.Picking My Mentor’s Brain, an interview with Leka Vieira
By Marichiel Ewert
I started to train under Leka Vieira when Leka moved to the United States in 1999. I was training at Rigan Machado’s in Torrance, CA and heard that she was visiting from Brazil. I hadn’t heard of her before as I was new to the Jiu-Jitsu community. All I knew was what I was told: She was bad ass and that she got her black belt when she was 16. I was misinformed about her receiving her black belt at the age of 16, but you could imagine how intimidating she sounded, never the less. Terrified and intimidated is how I felt when I caught a glimpse of her as I entered the academy that night. She was cut, lean, and ripped. The most intimidating thing about her look was she was nearly bald.
[social][/social]Ever heard of the Tasmanian Devil on Looney Tunes? Well imagine one on your back running circles around you. That’s what my first roll with Leka Vieira was like. She tapped me a humbling number of times and I told her at the very end while gasping for breath, “I don’t know what all you just did but I have to learn from you.” She didn’t speak a lick of English but somehow she understood. Looney she may be, but a devil she most certainly is not. All kidding aside, through the years I did learn from her. I didn’t only learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but learned to be a woman of integrity, a woman of strength, a woman of character, and a teacher. She’s been an amazing mentor to me on and off the mat. What’s awesome about Leka Vieira is she practices what she preaches. She talks the talk and walks the walk. I’ve had my share of ups and downs, as we all have. And through it all, Leka never enabled me to ever feel sorry for myself or enabled me to feel as if I were a victim. It has always been my hope that other women could learn not just Jiu-Jitsu from her but to also be inspired, motivated, and be a better person. When you sit down with Leka Vieira, you feel the presence of wise being. Some days I wish I could put Leka in my pocket, reach into my pocket when I need to and ask, “What would Leka do?”
I want to thank BJJ Legends Magazine for giving me the opportunity to share this interview with Leka Vieira.
Here are some of Leka’s achievements to date:
- 1st Female Black Belt to become a world champion (1999).
- 3x World Champion (1999, 2002, 2005);
- 3x Pan American Champion (2001, 2002, 2003);
- World Silver Medalist (2000);
- ADCC Silver Medalist (2005)
- BJJ World Cup Champion (2005)
So Leka, where the heck have you been?
I took a vacation so I could enjoy my personal life without limitations. So I did what any normal person does. I got married and had my beautiful baby Joe who is 21 months old now. I have a beautiful family and it’s time to get back to business.
Back to business meaning training Jiu-Jitsu? Where are you technically training now? Are there any Jiu-Jitsu academies where you live?
As of today I’m on the disabled list and not training Jiu-Jitsu at all because of my knee. I’m undergoing physical therapy, swimming, and hitting the gym every day. I’m in very good shape now. There are many options for training where I live. When I do start training again, hopefully in a couple of months, I’ll be training with my friend Felicia Oh at Big John McCarthy’s Academy, which is less than a mile from my house. I’ll also be training at Let’s Roll Jiu-Jitsu Academy which is operated by one of my black belts Jocelyn Chang in Torrance, CA. Last but not least I’ll also train with my friend Leticia Ribeiro in San Diego, CA.
Are you limited to where you can train because you are a woman?
I’m not limited to where I can train, but rather how I train. I’ve always been very picky with my training. I train smart so that I don’t get hurt.
Training smart…. Can you elaborate on that?
I warm up well so that I can be very focused on positioning my body in order to not get hurt. I take advantage of the moment thinking that I want to be home in one piece so I can come back tomorrow for more. When I’m training with a person heavier than me, I sometimes give up on a position that can potentially hurt me. When I’m at the academy training, I would compare this to learning in a classroom, so I don’t get worried about tapping or winning the sparring session. I just want to learn something new or make adjustments.
How soon after having the baby did you start training again?
I waited 6 months after Joe was born then began to train, but an upper back and knee injury kept me on and off the mat.
Did you notice that your body just didn’t move quite the same after having the baby?
