“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” -Stephen King
Professor Emily Kwok has a career in BJJ that is beyond enviable for multiple reasons. What sets her apart are the goals she set in the beginning because she didn't set any. She came to class simply to be better than she was the day before. So many want to be number one, so many expect to be nothing but the best, so many strive to always win nothing less than gold., And while Professor Kwok honed her technique, it is her attitude that garnered her win after win, gold medal after gold medal, title after title. This is why Professor Emily Kwok is a not just a hero but a legend. Heroes do get remembered but legends never die. BJJLegends talks with Professor Kwok about her very prestigious background, her take on proper technique, and maintaining a healthy balance in the BJJ world.
BJJL: Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like?
EK: I was born in Japan, but immigrated to Canada when I was a baby. I spent my formative years growing up in Vancouver, BC. I suppose I had a pretty pleasant and quiet childhood. My parents were immigrants so I was raised speaking Japanese, and had to learn English as I assimilated into Canadian culture. I made friends pretty easily, we moved around a lot but I learned how to adapt to my environment very quickly.
My teenage years were pretty wonderful and terrible at the same time. I had an idyllic high school experience, great friends, lots of sports, extracurricular activities, good grades etc. but a difficult time at home. My father and I butted heads a lot, I think, around my westernized sense of independence and his old school Asian ways.
BJJL: Why BJJ?
EK: Why not? Lol. Well, actually, it was supposed to be boxing but I sucked at it. Then it was sambo, but the instructor wasn’t into teaching chicks…so, BJJ was there for me.
BJJL: When you began, did you have any idea what impact you would have by becoming the First Female Black Belt in Canada?
EK: I had no idea what I was doing. Haha. Like, no expectations, no dreams, no visions, no nothing. It was after my first competition as a white belt (6 months in) that my best friend Roy Duquette (who introduced me to BJJ and helped coach me) told me, ‘You’re going to be a World Champion one day!’ and I think I told him something along the lines of ‘Yeah right, whatever.’
I honestly just always loved training, I loved the challenge and went along for the ride. Any medals or accomplishments were gravy.
BJJL: Pet peeve as an instructor?
EK: You mean something that bothers me when I instruct?
1. - Know-it-alls, arrogant beginner students who just think they know better because they have a blown up ego and don’t know how to humble themselves, or occasionally a douchebag male student that doesn’t respect what I’m saying because I’m a woman.
2. - I don’t enjoy watching or training with people who don’t want to tap when they should because they refuse to believe you caught them.
3. - Students who go really hard with you after they’ve just gone on for 5 min about this injury and that injury and wanting to roll light.
4. - Stinky students, students with bad hygiene. Wash your damn clothes! Cut your toe nails!!
BJJL: You are excellent at teaching proper technique. You emphasize the importance of skill over brute force. What event ultimately led you to fine tune your own skills against extremely large opponents?
EK: Getting my ass beat! Lol. Having access to great instructors! I didn’t train smart when I was coming up in BJJ. At the time I think it was also just a little more barbaric and people didn’t know how bad it was for your body to just let big people beat the crap out of you. The way I used to subject myself to horrible training conditions – I did it because if I didn’t I had no one to train with…you simply just didn’t have enough bodies in the room to train with people closer to your size. My training partners were all nice guys, but that’s just it, they were nice 185-250lb guys.
Since pulling back on the competition, I’ve been really feeling the abuse I put my body through all those years. I don’t want my students or future practitioners to feel the same way. Training BJJ your whole life is just not a possibility if we abuse our bodies senselessly – so I started thinking there has to be a better way.
BJJL: Smackgirl, how did you get involved with MMA and will you go back to it?
EK: I still giggle every time I hear SMACKGIRL! I always say I’ll try almost anything once. I was living for a year in Tokyo, and after winning a lot of BJJ competitions there, I was offered the opportunity to do an amateur women’s MMA fight. I was always curious to see what it would be like, so I did it. I won my first amateur fight, then they turned me pro and sent me to Korea for my first pro fight. It was an intense experience!
