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In Sandy Springs, Georgia, there is a very successful women’s team called KnuckleUp Fitness Girls Team. The team leader is Laura Hart, a purple belt, who has built it from the ground up. As many women can relate, she was the only woman at her gym for a long time, wishing to have other women to train with. Little by little women signed up and now there is a strong group of ladies collecting medals at East Coast tournaments.

We wanted to find out more about Laura, and her team, and share it with our readers.

1. Hi Laura! How did you get started in BJJ?

Ha! I started 5 years ago, I had never previously exercised or played sports and so I was an old woman stuck in a young woman’s body. I had to nap during the day and I hurt from inactivity. My husband recommended that I try working out, he suggested trying classes offered at different gyms before I committed to anything.

BJJ was the first class I attended, it was the most fun thing I’d ever done! I didn’t attend anymore free classes, I didn’t need to :). Once I signed up I was nervous, there were no girls who attended regularly and as such it was a little intimidating, but I was encouraged to attend by CJ Wilson, then manager now owner of Knuckle Up. I never looked back. My coaches now are Master Ricardo Murgel and Jim Abrille.

2. What do your friends and family think about your training?

I don’t know to be honest… my mom and sister love it! They love that I do a martial art, they love that I love it (but to be honest I could play ping-pong and if I was happy they’d be happy too!) My dad and the rest of my family like that I’m happy but definitely don’t understand my obsession.

My friends all love it! Most of my friends are competitors, not necessarily fighters, but they do something so they under stand the dedication that comes with loving what I do. Of course I have the team, all of it, men and women, who love what I do, they are my primary support, in and out of the gym!

And my husband? He’s proud, he loves me and he’s happy when I’m happy, he struggles with the time and effort that training takes but since he is an athlete as well, he understands.

3. What’s your biggest accomplishment so far?

The Girls Only Team is definitely my biggest accomplishment, being a part of other women discovering BJJ, Thai, and MMA.

When I first began BJJ there were no other consistent women and it was hard to train with men who weren’t always happy to partner with me, it was also discouraging to see the camaraderie the men had and know that I didn’t have that, so very early on it became important to find other women to train and share with.

I was lucky enough to have an owner, CJ Wilson, and finally another woman, Moe Travis, who is a female Thai fighter, who encouraged and supported me in the dream of a team.

4. You’re the leader of Knuckleup Fitness Girls Only Team. Can you tell us a little bit about the team?

Definitely don’t feel like the leader, if I am it’s only because I’ve had the desire to have a team the longest, we all learn from each other, we all respect each other.
We train and hang out together, watch each other’s kids, listen to our complaints, BJJ and non-BJJ related, we have girls nights, and carpool to tournaments. I think the reason we’re such a good team is because we’re always there for each other, no boundaries, no questions. The one thing that comes up the most is how much we all waited for a woman who understands, now we have a team of women to turn to and depend on, BJJ is just one part of all of that.

I feel that I should mention that we have a lot of guys on our team that are excellent MMA and BJJ fighters and we make sure that we continue to support them like they support us, as much as I love my girls, we wouldn’t be here without the boys!

5. Your team is quite known on the East Coast competition scene. Do you focus a lot on competition training and do you require that all your girls compete?

We focus a lot on training, period and we like to win, those 2 things have led to us being seen as a competitive team. The one thing we always try to remember is that we do it because it’s fun, and winning is just one more aspect of it to enjoy!

We definitely don’t require that all of our women compete, but I do encourage it, I think that competing is an aspect of BJJ that needs to be addressed, there is no way to duplicate the feeling of a tournament: the adrenaline; the excited nerves, learning how to win or lose admirably, and the feeling of conquering something outside of the norm.

That said, I try to encourage anyone who wants to compete to do it according to their timeline, based on their desire and trust of BJJ, forcing someone who isn’t ready isn’t worth a win.

6. How do you keep the girls motivated to keep training? Is it hard to get new girls to stick with it?

We seem to motivate each other, we want to train, and more importantly, we want to train together, so we show up.

I think about half the girls that try it, stick with it but even if they’re not doing BJJ they still stay on our team, we also do Thai, and we have a smaller MMA team, so just because they’re not in gis doesn’t mean they’re not on the team, once we know you we are pretty hard to shake!

7. What are the plans for 2012 for your personally and for the team?

We trying to expand our competition experience, 3 of the girls and I are going to Pans at the end of March, Tyra Leigh Parker is our first professional MMA fighter, she’ll be fighting in May, we have a bunch of girls going to IKF (kickboxing competition) in Florida this summer, I am planning on going to no-gi Pans in October and Worlds in June! All of that in addition to the local BJJ tournaments and fights that come along.

8. This is what the team members had to say about Laura!

Katrina Norman
Laura Hart challenges my endurance and pushes me to the limits consistently. She is an amazing coach who encourages me to do my best and kicks my ass when I’m not giving it my all. I consider it a privilege to learn from her. She is not just a coach. She is a friend to everyone she meets, one of the most caring coaches I know.

CJ Wilson
Laura Hart is one of the most dedicated Jiu Jitsu players I have ever had the pleasure to know. As a woman, a mother and a provider, Laura has never had it easy, but her persistence and love of our sport has kept her focused on her training for all these years and her dedication has brought her from being one of the only women competitors at our school to being the coach of a highly competitive women’s team.
I for one am extremely proud to have Laura as a teammate, friend and employee. The KnuckleUp Fitness BJJ program is better for having her and she is an inspiration to many.

Monica Osorio Hyatt
I was very intrigued but intimidated to try out Jiu Jitsu, Laura encouraged and introduced me to it. In class you can feel how much she wants to share her knowledge. I have seen her train for years, at times with pain and frustration but her determination to improve her technique and her passion for this sport seems to always come on top. I am very grateful that she leads the women’s team and look forward to learning from her.

Moe Travis
I am very grateful to be on the same team as Laura Hart. I thank her for helping me understand and appreciate BJJ. I was super frustrated at the beginning but Laura was there to help guide me. If I wanted to drill or had a competition coming up, she would make the time to meet me and explain step by step for me. Regardless of what was happening in her life, she would show up and help me. She loves BJJ and it is very obvious when she starts speaking about it. She lights up and smiles a lot! Not only is Laura a very tough, strong and determined person, she is a very technical purple belt and I feel blessed I get to train with her. She is an awesome coach, mother, friend, and teammate. I am lucky to have her in my life and I can’t wait for the day she receives her black belt.