Strength, Dignity, & Perseverance: Sophia McDermott Drysdale an Empowering Female Voice in the BJJ Community
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anais Nin
We grow and we change, and hopefully for the better. The game of BJJ is constantly evolving and the first female Austrailian Black Belt, Sophia McDermott Drysdale shares her thoughts on how she has grown and evolved. Multiple injuries plagued her throuhout her career however, it did not hinder her success. We hear her thoughts on everything from BJJ and the olympics, rule changes, branching out into fitness competitions, to her charity work. If you haven't had the opportunity to shadow Sophia's career, there is no time like the present, she has grown up in more ways than one in this game and her growth is evident when she she competes.
BJJL: Why BJJ?
SMD: I started my training as a gymnast. I trained with my identical twin sister for about 10 years in the elite squad at my gym. I was searching for something that was as mentally and physically challenging as gymnastics and with my very first BJJ training session, I knew that it is what I had been looking for.
BJJL: What were your hobbies growing up?
SMD: I was very artistic and musical. I originally studied fashion design at the Melbourne Institute of Fashion. I loved to draw and paint and sculpt and play the drums. I was in a band that focused on blues and jazz for about 10 years. I grew up doing all this in addition to gymnastics which I also practiced for about 10 years.
As time went on I specialized more and more in BJJ and building a career as a personal trainer focusing on functional strength training and nutrition. I qualified for my Cert 4 in personal training and nutrition back in 2002.
BJJL: Who were your influences as an up and coming practitioner?
SMD: I never really idolized anyone moving up the ranks during my journey. However, I remember watching Hannette Staack and Kyra Gracie during their black belt final match at the World Championships in Brazil while I was still a purple belt, which was very inspiring. That year unfortunately I took home a silver medal and not the gold. :(
BJJL: Why did you decide to leave Australia and settle in the U.S.?
SMD: I really wanted to pursue my dreams in BJJ. I was a big fish in a small pond back in Australia and the only real way to challenge myself was to compete overseas. I was traveling so much for competition and it was getting very expensive for me. By the time I had moved to the USA I had already won 3 Pan Am Championships and placed 2nd at the World Championships in Brazil.
BJJL: Are you linked to any charities?
SMD: My website (that I am rebuilding) is linked to FINCA (Fighting Poverty with Finacial Inclusion http://www.finca.org/) which is an organization that provides loans to help single mothers and widows with children etc in 3rd world countries to start their own businesses and become financially self-sufficient. This organization’s goal is to give back the pride and dignity of these hard working women and enable them to be able to pay for an education for their children.
BJJL: What is your biggest pet peeve as an instructor (students late for class, belt not tied properly….)?
SMD: My pet peeve are instructors who have a sense of entitlement. An instructor is a role model, someone that people look up to. It is essential that the instructor gives the students 100% of their time and energy. Instructors who don’t pay attention to the students or they spend time on their phone or chatting to friends don’t gel with me too well.
BJJL: What do you consider a well-rounded practitioner to be?
SMD: A well rounded practitioner is someone who has a good understanding of both the guard position and top/passing position. Also they have experience as a competitor and as a teacher. Competitors have a great game, focused minds, and knowledge about all the preparation for tournaments but those who teach have a better overall understanding of a lot of the positions in BJJ. I think both aspects are necessary.
BJJL: When you see a student struggling, that is ready to quit, how do you help them adapt and overcome?
SMD: If a student is struggling I find out why they want to quit and usually it is because they aren’t getting the results they want, i.e., they are getting beaten up all the time. For the more petite women especially who spend the most time on the bottom getting squashed, I encourage them to shift their perspective and look at all the other bonuses of training such as having a good work out, building strength and stamina, and making new friends etc. I also make sure that that these student have supportive training partners around them so that they are not paired up with the big dudes who make them feel like they aren't achieving anything.
BJJL: What rank was the most challenging for you?
SMD: Brown belt was my most challenging belt. I had a series of very severe injuries including, torn costal cartilage in my rib, a complete shoulder separation (competing with Hannette Staack at the semifinals of the World Championships, and herniated neck which paralyzed my left arm. All these injuries lead me to the hospital. It was a difficult and lonely time especially with my family over in Australia.