I don’t think I’d go back to MMA at this point. Actually I didn’t continue on with it because when I moved to the Northeast in 2006, I had started training MMA again to see if I could pick it up in the states. This was pre Gina Carano days and man, the ladies fighting out here were super tough!! I had been lined up a few times for fights, but a lot of the women who initially agreed to fight me were 1-2 years in training MMA, then they would find out I had been training BJJ 7 years and won the world championships, and back out. Even if our MMA records were similar, they didn’t want to take a fight against an experienced grappler. It was very difficult to find a fair fight. By the time they gave me an opponent that wouldn’t back out, it was Michele Tavares, who is a BJJ black belt champion in her own right with a 10-1 record at the time…so that wasn’t a good fight for me – hence – I said goodbye to MMA.
Now I’m about to turn 35 with a little one to look after and another on the way. I co-own a school, travel for seminars and camps, and work full time in consulting…I don’t have time to get punched in the face like that! Also, I have to give it to MMA fighters. MMA training sucks. It’s not fun. lol
BJJL: You are a BJJ Legend. A first. Sexual Harassment is something women have dealt with since the dawn of time and as a first you have fought on vastly different playing fields. Do you have any advice you can offer on dealing with such a sensitive issue in these not so sensitive sports?
EK: I’ve had some female students tell me that they want to learn BJJ as a form of self-defense because they’ve either been assaulted or want to know how to protect themselves against it. One thing that I impart to them is that a single session/a seminar/learning without really doing…isn’t going to save you from anything. Even if you train for a long time – really hard – you may still find yourself in a terrible position. But, I believe strongly in empowering women to assert themselves, to teach them to exude the type of confidence from within that wards off predators. I also warn them that you can’t learn to defend yourself from an attack if you aren’t willing to be attacked – in class…so though we may ease into the process of sparring/rolling, I try to make them understand that they have to be willing to confront and handle their fears of being attacked if you ever expect to be able to do something about it if it ever happens. I guess it’s really about teaching women/people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable…to reach the other side, where you may feel in control of a bad situation.
BJJL: You are a pioneer. You did MMA and BJJ when no one else was really giving women the credit they deserved for either sport. You truly have paved the way, what was going through your mind when you started each of your unique journeys?
EK: I was just a stubborn chick who loved to challenge myself in different ways. It was thrilling, alive, present. I never competed or did anything for recognition, and in many ways, had no idea that it was a big deal that not a lot of women were doing these sorts of sports. Maybe it was all for the best – there was no pressure, no precedent, no history for me to look up. I just did it. Those were some of the most liberating years of my life, formative too…in my early-mid-twenties. The scene is really different now!!
BJJL: The idiot sweep, I absolutely love it, where does it come from and that name, who coined it?
EK: Marcelo had taught it to me early on. I think one of the most brilliant things I’ve learned from him is simplicity and efficiency. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been taught or witness techniques where me and my peers would giggle and say, ‘what? That’s it? That’s actually a technique?’
One of the benefits of being able to have trained with him and just witness his movement is that he’s trimmed the fat off the game…he’s practiced and embodied effective movement that isn’t complicated or overly flowery…it just works. And at the end of the day that’s what we all want right? BJJ that works.
BJJL: You have made what appears to be a seamless transition from constant competitor to business owner, wife, mother, and mentor of up and coming talent. How do you maintain a healthy balance?
EK: I just do as I do. I don’t act based on what I think I should be doing or what people expect of me. This is pretty much how I’ve been since I was a teenager. I know life will hand you bumps from time to time, but those bumps and flaws are what makes life beautiful and worth living. So I don’t worry about how to handle any potential problems, and I just live through them. I try to be transparent and honest with myself. I’ve always tried my best to trust my gut, trust my life…and it’s never steered me wrong. Ugly or pretty as it may be, I just let it all hang. Lol. It’s the only way I know how to be, and to be frank, a lot of people around me don’t know how to handle my honesty. But I don’t want a brain or a life full of baggage and weird shit, so I roll with the punches every day, and hope that I come out the other side ok.
BJJL: Would you like to see BJJ return to submission only?
