February 14, 2014- The BJJ journey is different for everyone but the Helmy sisters understand each other’s struggles more than most. They hold strong to their Muslim religious traditions while achieving their BJJ dreams. Their support of one another has been critical in their continued journey on a “path less traveled”.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Yara and Nancy Helmy and their family moved to the United States in 2000. They settled in Sickerville, N.J. where the girls attended high school and college. In many ways, Nancy and Yara are typical American twenty year olds who enjoy to hanging out with friends, going to the beach and studying. You wouldn’t guess that they have a secret weapon.
In October 2012, Nancy stumbled upon a gym that had a BJJ class. Although apprehensive at first, once she tried it and was instantly hooked. Two weeks later, Yara joined her. Yara attends school and works as a pharmacy technician and Nancy works as an orthopedics physician assistant. When they are not working, you will find them training at South Jersey Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu in Berlin, New Jersey under the instruction of Professor Steven Bongiorno. Jiu-Jitsu classes aren’t just an opportunity for Yara and Nancy to train and learn the Brazilian art, but a chance to spend quality time with each other. The obstacles these sisters face can be challenging, but what makes them strong is that they have each other. This is about how they plan to make their mark in the competition scene.
An interview with Nancy and Yara Helmy:
How did you both first find BJJ and what qualities were you drawn to?
Nancy: I joined a gym when I was in college and they had BJJ classes. I knew nothing about Jiu-Jitsu at that point. I was just there for a good boxing and kickboxing workout. Then I saw two guys rolling on the mats. My first impulse was to break them up. I stayed and watched then they explained to me it was no gi. There was one other girl taking the class. They convinced me to give it a try and I was hooked. From the self-defense perspective, it made more sense for me to learn how to defend against a larger opponent who most likely will take me to the ground. I love that I can use my attacker or opponent’s body against them. I don’t have to carry a weapon with me to protect myself.
Yara: It all started when my sister came home with this cool looking uniform, it was just the school gi. (she laughs) I thought it looked legit! Nancy was always the one dragging me into things. I was never into sports or going to a gym. I was the typical person that would get a gym membership and go for the first 2 weeks then never go again. I get bored doing the same thing over and over again, if it wasn’t a challenge. I figured, sure let’s give this one a try. I went and tried a couple classes and I LOVED it because it was a different challenge every day. You have different partners that are different sizes with different strength levels. Not every technique works with everyone. You have to know who you’re going against. Like Professor Bongiorno always says, you should always feel your partner out first to see how they react and how you should train with them. It’s funny because I didn’t think I would stick with Jiu-Jitsu but here we are today training multiple classes a day, 7 days a week and if I’m not training I’m daydreaming about Jiu-Jitsu.
What do your friends and family think about you training BJJ?
Nancy: (she laughs) They think we’re nuts! My friends think it’s cool and say I’m in “ninja” training. My parents worry that we will get hurt and get very anxious when we compete but they’re supportive.
Yara: No one believes me when I tell them I train Jiu-Jitsu, they think I’m this quiet little girl that reads books and studies for fun. I enjoy none of that! After my first tournament there were videos of me on YouTube and one of my coworkers friend came one day to pick her up and was like “Whoa, is that the girl we saw on YouTube! She’s like the next Rhonda Rousey!”
Being sisters that train together do you find this has strengthened your relationship?
Nancy: I think so. When I started BJJ I was on my clinical year of my graduate program. My schedule and Yara’s schedule didn’t really allow us to spend any time together. Since we only train with girls, we had to coordinate our schedules so we can go to BJJ together. We now spend more time together because of Jiu- Jitsu which brought us closer and we now share the same interests. For example, fight nights have become sacred times in our lives.
Yara: We were close but didn’t spend much time together because of our schedules. Now that we make sure to go to Jiu- Jitsu every day, we are always guaranteed to spend almost 4 hours every day at the academy together. There’s no running away for each other. Then at home all we talk about is Jiu- Jitsu and MMA while our parents just look at us like, huh? Since we both have the same goals and interests, we basically go everywhere together and work with each other to get better.
Has wearing head covers, ever conflicted with your training or BJJ rules at tournaments? If so, how have you overcome them?
Nancy & Yara: We experimented with a few types of head covers before coming across the one we use now. Our current head cover stays on pretty well and doesn’t limit our training. Our teammates and opponents in competitions never complained about our head cover getting the way of their grips. We still get choked and we’re not suffocating wearing the head cover. The IBJJF rules do not allow any head gear. We sat down with our professor and wrote an email explaining that our head cover is not “head gear” and that is does not hinder our opponent’s game and is not a choking hazard to us. They still refused to allow it. So we are unable to participate in any IBJJF competitions. We talked to Abu Dhabi Pro Trials and they said we can compete. We want to prove a point to the IBJJF competitions and believe we can do this by making a statement at the Pro Trials.
What Tournaments have you competed in and what do you have in store for 2014?
Nancy: I have done AGL (amateur grappling league) and placed 2nd. The Good Fight and placed 3rd. I’m now training for a Grappler’s Quest tournament and plan on registering for the Abu Dhabi Pro Trials taking place in NY this October.
Yara: As a white belt I placed 3Rd in both AGL and Good Fight. Now as blue belts we are looking for bigger competitions. The last tournament we did there was only me, Nancy, and our teammate in one division. We are planning to compete in as many tournaments from now until October to be ready for the Pro Trials.
Why do you think it’s important for females to train BJJ?
Nancy: I think BJJ is very empowering to women, which increases their confidence. From self-defense standpoint, I think every girl should know Jiu- Jitsu. Just the fact that you know you can move someone bigger and heavier off you is assuring and empowering. As sisters, we became each other’s biggest critics. Yara will not hold back on telling me I suck when I don’t roll well! Being sisters, we can go super hard on each other in training without any concerns. We had an intense roll the other day. We were going everywhere on the mats. Before running into the wall Professor Bongiorno said “You look like you’re in a hockey fight!”
Yara: Women are always looked at as “the weak ones,” those people are the ones that don’t train BJJ or even watched a thing about Jiu-Jitsu. Recently a teammate for Ocean County Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, made a YouTube video called “Why should women train Jiu-Jitsu?” it went viral in days. The video shows a female sitting at a bar by herself and then a bigger man comes over and starts getting too close. The female who was portrayed as a small weak woman, then does a cross collar chokes the bigger man and he passes out. This shows that you don’t have to be strong or carry a weapon to protect yourself; you just need your confidence which is exactly what women need. Jiu- Jitsu builds confidence.
Another huge benefit we gained is our BJJ family. Our SJBJJ ladies are like sisters to us. The guys will go to war for us without questions. Our affiliates, Ricardo Almeida BJJ, Ocean County BJJ, Brunswick BJJ, and Dante Rivera BJJ, are willing to help no matter what. We are one big family and watch out for each other.
By Girls in Gis staff writer Shama Ko