BJJL: How do you think BJJ has evolved since you received your black belt?
SMD: I received my black belt in 2010. Since then I think the sport has grown so much. Both the women and the men are earning their belts at a younger age and winning world Championship much earlier. The pace of learning just like any sport is becoming much faster. There is definitely many more women training and competing and I think this is due to all the women's groups and the leading ladies of the sport teaching seminars who help motivate, support and inspire other women to keep training and to achieve their own dreams.
BJJL: What goals were you working towards in 2014, and did you accomplish them?
SMD: My goals in 2014 were to put myself back on the BJJ map after taking time off to have 2 babies. I felt like I disappeared. I competed in all the major tournaments and took Gold at the Pan Ams, Bronze and the Worlds, Gold at the No Gi Worlds and Gold at the Masters World Championships. I also focused on teaching seminars and building up my women's class at Drysdale JJ where I train.
BJJL: What are your thoughts about BJJ being a part of the Olympics?
SMD: I would love for BJJ to be part of the Olympics!!!! But I do not believe it will be. The sport is not really a spectator sport. Even for those who practice it and love it, there is a lot that goes on that you can’t really see, unlike Judo for e.g. where the big throws are obvious wins and big crowd pleasers.
BJJL: As of now, each Federation or independently run BJJ organization has its own set of rules; would a more unified approach from all organizations help with the integrity of the sport?
SMD: Yes definitely. I think that by having the same rules across the board would make things more cohesive and easier for the judges and the competitors alike. Some of the rules need to be revised, however. There are too many positions that are open to the referee's interpretation.
BJJL: You have won multiple World Titles in BJJ, do you see yourself venturing into MMA?
SMD: No!!!!! I hate competing. If I had to deal with being punched in the face I would probably freeze like a deer in headlights!
BJJL: Gi or No Gi do you have a preference, if so why?
SMD: Gi definitely. It is more technical. But I do appreciate the athleticism of no gi. The ex-gymnast in me comes out when I train no gi.
BJJL: Over the last year you began body-building and competed in your first competition, what led you to that decision?
SMD: I started competing in Ms. Figure shows. I have always been curious and I always knew that one day I would get up on that stage. I was ready to try something different and challenging. This requires so much discipline. I am preparing right now for my second show. I want to make my mark on the stage to reach out to the general fitness industry to promote my new business dedicated towards training women who are pregnant or who have just had a baby.
BJJL: I see you as an empowering individual, what empowers you?
SMD: Over the years I have done a lot of soul searching and self-reflection. I have figured out who I am and what drives me and I try to remain as true to myself as possible. If I am in a situation that doesn't honor me I try to change it. You have to honor yourself first because if you don't honor yourself, then no one else will.
BJJL: Your gym has been consulted by some prestigious MMA fighters (Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey) what role do you play in facilitating their training?
SMD: I personally have not trained with either Ronda or Miesha although Miesha does come to the gym quite often. Our gym has a lot of MMA fighters both men and women. I think the role I play is getting women through the door and helping them stay. Even though I may not train with the MMA girls, the culture that I have built for the females who train is one that is supportive, open and uplifting.
BJJL:http://sophiadrysdale.com/ is an amazing website. There are tips on fitness, nutrition, even pregnancy information listing vitamins and workouts (and blogging about your own pregnancy). You are covering a variety of things that appeal to both women and men, what prompted you to develop the site this way?
SMD: For a long time I have wanted to do a full blown website dedicated to health and fitness and focusing on training during pregnancy and postpartum. I don’t think there is enough out there for women who want to train throughout their pregnancies. The culture is that women should stop what they are doing to have a baby and I strongly disagree with this. Having a baby is a part of being a women. It is not what defines a woman. I have not had the time to dedicate to the website however, I am currently in the process of building a new site that will be launched in a couple of months. I will be dedicating all of my time to this and to teaching BJJ.
