In this interview we learn more about twenty-year-old, world champion, female black belt Dominyka Oblenyte and her fight for equal pay for women in Jiu-Jitsu competitions.
“We are sorry for the inconvenience, but this is a revolution.” ―Subcomandante Marcos
What do you stand for? What cause is worth fighting for? A 20 year old Lithuanian took her place at the top of the podium at Worlds as a Champion this year. Now she is challenging the BJJ community as a whole to take a stand with her on the issue of Equal Pay. That podium she stood on represented much more than the culmination of all the years of her hard work, she is using it as a stepping stone to promote worthwhile change.
Sometimes what you don't say on the isssue of equal pay is just as POWERFUL as what you do say. Not taking a stand speaks volumes however, it is clear EXACTLY where Black Belt Domynika Obelentye stands. At such a young age (20) she is already making her presence known in the BJJ community both on and off the mat using her position to push for progressive changes. It's inspiring. It doesn't matter which side of the Mason Dixon you stand on in this particular issue. Everyone has an opinion and is entitled to it but this young lady has started a movement. This is about much more than how she feels, it is about what she believes is right. Much like a Civil War, her Equal Pay Movement is something that many agree is the right thing, but they don't want to rock the boat over it, and they CERTAINLY are not going to put their two cents in on the issue. Regardless of what others don't say, Domynika has plenty to say.
BJJL: You are from Lithuania, is BJJ popular there?
DO: No. I definitely don’t think it makes it into the top three categories haha. Even though it is a small country, BJJ is surprisingly gaining traction over there. I know that there are at least three gyms currently operating there and I went to visit one of them run by my friend, Donatas Uktveris, when I went abroad this summer. There were almost thirty students present and all were super enthusiastic to train and learn. I think the one thing that makes me really proud of the small but determined Lithuanian BJJ scene is that the people involved have an unconditional love for the sport and a real thirst to learn more about it. Although these men and women don’t have a surplus of legendary coaches like Marcelo Garcia and world champion training partners their enthusiasm for the sport surpasses that of many BJJ die-hards I’ve gotten a chance to meet over my lifetime.
BJJL: Why did you began training?
DO: I first began training Japanese style Jiu-Jitsu, because the first elementary school I went to had a bit of a bullying problem and my parents wanted me to learn how to defend and stand up for myself. Then, when my family and I moved to New Jersey, my dad went on a hunt for gyms that were similar to the one I trained in prior to the move. He found an ad for a BJJ gym about twenty minutes from our house and after my first lesson there I was hooked.
BJJL: What’s your Lineage?
DO: So it’s a little complicated. The first gym I started out at was Performance BJJ, which at the time was a Gracie Humaita affiliate. I got my white, yellow, and orange belts there. I first met JT Torres and Jay Hayes at that school and I consistently took privates from both. They were almost like my main instructors. When they decided to leave and join Team Lloyd Irvin I followed suit. Unfortunately, while they had the freedom to make it down to Maryland I was still in school so I could only get down to train there a few weekends. Because of this, I trained in other schools around New Jersey and took privates with JT whenever he was home. It was JT that promoted me to green belt. I made my final transition to Marcelo Garcia’s Academy thanks to my friend Emily Kwok. Because I wasn’t able to go train at TLI very often and because JT was preoccupied with his own training I sought out other highly skilled BJJ practitioners in the area, and stumbled upon Emily Kwok. I took privates with her for a while and she facilitated my ultimate transition to Marcelo’s. Marcelo has promoted me to blue, purple, brown, and black belt.
BJJL: What is your first memory of BJJ?
DO: My first memory of BJJ is probably my first ever class at my first ever BJJ gym. I had no idea what I was doing, and I remember wearing sweatpants and a track jacket when everyone around me was wearing gis. I felt out of place and awkward, especially during the warm ups! The roll outs were tough, but the shrimping was even harder!
BJJL: What was your first competition like?
DO: I’m not going to sugarcoat it, my first competition was awful. I was a nervous wreck, and I sought out comfort from my teammates at the time. One of the guys was pretty confident in himself and he told me he won his first competition, the other told me he lost, and the third told me he threw up. Needless to say my nerves remained. I believe my first competition was a NAGA and I had two fights total. I lost both of them and was pretty upset with myself as I basically did no Jiu Jitsu when I was actually on the mat. I wanted to get out of the venue so bad that I didn’t even pick up the third place medal I had won for participating haha.
BJJL: You are a VERY tall young lady, as you ascended the ranks was it difficult for you to find comparable training partners that were your gender (skill wise)?
