Our fenomenal woman series continues with Heejin Lee from Seoul, South Korea. She is the first and only female brown belt in South Korea. Heejin talks about her jiu-jitsu journey, her struggles and joys, and future plans. This is the first time we used an interpreter, and we hope nothing got lost in translation. Everyone meet Heejin Lee!
About 10 years ago I was training Hapkido but decided to quit for a little while. When I went back to the gym to train Hapkido again, I saw some people training jiu-jitsu. I met my instructor, master Suyong Lee, and asked a lot of questions. I wanted to find out more about jiu-jitsu, and try it out. This is pretty much how I got started in BJJ. Now I train 5-6 days a week, 2 hours a day. I usually do 30 minutes warm-up, 30 minutes of drilling, 30 min sparring. After that I do some more drilling or sparring.
There are not a lot of women in South Korea training BJJ? How did you manage to stay on track and not quit?
When I first saw jiu-jitsu, I just knew that I wanted to do it, and I was going to do it for the rest of my life. It was the feeling that I had when I saw it. Of course, it was really hard as the only woman training with big guys. When I was a white and blue belt, a lot of the guys were ignoring me, or trying to beat me up. But that really helped me to improve my defense, and escapes. During the last 10 years, I was off the mats for only 2-3 months because of a car accident. I have never wanted to quit 🙂
Do you compete? Do you teach?
While I was working full-time as a therapist, I would teach sometimes. Now, as I’m opening my own gym (Queen of Jiu-Jitsu), I’m going to work full-time as an instructor. I have not been able to compete a lot in Korea. There are no competitors in my category. Also, since I usually roll with lower belts, my moves are more focused on teaching, and not competing. That is the problem I have. My plan is to become an active competitor next year, when my gym is stable and running smoothly.
What are the biggest challenges for you?
As I mentioned previously, training jiu-jitsu as the only and first woman has had lots of obstacles. So many guys tried to beat me up using their strength. They even tried to slam me in sparring, especially in the beginning. These days, the biggest problem is that I don’t have any female training partners that can help me get ready for the tournaments. However, regardless of the problems I had, jiu-jitsu is a big joy of my life. I’ve always enjoyed learning and sparring, and I’m still growing!
You are the first female brown (and soon to be black belt) belt in Korea. How significant is that for you and what would you tell other ladies who are hesitant to start or continue training?
I’ve never thought of it as something special to be the first female brown belt in Korea. In the beginning, I already knew that it was my destiny to become the pioneer of women’s BJJ in Korea. As the very first woman jiu-jitsu instructor, I think I have to show that in jiu-jitsu smaller people and women can fight with bigger guys. I want people to have the courage to train jiu-jitsu by watching me.
For women who hesitate to start jiu-jitsu, I would tell them to try it! If you want to learn to protect yourself, you’d better train jiu-jitsu since it gives you the experience of the real-life situations. I don’t think solitary training can help you to improve your self-defense. Some women don’t like it because of the physical contact. I understand how they think, but once you start you don’t have any room to think about it. Try it, and you’ll realize how much fun it is.
I am opening my own gym, Queen of Jiu-Jitsu. BJJ in Korea, especially women’s jiu-jitsu is not popular. As the first female instructor, I strongly believe I can be a part of spreading and growing women’s BJJ. It’s nothing different if I become a black belt. I’ll keep working on growing women’s jiu-jitsu and changing the prejudiced views. In the United States, Europe, and Brazil there are a lot of classes, camps, and seminars for women. My dream is to make something like that in Korea. I also want to make my gym a must-visit-gym for female BJJ practitioners when they visit Seoul. Come visit my gym!
Thank you Heejin for your time, thank you Julia Johansen for the lead, and thank you Inseung Hwang for helping out with the translation!