BJJL: What are your gym’s policies on sexual harassment?
SMD: The ideals trickle from the top down. Basically if the head instructor allows or encourages this behavior in any way then others are going to do it. Robert Drysdale does not treat any one different on the mat and this is the culture that has been cultivated at our school. There is no difference between the black belt, the white belt, the kid, man or woman. There is no discrimination or different treatment. We are all here to train and to learn and to be a part of something.
BJJL: You hear horror stories here and there about blatant sexual abuse in gyms. Any thoughts on the way that the abuses have been addressed or haven’t been addressed in the BJJ realm?
SMD: I think in a lot of the cases the head instructor turns a blind eye to the situation. Although he may not agree with what has taken place, he is also not proactive about preventing it and changing the culture in the gym. As far as I am concerned turning away from the problem is just as bad.
BJJL: The Better Business Bureau holds businesses accountable for consumer complaints, do you think the same should be done in the BJJ world regarding sexual abuse?
SMD: I think all the pieces of the puzzle create the whole, so it is every academy's obligation to the art of BJJ to create a safe and accepting place for all who want to train.
BJJL: I can see you producing your own fitness videos in the future, would it be too presumptuous of me to say something like that?
SMD: I am in the process of filming these fitness videos as we speak. lol!
BJJL: You have 2 children are they leaning towards BJJ or your former sport of gymnastics?
SMD: Both children are more interested in being fairies and princesses. I do however think that the oldest daughter has all the athletic attributes to be the most outstanding athlete in whatever sports she chooses.
BJJL: What are your plans for the future? What goals do you still have left?
SMD: My goals are to launch my new fitness website business and to continue to travel and teach seminars around the world. I hope to inspire and empower more women though BJJ and fitness. I do plan on competing in more Ms. Figure shows also. I am enjoying this new challenge and this new world.
BJJL: If you could go back and change any moment in your prestigious career, what would it be?
SMD: I have had a lot of bad luck competing actually. Everything from having my opponent's foot caught in my top and having my boobs hanging out and losing the fight because I was speaking to the referee to try to alert him, to completely separating my shoulder, to having the score board changed on me 20 minutes after winning the semifinals of the Pan Ams due to politics.... I would go back and change those very unfortunate moments that cost me additional titles.
BJJL: Is there anyone you would like to thank that you have never had the opportunity to thank for helping you get to where you are today?
SMD: I would like to thank my Mum and my sister. They have always been there for me even though they may not have agreed with some of the decisions I have made. My sister is always on the next plane to the States (she lives in Australia) when I need her the most.
Sophia, the greek translation means wisdom. That wisdom over the years has helped mold her into who she has become today. One could say that from the moment she was born this Aussie had uncanny abilities, unrelenting determination and know-how. All of those qualites in turn she utilizes to empower those around her, to uplift those that seek her advice, and to push those she mentors to the next level. Her talents have served her well in her distinguished career. As McDermott-Drysdale branches out and does more we just hope she sets a pace the rest of us can keep up with.
“The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.” -C. JoyBell C
Recap 2014 Women's BJJ Camp in Mexico City with Sophia McDermott Drysdale and Mackenzie Dern hosted by Itzel Aguilar.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”. T.S. Eliot if a dream is a wish your heart makes, then purple belt Itzel Bazua Aguilar (Instructor/Owner Prohamos BJJ Academy Mexico City, Mexico) has one hell of a heart. This past July Bazua Aguilar’s dream of a lifetime came to fruition when 21 women from six different countries including world renowned black belt champions Sophia McDermott Drysdale and Mackenzie Dern showed up to her home to participate in her international women’s only camp. This was a non-traditional setting. Bazua Aguilar brought a more personalized touch to the table. The camp was held inside her home where the women were also housed. This accounted for an experience that no one, including Bazua Aguilar, could have ever been imagined.
