Our fenomenal woman this month is Liz Sussan. She is a BJJ purple belt, vinyasa yoga instructor, manages Richmond BJJ Academy and also teaches jiu-jitsu at the academy. A few weeks ago she started a fundraising project called UNITED that benefits RAINN, and brings awareness to sexual assault. Everyone meet Liz Sussan!
How did you get into jiu-jitsu?
When I met my long-time boyfriend Eric Burdo in 2006, he was a brown belt and running his school, Richmond BJJ Academy, a BJJ Revolution Team school in Richmond, VA. Within 3 weeks of us starting to date, I attended a tournament where he was part of a 4-man super fight division. When I saw it, I really thought it was one of the coolest things to do as a sport, and I loved the idea that at a high level, these guys were constantly countering each other and trying to beat each other.
I had never played an individual sport, only team sports, and learning something that really used my whole body with detailed, precise movement intrigued me. The fact that BJJ also had serious self-defense applications in addition to being a wicked cool sport seemed radical for me as a person. I had no clue how much Eric or jiu-jitsu would change my life. At first I was taking classes 3-4 times per week, and within 3 months I had been sucked in, and have been training 6-7 days per week for 6 years.
My first experience with jiu-jitsu was actually not that positive. Eric showed me a mata-leao, but it was just the two of us, so he had to lightly choke me to show it to me. I hated it, the feeling of being choked and especially not knowing how to defend or what to do, and started thinking, “Why would people spend so much time rolling around on mats trying to choke each other?” Honestly, it’s funny to think back to now, because chokes are my favorite submissions and I think technically they are often the best choice in self-defense and sport jiu-jitsu.
How did the Midatlantic Grappling Girls start? Do you have a lot of women training at your school?
I teach a women’s BJJ class at my school twice a month and anywhere between 3-8 women come to the class. It’s not a huge program yet, but it’s growing. The MAGG started in January 2013 because of a perceived need for regular women’s training opportunities. Women’s open mats have been happening on the east coast for years, but not with regular frequency, and I thought why not pick a name and create a regular event to encourage women to train together. Through MAGG I’ve met so many new jiu-jitsu women and honestly had my mind blown by the growth of women’s BJJ. We’re trying to hold one women’s event every month and we’ve been lucky to pick up some sponsors like Amazing Grass, Fenom Kimonos, Cageside MMA, and Gi Soap!
Do you compete regularly? What is your most memorable tournament or match? Favorite submission?
I try to compete as regularly as I can. Over the years I’ve had my share of injuries and some of them have kept me from competing for long periods of time. A barrier I’ve learned to overcome is that local competition at my size and skill level is hard to find, so I had to travel more to compete. Through traveling I’ve really grown to love competing. I thrive in the preparation, and like the challenge of hard training and conditioning leading up to competition. I believe that most of the growth in my jiu-jitsu has occurred in the 4-8 week prep time before a tournament. It creates focus that is often lost when I don’t have a goal or a tournament looming.
My favorite tournament was NY Open where I competed as a blue belt. That was a transformational moment for me personally, to travel to a big tournament, do well, and have such a positive experience. That tournament sticks out to me the most because my boyfriend Eric was there to coach me and support me, and it’s the time that I decided that I really liked competing.
My favorite submissions are gi chokes. I like to play around with grips and angles, and really find them from every position. I believe the choke is superior positionally, and from a self-defense perspective, it has the ability to end a confrontation with a minimal physical damage to the other person and make it so that they can no longer attack you.
Do you go to women’s training camps or other open mats? Which one has stood out the most and why?
I’ve attend many women’s open mats, seminars, and camps over the years. I try to attend nearly every one that I can. My very first women’s seminar was Kyra Gracie seminar in 2007, and at the time it seemed like the coolest thing ever. I was a 6 month white belt and knew that what I was attending was special, and maybe a once in a lifetime chance.
I attended the very first Women’s Grappling Camp hosted by Felicia Oh, Valerie Worthington, Emily Kwok, and Alaina Hardie in Los Angeles. That was an amazing experience. I loved being surrounded by women who were as passionate about jiu-jitsu as I was. Those kind of events can be really inspirational and afterward I always return to my training with an enthusiasm and fire to train hard.
