Jennifer Perez returned home last week after a year traveling the world and training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She visited 10 countries and 45 academies. Fresh off her travels Kostas Fantaousakis asks her about her year abroad.
Kostas: Jenifer, how long have you been training in BJJ.
Jennifer: I have been training since February 2012. I started Training BJJ as a way to rebuild my self-esteem and strength that had been drained from a bad relationship of 9 years.
Kostas: What is your belt rank and who is your instructor(s) in BJJ? Do you train in other sports too or just BJJ?
Jennifer: I was promoted to blue belt in June of 2013 under Amal Easton. I trained kickboxing and Muay Thai 2 years prior to starting BJJ. I had a 1 year break between the time I stopped MT and started BJJ
Kostas: How did you get this idea to travel around the world and visit so many academies?
Jennifer: Japan was always a place I wanted to visit so after my breakup I took some savings and booked my trip to Japan. Fast-forward, on my flight back I couldn’t help but be sad knowing that the high from my trip would soon subside. There was a Fidelity commercial that came on and at the end of it it said "Save Today to Live Tomorrow"...that was the moment I realized I had to quit what was making me unhappy and dedicate at least one year to myself. To try and discover my intended purpose. I read BJJ globetrotter by Christian Graugart and immediately knew I had to do that.
Kostas: Can you name some of the countries you visited? How long did it take to visit 45 academies?
Jennifer: I’ve visited about 50 academies in total this year and visited some amazing places like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, Portugal, Singapore, Panamá, Puerto Rico and a few more. I started Jan 15th of 2014 & in Jan 2015 I visited my 50th academy AlleyCat Fitness Foundation in Casco Viejo Panama.
Kostas: Did you travel all by yourself or did you have other athletes with you?
Jennifer: For the most part I was alone but our Jiu-Jitsu community is so amazing that once I connected with at least one person from the academy I was treated like family instantly!
I met up with many friends along the way that stayed and globetrotted with me for weeks at a time. Like Vivian Velez from Puerto Rico and Talita Alencar from Rio. It was great to have full time partners who also enjoyed visiting other academies as much as I did.
Kostas: How do you decide which school to visit? Do you use the internet to get information first and then contact the school or do you ask friends and fellow athletes where to go?
Jennifer: I primarily relied on referrals from my professor teammates and other members of the globetrotting community that made suggestions on where to train. I did google a few places out on a remote island in Lombok but that’s because I was itching to train & no one there seemed to know what Jiu-Jitsu was.
Kostas: There seems to be a recent trend in BJJ to combine traveling and training. After visiting so many countries could you give travelers a few tips on what to look for and what to avoid when visiting schools abroad?
Jennifer: I can’t say I've had a bad experience because I truly haven’t. Everyone was always so welcoming. What I do recommend is if you are traveling on a budget make sure to call ahead and confirm the cost of the drop in fee. Also, as a female I was nervous at first meeting so many new people and telling people my story and the fact that I was traveling alone, it was scary but the complete opposite happened. It’s like I had big brothers in every country I visited!
Tip: Train with respect and you will always be welcomed back! It’s that simple. Our community may seem big but it’s quite small and if you are a good person with good intention the door to any academy will always be open but being disrespectful and rude will spread like wild fire and soon the doors will start to shut on you. Stay positive and happy always.
Also, I always had gear from my sponsor Newaza Apparel or from Easton BJJ and I gave them out to the professors as thank you gifts for allowing me to train there. Nice gestures are always appreciated.
Kostas: Every BJJ school is different. Some focus more on self-defense, others in MMA and others on sport Jiu-Jitsu. Did you notice any other differences? How do schools vary from one country to the other?
Jennifer: Yes there were many different styles of BJJ. I remember showing up to No-gi class with Prof. Nico Han at Synergy MMA there were about 10 guys on the mat and I was one of 3 women. I was excited to train, except for the fact that I was getting punched in the ribs when I locked down the guard and in transition to a triangle I was getting tapped in the head by punches from by partner. It was very annoying and I kept losing focus but I believe that was the point and lesson of Prof. Nico -- self-defense first.
Some schools that I enjoyed very much this year were Atos BJJ in San Diego & Mendes Bros in Costa Mesa. Both were very competitive academies with amazing training and tough competitors. Alvarez BJJ in Dallas TX has incorporated wrestling into their training and after being there for a week. I can definitely say there is no question why they have such high level performing athletes. I trained with Lucas Leite and Pati Fontes at Checkmat La Habra and their machine drills are amazing. I still use a lot of them today. I also spent two weeks training Ft. Lee Combatives with Prof Matt Smith, whoa, what a monster of an instructor. Trained with military men every morning at 5:30 am, def no berimbolos were being used here! Prof. Edison Takohara at OverLimit teaches Judo every night as a part of the BJJ curriculum, it was very fun and I learned some pretty cool throws. Every academy was different. I started at Easton BJJ where we had a curriculum and learned step by step, move by move, fundamental, intermediate and advanced. Some academies didn’t offer this. There is one class and that is it, sink or swim. You have to pay attention and learn quickly.
BJJ is a very artistic martial art and each country is painting with the same colors except every painting in the end looks very different from the other.
Kostas: Did you meet any famous instructors/athletes during your travels?
Jennifer: Yes, many amazing talented athletes. From Fernando Terere in Lisboa, to Prof. Rickson Gracie in Torrence, Lucas Leite in la Habra, Miyao Bros In Japan, Mendes Bros in Costa, Nico Han in Bali, Master Cyborg in Miami, Michelle Nicolini, MacKenzie Dern and the list goes on and on... Truly a blessed year.
Kostas: Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice that was given to you during so many training sessions around the world?
Jennifer: I was in Miami prepping for the worlds and Master Cyborg was running a class and after 3 hours of intense training he said, "I don't care if you win, there will always be more opportunities. The only thing I care about is that you never quit."
Another great moment was in Lisboa, after training, Prof. Terere overhears me talk about my roll with my partner and says to me the best way to win is to believe you've already won!!
Ian Lieberman of Easton BJJ said to me after a really tough roll, Jen you are 5'ft 127 lbs. blue belt he's 6'4 200lb black belt. You did great! Hahaha, I know BJJ isn’t about the size of the person, it is about the size of patience you have with yourself.
Kostas: Did anything surprise you when visiting other countries?
Jennifer: Yes, I was surprised and impressed with the determination of my Brazilian brothers and sisters in Japan that worked 12 sometimes 14 hour shifts. Afterwards go straight to the academy to train at 9:30pm train until midnight, go home only to sleep 4 hours max and be up and doing it again the next day. Now any excuse I hear people make to not train seems petty and inconsiderate!
Kostas: To finish this interview would you say that the BJJ lifestyle is unique in bringing people of different ethnicity and backgrounds together?
Jennifer: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu isn’t just a martial art or a sport it is much more special than that. It unites and brings people from all walks of life to one center point. The mat is full of not just one type but many and that is why it is so beautiful. There is no discrimination, no racism, no politics, no religion... It’s all about the flow of the roll! That's why I love this so much.
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