DO: I don’t know if I ever sought out specific training partners throughout my BJJ career. I never really had that luxury. Since I started so young, most of my training partners were boys who were my age or older. When I started progressing, I joined in with the adult classes. Those were rough. I was a really young kid, maybe ten years old, and there were adult male blue belts that tried to kill me with no remorse haha. I think my main training partners for a long time were the people I was taking privates from, namely JT, Jay Hayes, and then Emily Kwok. Although they were adults, they didn’t have a whole lot of ego, and knew how to really train with me without crushing me or my spirit. When I joined Marcelo’s there was a plethora of training partners of all shapes and sizes available, but not a whole lot of women. I was around twelve when I joined so I mostly trained with blue belt men, and with Emily, and Marcelo’s wife, Tatiana, who was training at the time. Nowadays, I really train with everyone. I don’t try to train with only people I can beat, and I don’t exclusively train with black belts or anything. I have a few female training partners that I roll with, the majority remain to be guys.
BJJL: You are a young and gifted black belt, you are also very sharp. You attend Columbia University. KUDOS!!! Ivy League is not easy to get into. Now I will say that your peers probably can’t say that they were able to train, obtain their black belt at 20, and attend an Ivy League University. How in the world do you keep up with your studies and your training?
DO: It’s really difficult to do well in one thing without sacrificing the other. I am managing now, but this coming semester I will cut down on my training a little since I am taking a pretty full course load. It’s a hard balance to maintain, but what motivates me is my fellow female competitors that also hold careers, are mothers, and still manage to fit in time for training. They should be receiving medals for their efforts haha.
BJJL: The men and women of BJJ are not offered equal prize money and this irks you, when did it really begin to be something that you could no longer stand by and be silent about?
DO: I guess I really decided to break the silence after I won double gold at worlds. Without sounding arrogant, the spotlight was on me for a bit, since a lot of people didn’t know who I was/didn’t understand how someone that’s not necessarily a brand name could win, and I thought this was the right time to speak out. I also thought that the IBJJF would have improved the Pro prizes this year, since last year was the introductory year for those competitions. When I noticed that nothing had changed, I decided that somebody had to stir things up about the lack of fairness in the BJJ community regarding women.
BJJL: You are using your voice and position as a black belt in a proactive manner. You are a professor, and you are speaking out on something you are very passionate about. Are you hoping that you will be heard?
DO: Haha well of course I am hoping to be heard. I have gotten a lot of support as well as a lot of criticism from the BJJ community. I take it as a sign that I am still making people aware of the issues at hand and if the movement gains enough speed maybe we can facilitate the change that so many want but are afraid to fight for.
BJJL: I read an article where you mentioned some of your colleagues agree yet not many (if any) female black belts have been so vocal on the issue of equal prize money. Do you hope that if you keep speaking about this more of them will begin to do the same?
DO: I actually think many black belt females have been vocal, such as Gabi Garcia, Angelica Galvao, and Mackenzie Dern. I do believe that many more could be. I think at this point, there may be some people unwilling to get involved, not necessarily because they don’t agree with the cause, but because they may be afraid of the consequences attached to being so vocal against the IBJJF and other organizations. I do hope that more women and men get involved in vocally supporting the cause, though.
BJJL: Why do you think the prize money after all this time still isn’t equal?
DO: Well right now, I believe it has something to do with the concept of “waiting things out.” It seems like the IBJJF may just be waiting until things settle down so they can continue running tournaments as they please. At this point I am unwilling to settle down and I don’t think I’ll stop fighting for this even if I am alone in doing so haha. I do have to commend the IBJJF on introducing the equal rewards for top ranking male and female black belts. I think that was a move on their part to appease our cause, but the Pro prizes remain the same. I don’t want to stop until they have been changed as well.
BJJL: In BJJ, for the most part, those that hold the tournaments have the final say on how much they pay to who. Do you think it comes down to what they believe the athlete is or isn’t worth?
DO: I don’t know if the organizers are that devious haha. I think most tournament organizers are really self-interested, and they care a lot about the money their tournaments earn, so maybe they want to cut down on cash prizes so that it doesn’t hurt them as much. However, the IBJJF is an organization that has been around a long time, and the money they make from their tournaments is more than enough to finance equal prizes for men and women in their BJJ Pros. I don’t know if they conscientiously made the decision that women are inferior fighters and deserve less prize money, but I do think they maybe tried to cut costs by doing this, assuming that no one would make a big stink about it. I am in big support of the tournament organization Five Grappling, though. They are in support of the movement and offer equal prizes for both male and female competitors. In fact, they just had their Super League competition, with plenty of talented men and women, and it’s been commended by many of my friends and training partners. If you haven’t gotten the chance to check it out, you can order a 50% discounted replay here: fivegrappling.com/superleague.