Not at all, I felt great! I think I had bad luck with the 2 major injuries after having my baby. I take good care of myself and that is the key for longevity.
I was really amazed at how flat your stomach was after Joseph was born. How in the world did you get back into shape so fast?
I was around 150 pounds before pregnancy. I gained 35 pounds during pregnancy and weighed 185 pounds. When I came home after having my baby, the first thing I did was weigh myself and I weighed 158 pounds. One week later, I weighed 150 pounds. So in one week I was at my pre-pregnancy weight. Three weeks later, I weighed 130 pounds. The secret to the weight loss was breastfeeding. Breastfeeding was imperative to me and made me lose weight very fast. It’s the best thing you can do for the baby as well. I love to share those moments with my boy. I ended up having a C-Section so able to start working out lightly three months after having my son.
What age will Joe start training?
I can tell you that his favorite song is the theme from Rocky”Gonna Fly Now”. He is a natural athlete. He’s very physical! He plays ball very well, he loves to run, he loves to climb, he’s very active, and I feel that he has an athletic build. He’s already developing his guns! Mommy taps out every day from his activity level. I believe he can start learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by the age of 3.
I just love watching you with Joe. You’re so patient and natural at it. Are there any tips you can share with other Jiu-Jitsu moms about balancing family life and Jiu-Jitsu?
Family first!!! Take good care of your family and make them your priority. Be the best mom and wife you can be. When you’re at Jiu-Jitsu, your mind will be in the right place because you’re going to be there knowing that your family is healthy and they are loved by you! Make sure you eat healthy to keep up with the family and the Jiu-Jitsu routine. This will prevent your body from crashing while training.
By having your mind “in the right place,” do you mean being balanced? Is there such a thing as training with your mind in the wrong place?
“In the right place” meaning when you’re a mom and you’re without your baby you’ll always been thinking about him or her and what they’re doing. Maybe you didn’t do something for your baby while you were home with them. You may find yourself in the middle of training thinking that you could have done a better job. Your mind will not be in the right place. Instead of thinking about an arm bar, you’re going to be thinking about diapers and poop.
It makes me happy to see you happy. And to see you and Art take such great care of each other. Your fans were surprised when you didn’t marry a black belt. How do you feel about that?
Sorry fans! My husband isn’t a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but he’s a black belt in all other areas that are important to me as a woman. I hope that my fans can be happy that I’m with a person that makes my life better every day!
Would two black belts in a relationship work?
I think if they love each other, then why not?
Now that you have a family, I know your priorities have completely changed. Where does Jiu-Jitsu fit on your list of priorities?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a lifestyle for me and will always be a part of my life. I enjoy it and it’s been a part of my life since I was 16 years old. Jiu-Jitsu is in my DNA and I utilize many of the mental aspects of Jiu-Jitsu in my every day routine.
I’ve always admired your teaching style and how you used everyday life examples to help us learn moves/techniques. Did you learn that teaching style from anyone?
Not really. When I first got to the United States, I didn’t speak any English and I never went to school to learn English. I learned English using a dictionary and by watching movies on TV with closed captioning. I wanted everyone to understand me so badly that I started using examples that I thought anybody would be able to understand.
This applies to all sports, but not all coaches are exceptional athletes, and not all athletes are great coaches. Just because someone is good at Jiu-Jitsu, doesn’t mean that they can teach it well. Luckily for you, you have the best of both worlds! Do you have an equal passion for teaching/coaching as you do for the sport of Jiu-Jitsu itself?
I love to do both. Competition is in my veins but I love the atmosphere of teaching. I love to be with people that come to learn from me; I love how I’m able to make new friends, hang out, and help people feel safe and healthy. I can’t pick one over the other. I love the sport itself and teaching it just the same.
You just had knee surgery recently, didn’t you? What are your Jiu-Jitsu plans when your knee finally heals up? When can we expect to see you on the mat again?
I was injured since Sept. 2010 but I tried to ignore it. The pain was taking over so in December 2010 I finally saw a doctor and he diagnosed me with having a completely torn ACL and both meniscus in my left knee. I thought it best to have my knee repaired. I had my surgery 3 months ago and since then I’ve been learning a lot of things.
