For many Jiu Jitsu is a sanctuary to escape the trials and tribulations of our day to day lives. It is a place for us to put our worries and stresses on hold. For Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt Elena Stowell it became a pathway through grief after unexpectedly losing her daughter. A story she went on to share in an award-winning book, Flowing with the Go: A Jiu-Jitsu Journey of the Soul.
In honor of her daughter Carly Stowell she went on to co-found the The Carly Stowell Foundation and, which is a non profit that makes sports and music affordable and accessible to youth. Her involvement in the jiu jitsu and desire to give back went even further to include becoming the director of the JamminBJJ -Give the Gift of a Gi program. She is a prime example of someone that has used her pain and sorrow to bring light and love to all of those around her.
What is your background journey into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
Jiu-Jitsu found me in 2008 when I was struggling through grief following the sudden death of my daughter, Carly, in 2007. She was a week from her 15th birthday and the picture of health, as well as an elite basketball player and musician.
I was beyond devastated and fell way off the rails. Fortunately, when I was at my lowest, some friends got me off the couch, into a doctor’s office, and helped to find me a grief counselor. After a reckless 6 months or so of sleeping, chocolate, and wine, I knew I needed to move to heal so I started going to an early morning boot camp.
Some days we would do cardio kickboxing and I really liked it, but I wanted to learn to punch correctly. I started looking for kickboxing academies near me and found Brazilian jiujitsu – they offered a striking class. I went one day a week, only to the striking class – I had no idea what BJJ was and had no experience with martial arts of any kind. Long story short, they kept reeling me in, “just join the warm-up…” and eventually I tried BJJ and have not stopped. Now, I’m a second-degree brown belt.
Can you expound on your book, the inspiration behind writing it, and perhaps where to get it?
I continued with grief counseling and rebuilding my sense of self- who was I and what is in store for me without Carly? I would tell stories about my jiu-jitsu training to my counselor and naturopath (two women who really helped pull out of a deep quagmire). My stories were full of tears, laughter, bruises, questions, and life. It was apparent to both of them that jiu-jitsu was helping me heal. They encouraged me to write the stories down.
So basically, Flowing with the Go is a chronicle of navigating grief by way of jiu-jitsu. There are pages that will make you cry, laugh and smile. People tell me it’s most definitely written in my voice – it’s my story and it’s raw and truthful.
You never fully heal from the loss of a child, but the edges get less sharp with time, and I learned that any person’s loss is personal and painful, but loss is part of being human, in that we are not alone.
I still have times when I struggle and question my purpose – but I press onward. I believe that I get signs from Carly – her energy sustains me and tells me I am doing the right thing.
Who has been the biggest influence in your jiu-jitsu development?
Now that I have been a jiu-jitsu practitioner for over 10 years, I have encountered many people who have influenced my jiu-jitsu development, but the biggest influencer has been James Foster. He was my first coach, with Rick “Brick” Geist as his nurturing sidekick. Not that James isn’t nurturing, they just nurtured me differently, haha. You will have to read my book and decide for yourselves. But without hesitation I credit James with saving me – jiu-jitsu is the biggest tool in his toolbox, and he used it to keep me off the edge. He also has a kind and generous heart, compassionate intuition, and what seems like limitless patience.
I also have to give a shout out to Mestre Cezar “Casquinha” Guimaraes who influences my jiu-jitsu when I’m in Brazil. I always have a home with team Top Brother. He says I never give him enough time to fix all my mistakes, but he tries, and I get my butt kicked in the kids’ class all the time.
As co-founder of The Carly Stowell foundation, what is its mission and how is it linked to JamminBJJ?
We started a non-profit 501c3, The Carly Stowell Foundation, to honor Carly’s legacy. Our mission is to make sports and music affordable and accessible to youth. We have run different sports programs and skills training, but mostly basketball.
We also provide music instruction, financial aid, and a scholarship program. We remain small, but steady. All of our programs are called Jammin because you can jam in music and sports like Carly did.
JamminBJJ was started after my first trip to Brazil. I noticed that several children did not have a gi of their own and they would share (yuck) or sometimes be too embarrassed to train. I returned to the U.S. and decided to do something.
I initiated the “Give the Gift of a Gi” program with a goal of collecting 100 donated gi’s (new or used). I met my collection goal and returned to Rio the following summer and distributed the gis to various gyms that I had visited. When I came back home, I thought I was done. Unbeknownst to me, a teammate at Foster BJJ threw a 2-day seminar with Giva Santana (coach Foster’s coach) and all of the money the seminar raised was donated to my program. So, I kept the program and started a branch off of our foundation.
We have been able to help kids in Brazil compete in tournaments. I have partnered with other organizations and returned almost every year to Brazil. Donors have helped provide reading rooms, brought clean water, and helped with other projects.
You wrote another book correlated to jiu-jitsu, can you expound on that?
In 2014 I wrote a grant to the Challenged Athlete Foundation and was able to bring Luciano Mariano to the U.S. to compete at Worlds. Luciano is a double-arm amputee jiujitsu fighter that I met Luciano in 2012 and we have remained friends.
He was blue belt at the time and is now a brown belt. He is amazing. I wrote and illustrated a children’s book about him, Frango & Chicken (also available in Portuguese, via Amazon). His nickname is Frango, which means chicken, so I made his sidekick a chicken. The theme is Luciano’s motto “Difficult does not mean impossible.”
If people are interested in helping or reaching out, where can they find you or go?
People can help by donating used gis or by taking gis with them if they go to Brazil. Monetary donations are always helpful ($10 will buy three books for kids!) and if anyone has a connection to shipping to Brazil, please let me know. I have been trying to solve this problem for years.
Check out JamminBJJ on Facebook. There are lots of pics there as well.
Foundation address: Carly Stowell Foundation 16915 SE 272nd St Box 100-101 Covington, WA 98042
I also have an author website- www.elenastowell.com.
*Her book can be found on Amazon or bqbpublishing.com
About the author: Mindi is a purple belt under Headnod HQ in Granite City, Illinois under Josh and Steve McKinney. She is affiliated with TAC Team BJJ. When Mindi isn’t on the mats, she is writing, working in women’s ministry, or across seas as a volunteer missionary. Instagram: @fomindi82