BJJL: In the vast majority of professional sports the pay between men and women is not close. Why do you think BJJ should be different?
DO: Haha I don’t think BJJ is the only sport that should be different. Professional tennis commendably offers athletes equal prize money, and I don’t see why other sports should be different. Equal pay for equal work.
BJJL: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. In some of the competitions women have no one in their division or only one fight whereas the men’s divisions have the decks stacked. Don’t you think that makes it more of a draw for the event organizers to pay the men more money? Don’t you think it is a bit unfair to pay someone who didn’t even have a fight a substantial amount of prize money or maybe one fight? To some degree it is about putting on a show.
DO: This is true in some respects but not all tournaments are like that. In fact, this year at worlds I had more fights to win absolute than the men’s black belt absolute winner. Last year, one of the Pro divisions had only two male black belts sign up and they ended up getting $5000 combined. It works both ways. I really believe though that by offering the opportunity for only one woman to win some prize money at the Pro the IBJJF is devaluing their female athletes, and is giving them no reason to book a plane ticket and a hotel, and exert time and energy into competing at these events. The prizes for the men are lucrative. Men from around the world may be interested in getting a shot at the money which will of course boost the amount of competitors willing to sign up. If you give women no reason to compete and spend money then why would they even sign up?
BJJL: In what way do you think change should be facilitated?
DO: I have talked about this before, but I think the best way the IBJJF can institute change is by putting a minimum requirement for competitors signed up to do a division before offering them prize money. The current minimum for men is four competitors. They should offer women competitors the exact same deal.
BJJL: It would probably help if someone that commands a great deal of respect in the BJJ World would come out and back the equal pay movement. Any thoughts on that?
DO: I wholeheartedly agree, but again, I think a lot of people are afraid to voice their opinions or show their support for the cause and somehow end up on the bad side of one of Jiu Jitsu’s largest tournament organizations. For example, if the entire Gracie family teamed up to support the movement, of course changes would occur. Unfortunately, that is not the case today, but I hope that it can be in the future.
BJJL: Someone told you to stop complaining, do something about it (regarding how you feel about the gap in pay). What all have you done so far since that moment?
DO: Haha absolutely everything I can to bring about awareness of the issue, and work for some sort of negotiation to give female athletes the equal prize money they rightfully deserve.
BJJL: Who in the BJJ World have been your major supporters of the movement?
DO: Definitely my female training partners, big names like Gabi Garcia, Angelica Galvao and Andre Galvao, my own instructor Marcelo Garcia and his wife Tatiana, my good friend Jay Hayes, a lot of the European black belts like Shanti Abelha and Ida Hansson, and even more women and men that aren’t huge standouts in the BJJ scene.
BJJL: Is there anyone that is fighting you every step of the way and thinks that equal pay is crazy?
DO: There are certain people and some of them are even people I am close to so it was even more heartbreaking when I found out they didn’t support the cause. I just try to tell myself that it is not a personal attack on me our ideologies just differ. I hope I can get these people to see the same way that I do in the future, though.
BJJL: If you could make an appeal regarding the equal pay movement to the BJJ Community, what would you say?
DO: I would say what I have always been saying. Women put in the same amount of blood, sweat and tears into training as men do. We pay the same fees for tournaments, plane tickets, hotels and gear. We work just as hard but we get rewarded less for it. It is time for change. Please sign the petition at: https://www.change.org/p/ibjjf-give-woman-athletes-equal-prize-money-2
Again, whatever your thoughts are on this issue or any issue you have to commend such a bright young burgeoning black belt just for taking a stand. She has stepped out and stepped up and that in itself takes just as much if not more courage than to set foot on that mat. When you decide to be a voice and a loud one on an issue that can be devisive, you can set yourself up for undue criticism and an overwhelming amount of grief. Your supporters will give you strength but those that are against you can make things unbelievably difficult. The August 18th, 1920 the 19th Amendment won women the right. On June 10th, 1963 the first Equal Pay Act was signed. Perhaps Obelente will receive her very own equal pay act for women's rights in BJJ and sooner rather than later.
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief.” ―Frantz Fanon