The first thing I wanted to do was to be able to walk again, and then be able to bend my knee, and then finally get back to doing all of the things I use to do before my surgery. I learned that I had to take one step at a time. Recovery is a long road and every little step will take you to the end of the road, but you can’t look past your next step. I’ve been taking physical therapy very seriously with one goal in mind: to have the best recovery possible and be myself again.
I’ve been receiving quite a few invitations to teach seminars all over the U.S. and Europe. I’d like to start teaching seminars in a couple of months. This would be a great way for me to get back into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by passing my knowledge to other Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners. In fact, there are plans in the works for me to teach a seminar at Let’s Roll Jiu- Jitsu in Torrance on July 23, 2011. Registration is free but we are asking for a donation to Leah Esquenazi, a 4-month old in the hospital. I heard about her in the news and felt compelled to help in some way.
It’s very generous of you to raise money for charity this way. Has giving back always been a part of your life or has that changed since having a child of your own?
I love to be able to help people and I wish I can take their pain away. I wish I can put a smile on a person’s face and I wish I could make everybody understand that the people with special needs are people like you and I. I wish I could embrace the world and make it a better place for all.
I’ve always known you to be selfless when it comes to those in need, especially to the ones you love. But someone who doesn’t know you personally may think of you as intimidating because of your build. How do you feel about people judging you in that way?
I’m a private person and am very shy until you get to know me. Then you’ll realize that I’m very warm and caring. I experienced a lot of discrimination in my life because I was one of a handful of females that were learning Jiu-Jitsu when I first started. Jiu-Jitsu was considered a man’s sport. I had many reasons to stop training and only a few to continue, but I followed my dream and here I am. I always remembered, “Be yourself and stand up for what you believe in!” I’m hoping to have a great turnout for this upcoming seminar and I hope that I can teach more in the future to give everyone an opportunity to get to know me better.
Learning from you is an opportunity of a lifetime. I’m hoping all the women out there who can make it will attend! Do you think you’ll ever teach or have your own academy again?
I would teach again if it’s something that would make sense for me.
I guess you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it. Do you plan on ever competing again, or are those days over for you?
I’m a competitor and these days are definitely not over. Competition is what keeps me going and I love a challenge. Competition is my motivation to train every day as hard as I can. I would love to be out there testing myself against the new generation, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to compete ever again in a high level. Only time will tell.
There are a lot more women competing now from when you were competing. Do you think you’d be at a disadvantage now because of your age?
It’s not about my age; it’s about how healthy I am to perform at a high level. I take very good care of myself. My age is only on my ID card and my age is definitely not catching up with me.
What does a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner do after the black belt?
When I became a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, I became more mature and I saw Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in a different light. A lot of people feel that a black belt is the end of your journey, but I saw it as the beginning of a new chapter. It never ends! I learn something new every day and there will always be room for improvement.
There are some misconceptions so I’d like to get the answer straight from the source. It’s still a little unclear to the public whether you were the first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu female black belt. Is this true or not?
I hope not… because that would make me the oldest female Black Belt in the world. I want to be called the last female Black Belt in the world.
And is it true that you are the first female to award another female with a black belt (awarded with Rigan Machado to Cindy Omatsu)?
I’m not sure about this, but Rigan and I did give my sweetest friend Cindy her Black Belt.
Leka, something you once told me which has always stuck with me is “Don’t be afraid to be happy.” Would you mind ending this interview with one of your personal quotes about life?
I would love to tell people who are reading this interview to listen to a particular song but I don’t want to get too personal… so I’ll just say, “Let the best part of you shine through.”
Thanks for your time today Leka!
Thank you for taking the time to speak to me!!!
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For more information on Leka’s upcoming seminar in Torrance, CA, on July 23, 2011, visit www.lekavieira.net. Join Leka Vieira’s mailing list to keep up-to-date on seminar dates! You can also find her on Facebook.