Each day started with breakfast then a two-hour drilling session. A break would occur for a lunch, free time, a snack, followed by another two hour drilling session, dinner, free time, snack and then bed. The schedule was regimented, the training, strenuous, but absolutely worth every minute of it. According to attendee Maytee Rojas Burton, (Xtreme Kombat Academy Tsunamis Team, Mexico City, Mexico)“I started martial arts three years ago, first boxing, then Muay Thai, grappling two years later, then MMA and BJJ one year ago. Before camp I liked BJJ least, I've always been more into Muay Thai. After camp I love BJJ so much more.”
Six different countries brought so many different skill levels and perspectives to the table. Each and every lady on deck had a unique training style that the other ladies admired and were eager to observe. Seeing affiliate teams embrace and discuss how they felt they were lacking made it clear, the participants of Bazua Aguilar’s Dream were part of history in the making. Women in Mexico do not have the same training opportunities across the board in BJJ as women in other countries. BJJ is still in its infancy for women there. Bazua Aguilar’s goal of providing a place for women (specifically women in Mexico) to network and have a “safe place” to train was off to an amazing start from day one. Every single woman stepped into the camp treating the environment as if she were training at her home gym and the house as if it were her home.
A cleaning staff and cook were in place but each person still decided to contribute. The house was harmonious from camp start to finish. Perhaps it was the combination of people, perhaps it was the right circumstances. One thing is absolutely sure, you must acknowledge the three women that made it all possible an Impossible dreamer and two world champs. Estefania (Vicky) Ortiz (Prohamos BJJ Academy Mexico City, Mexico) was quite eager to participate in the camp. Although her time was cut short due to a collarbone injury, her enthusiasm was felt and much appreciated by all those that continued on, “Before the camp I only had been training four months. I really had little time to train. I was intimidated about attending camp, but had a lot of excitement and curiosity to go and meet other girls who love what I love and to learn from them in many ways.”
Many came to train and had the experience of a lifetime. The leader at the helm, Sophia McDurmott Drysdale keenly observed and showed every girl her weakness (and how to improve upon it) her strength (and how to capitalize upon it). The one on one sessions the very first day improved each girl’s technique by the next session. A simple adjustment and your choke is much more potent. Your triangle is all the more lethal. I don’t think anyone will ever forget to incorporate “baaabie arms” as long as they live. When pushed to the absolute brink and unable to go another second, another black belt loaded with energy kept all of the women motivated and moving.
Mackenzie Dern has a little something extra in her bag of tricks. If she wasn’t checking those belts, she was checking those attitudes. She bounced onto the mats every single day and when everyone else was beaten down and exhausted, both Drysdale and Dern transmitted an energy into the room that brought them back to life. The minute drills began it was like “wonder twins activate form of badass black belts.” Drysdale and Dern were definitely their own “Dynamic Duo” and without a doubt combining their experience, skill level and natural teaching abilities they were meant to lead this group of women. No one would or could have been better.
Dern reflects upon her time with Drysdale, “Leading with Sophia was so great! First, it helped me so much! It was really good to have a second opinion on things about the camp with her. And I learned so much from her! We have fought each other in the tournaments, so it was really good to be together and train and learn from each other without the pressure or having to win! It was so great having her!” After all was said and done, one would say that the Impossible Dream became an Absolute Reality. Bazua Aguilar had a platform to share. In order to ensure that her platform would reach the target BJJ audience, photographer Angel Cabellero documented the process.
This group of women came together bonded by their love of BJJ. When arriving in Mexico City, no one knew what lie ahead. No one knew who they would meet or what they might learn from them. One thing was for sure, everyone was in this for the soul of the sport. Each and every woman came because BJJ has touched her in a special way. Helping Bazua Aguilar enlighten the Mexican community about the beauty of this sport was an added bonus. Each day at Prohamos BJJ Academy was better than the last. However, just as things begin, so to must they end. One by one the ladies had to return to their home academies. The mood was somber when that time came but filled with memories of a lifetime.
When asked to give parting thoughts on the camp, Melissa Lujan said, “inspirational, educational energizing, and motivational." The conceptualized dream became all Bazua Aguilar hoped for and so much more. What all of this all boils down to for those that took part and the ones who will learn about it one way or another is, “The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.” Sarah Ban Breathnach