EK: I think I’d like to see BJJ be a sport where athletes fight to win, not fight to not lose…not sure what that entails for rules, but I think the best matches are the ones where the athletes leave all their hard work and artistry on the mat.
BJJL: If you could change anything the IBJJF mandates (including the fees) what would it be?
EK: I think there should be more cash prizes awarded to the competitors, and I’d like to see something like, black belt champions receiving free entry into competition and perhaps round trip airfare for the following year – to defend their title. They’ve given up their lives to showcase the sport, if they achieve a gold medal at the highest level, I believe they deserve to be recognized for that. How many professional sports exist where the best athletes have to pay to compete in?
BJJL: I’ve seen a few unofficial polls around asking if integrated (male/female) categories should be allowed in tournaments. I can’t think of a better individual to ask for thoughts on the subject.
EK: NO. Lol. Men and women are different species, size and strength do matter, and we are NOT physically equal. I’ve fought men in tournaments before, I know a few other women have, but I don’t think it’s progressive for the sport.
BJJL: Any Non-profits that you support?
EK: Not specifically in BJJ. I get asked to do benefit seminars etc. from time to time, or to donate something else to their cause, and I always try to help out – but nothing with a long standing relationship.
BJJL: Do you have any camps in 2016 we should be on the lookout for?
EK: We will undoubtedly have women’s only and co-ed GGC events in 2016, so stay tuned!!
BJJL: Women’s Equality Day was 26 August, what are your thoughts on the Equal Pay issue in BJJ?
EK: Needs to happen…like, yesterday! Women’s BJJ has grown a lot, and women’s competitive fights are as exciting and dynamic as they’ve ever been. These elite ladies deserve to earn as much as their male counterparts. They’ve put just as much work in, and defied the odds of surviving in a pretty hostile, male dominated sport.
BJJL: Proudest Moment?
EK: Each moment is pretty great. Some life highlights…Losing my first match at ADCC 2007 in overtime. I had not been able to train well for the event with a compound fracture on my middle finger, took the cast off 2 weeks before the tournament…over trained in my first week and gave myself a 102 degree fever for 3 days the week I was supposed to fight. I fought the 2005 runner up in my first round on sheer will and determination. I was incredibly proud of that fight even though I lost. I don’t know that I’ve ever believed in myself more than I had to in those 15 min.
Getting married and the birth of my daughter – signified a new chapter in my life. I always wanted a family and wanted to settle down but I always put myself first. I was very happy to settle down.
Opening Princeton BJJ and promoting our first black belts. We have a really wonderful culture in our school, I’m incredibly proud of our students and the community we’ve created.
BJJL: Long term goals?
EK: Stay healthy and continue to follow my heart. It’s never been wrong yet! I’d like to eventually get back to painting, I'm educated in the arts and originally came to the east coast to become an ‘artist’.
Travel the world, grow old with my husband, teach my children about the world and watch them grow and thrive. I’d love to see them follow their dreams and stay true to themselves – I think that’s incredibly hard to do these days.
BJJL: Any regrets?
EK: No. Every positive and negative experience has led me to where I am today and I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.
BJJL: Is there anyone you would like to thank that you never had the opportunity to who helped you during your journey?
EK: My husband – Gerry Hurtado, My best friend – Roy Duquette, My business partners – Art Keintz, Val Worthington, Hannette Staack, My coaches/teachers – Marcelo Garcia, Tatiana Garcia, Josh Waitzkin, My students and fans!! – I would not have a career without their support.
She came, she saw, and she continues to do everything exactly on her own terms. Professor Emily Kwok began her BJJ journey never considering what impact she would have on the entire community. She came to class one day and hasn't looked back. She is a woman that is willing to put it all on the line for the sport she loves, it makes her so much more than a legend. She trained BJJ before it was mainstream for women and became the first female black belt in Canada. She was a success in MMA before it was mainstream for women and was a success internationally. Professor Kwok is a pioneer, a go-getter. What she has done since she began her journey has been PURELY for her love of BJJ. She put her heart and soul into what she loved and because of that she has been unstoppable.
"Just seize every opportunity you have, embrace every experience. Make a mark for all the right reasons."-Chrissie Wellington