The women’s training that has stuck out the most for me was a Hannette Staack seminar at my school. We often host Hannette Staack at our school for seminars, and at her second seminar, toward the end, she pulled me to the middle of the room and told me it was my purple belt test and I needed to show everyone EVERY technique that she had taught us in that 2-3 hour seminar. My first thought “Wait, PURPLE BELT?!” and my nerves shot up, and then Hannette said she was going to be my uke for the demo! Somehow I pulled it off like a champ, going through a review of the entire seminar from position to position, and then Hannette told me she was just kidding about the purple belt and thanked me. That was a crazy mix of emotions to go through in 10 minutes.
Who is your role model in jiu-jitsu and in life general?
My instructor and boyfriend Eric Burdo is a huge inspiration to me in life and BJJ. Eric has life experience that amazes me and has created so much depth to him as a person. He works to bring that to the mats and his students every day.
Julio Fernandez, head of BJJ Revolution Team, is also an inspiration to me. He is a legend in our sport and is a 6th degree Black Belt under Carlson Gracie. Julio has a way about him that makes everyone feel special and he spreads an infectious love for BJJ. I love to roll with him because he flows and moves like a cat yet still has constant pressure.
Hannette Staack’s work ethic and dedication to BJJ is an inspiration to me. I love her focus and her desire to help students learn. I also love her style of teaching where she puts you in positions of pressure and sweat to drill the techniques over and over.
Did you ever want to quit jiu-jitsu because of an injury, frustration or lack of motivation? How do you keep going?
Injuries have been the most frustrating part of jiu-jitsu for me. Because I run our school and am surrounded by BJJ constantly, when I am injured, my injury is compounded by the fact that I can’t escape being at the school and being reminded that I can’t train. To get through this, I go out onto the mats for class, sometimes dressed out, sometimes not, and I actively participate in learning even though I can’t drill the moves.
There have been two instances where I came back to the mats better than before my injury simply because observing class and other people drilling helped me to see what I was missing in the movements or understand something from a different perspective. I think this is one of the biggest lessons I can convey to people reading.
I think jiu-jitsu enthusiasm can lead to burnout and I try to check in with myself every week on this. When you’re competing a lot, or even just serious about BJJ, it’s easy to overdo it. First, I definitely listen to my body. If I’m too tired or banged up, I take a day off. That’s about injury prevention. Second, if I get sucked into some kind of negative thought loop, I ask myself if I have balance in my life. Is it maybe time to take a class off and have lunch with a friend, hit up a yoga class instead, or maybe even fly somewhere warm for a few days? Third, I think longevity in BJJ is helped when you’re surrounded by friends on the mats. So if my regular training partners are slacking off, I work to get them back into class, or I travel to train with friends to make training more fun.
Tell us about your most recent project called UNITED.
Most jiu-jitsu practitioners have had serious reactions to the abuse and assaults being reported within our community. It has created a lot of discussion around rape and what kind of culture we want to create in our grappling community and greater world. People want a way to speak out and also a way to come together. I felt like we needed a symbol to show that we feel outraged and thoughtful about what has transpired.
I worked with my friends to design a gi patch that would allow BJJ community to express being united against rape and abuse. The patches say UNITED with a teal ribbon and the ribbon has been turned into a BJJ belt. It’s been a collective effort between NHB Gear, Da Firma Kimonos and IngenuiTek who generously have donated their services making it possible to donate 80-90% of the sales proceeds to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).
I’ve gotten sincere and amazing feedback from people. In just 2 weeks we’ve raised over $1,000.00 for RAINN. April is sexual assault awareness month and that adds to the importance of these patches. The patches sell for $ 10-12 each and can be ordered by emailing to Liz@RichmondBJJ.com.
Is there anything else interesting you want our readers to know about you?
I helped to found the local roller derby league here in Richmond, VA. My roller derby name is Nikki Stitch, a play on the Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx’s name. I love music and the name reflects that. I stopped playing roller derby after I fell in love with BJJ, but I’m still a fan! And I am vegan, oh wait, everyone already knows that about me! 🙂