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Queens of the Mat is a women’s jiu-jitsu group that was started by Keri Wittekind in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a three stripe purple belt at Club MMA, and recently began teaching women’s jiu-jitsu classes at NKY Martial Arts Academy. Keri kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her life and her Queens of the Mat project.

1. How did the Queens of the Mat get started, and how did you come up with name?

It all started with a casual conversation with my coach Jeff Robison about three and a half years ago. I mentioned that I had gone to an all women’s open mat at a particular gym he was asking about. He told me that if I ever wanted to do something like that I could but he said I had to name it.

From that conversation Queens of the Mat was born. I think jiu-jitsu is a game of chess, and the most important piece of the chess board is the queen. As women, we are queens of our own domain, and my selfish take is that Cincinnati is known as the Queen City.

Queens of the Mat was founded on three pillars. First is the open mat, a free non-competitive environment for girls and women to train together. Second is that we always benefit a charity by collecting goods as a way to give back. Third is that we go out to eat after open mats as a way to just do life together off the mat.

2. What do you do in real life?

Right after high school I went to college. I did two years of school but ran out of money, and I decided to enlist in the Army. A recruiter told me I could get paid to jump out of a plane so I said yes! For two years I packed parachutes, followed by two years of admin work. At the end of my four years I came back home to Cincinnati, and joined the Ohio Army National Guard driving a dump truck, and went back to school. I stayed three years in the National Guard before getting out for medical reasons. I miss the community of the Army. The jiu-jitsu community has been the closest to the military community I have ever experienced: a melting pot of people. For the last few years I’ve worked in various roles within the pharmaceutical industry.

3. What has been the hardest part of your training? Which belt level has been the most challenging?

The hardest part of training is finding a balance between training, and the rest of my life. It took me a long time to realize that it is okay to miss class sometimes but also that it is okay if not everyone agrees with my involvement in jiu-jitsu. It is not my responsibility to make sure they like what I do.

I think each belt level has had its own challenges. Blue belt was particularly rough because of crazy life events like a bad break up, an injury that required surgery, job loss but also having to find a new gym. Purple belt is rough right now because I’ve hit my first big plateau in a long time but teaching has really helped.

4. Do you ever feel like quitting? What can you tell women who are struggling and can’t find the desire to train any more?

A lot more than I care to admit! But I know it’s not a real, lasting feeling. When I start feeling that level of frustration, I’ll take a couple of days off training, and refocus by doing something random like an aerial yoga class, and go back fresh. I would tell women to take a step back, take a day off or a week off, and get back in the gym. Don’t give up. Work thru it. If you are hitting a plateau, quit focusing on what is not working, and instead focus on another part of your game. But also training with other women is incredibly helpful whether that is in your own gym, an open mat or seminar.

5. Do you go to any other women’s jiu-jitsu camps and open mats?

Absolutely! I love going to camps, seminars and, open mats. It is always good to learn from, and work with women. For me it is also nice to just be a participant sometimes.

6. Who is your BJJ idol?

I look up to a lot of people in jiu-jitsu, especially the women who have paved the way. I had a chance to train with Emily Kwok shortly after getting my blue belt in 2014 at Groundswell Grappling Concepts. I was in the midst of a huge plateau, and had not figured out how to get thru it. Those of us attending the camp went out to dinner as a group at the end of the day. It was an informal Q&A, and I asked Emily how she overcame plateaus as a lower belt. She shared a story about baking cookies that completely changed how I looked at my plateaus. Her openness and vulnerability to share that with me has been one of the biggest lessons in my journey.

7. How many events have you held so far and what plans do you have for the Queens for 2019?

We have had 14 Queens of the Mat events, of those three were on the road. We average about 25 women but have up to 40. The best part is when a new jiu-jitsu lady comes to a Queens of the Mat event. I love that she gets to see so many women on the mat together, and our amazing community so early in her journey.

It is hard to pick a favorite event but two have special places for me. The winter open mat is special because it benefits Shriners Hospital for Children, and it also represents our anniversary. The other open mat that is special to me is our fall open mat which benefits the Fisher House at the Cincinnati VA. As a veteran myself, I wanted a chance to give back to the other community that I love.

I’m working on 2019 as we speak. We will definitely be at Ohio Combat Sports Academy in Columbus, Ohio on March 30th. We have been invited to Indianapolis but no date has been set. Of course we will have open mats in Cincinnati as well. I also want to start looking into new merchandise if the women want it. I know I do.

8. Tell us something interesting about yourself that not many people know.

I’m a big fan of Broadway musicals, and their soundtracks. I even have a “Wicked” Pandora station, and the soundtrack to “The Greatest Showman” is currently in my car cd player. And yes, I sing along quite loudly!