving from one place to another is taxing, it is no different when one must switch teams or professors. Vieira is a competitor and is competitive however, she understands the complicated dynamics associated with arrested development. If a person has gone as far as they can with one team and they will not progress any further unless change occurs the saying this is not personal it is just business is 100% applicable in BJJ. “Sometimes you develop a friendship with a training partner and certainly you would miss training with this person but at the end of the day I think we are all free to do and to go wherever we feel works best for us. You should always be looking to improve your game and sometimes changing instructors will help sometimes it won’t.”
After training and competing for over 20 years, your mentality changes. You adapt and overcome what you must and as you change you either grow, learn or become stunted. Hopefully after training for over 2 decades you become very proficient at avoiding mistakes as most movements become as effortless as breathing. After all of her years in the trenches Vieira, “feels great mentally because BJJ is a sport that really is going to make you think and think so your brain gets a great workout. Physically, obviously throughout the years you pile up injuries but at the same time you learn how to deal with injuries and pain and you have an opportunity to know your body better so you know when you need a rest day.”
All sports are filled with countless benefits but with the good one would be remiss if we ignored or dismiss those things that impact our training, health, and well-being. BJJ keeps you in great shape. However, being in shape doesn’t exempt anyone from pitfalls (injuries, eating disorders, etc). Vieira never had issues with any eating disorders but she had to overcome injuries even before she began BJJ. “The mental aspect is the worst part of recovering from a bad injury. You need to overcome the injury and mentally you have to stay positive and think that it is not going to happen the same way ever again.”
BJJ has empowered many a practitioner, it is a test of both your mental and physical acuity and for Vieira there is nothing better. “When you have a family and a lot of other stuff going on I feel like BJJ time is my treasure time. It’s having a date with myself.” Vieira started a REMARKABLE journey not knowing what was in store for her or her peers all the while making history. She would not agree but her hardwork and dedication is what helped groom 8 notable American practitioners (Kathy Brothers, Cindy Omatsu, DC Maxwell, Felicia Oh, Kris Shaw, Gazzy Parman, Susan Arbogast, and Jocelyn Chang). Leka Vieira, Yvone Magalhaes-Duarte, Luka Dias, Hannette Staack, and Leticia Ribeiro motivated these women and even promoted some to black belt.
Vieira having competed against her peers (except Professor Magalhaes-Duarte) each one also pushing her to the limit and helping her reach the next level. When asked if one of her peers challenged her more than the others she simply stated, “these are great fighters and I would be making a mistake if I picked one over the other.”
Vieira is happy with the progress in BJJ, especially for women. Looking back if she could offer any guidance it would be, PERSEVERE. She did and the deck was stacked HEAVILY against her. Her legacy to the women in BJJ can be seen in every woman you train with day in and day out. Her advice to EVERY WOMAN practicing is “If you really love BJJ nobody or nothing should be able to stop you, hard work and no excuses will take you to where you want to be.”
Tracy L. Higley said, “The fear of the unknown was eclipsed by the gladness that came of taking action, of doing something rather than waiting, of following what seemed to be the call of my life.” Female practitioners today are blessed, though many still believe more progress must be made thanks to Vieira and the other 4 fire starters (Magalhaes-Duarte, Staack, Dias, and Ribeiro). They are responsible for a revolution, an awakening.
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.