Big women in jiu-jitsu are a minority and face different set of challenges. One remarkable lady, Torrie O’neil, has decided to provide a platform for the heavy-weight ladies. Torrie is a blue belt training out of Grappling Mastery in Eustis, Florida under Brian Ruscio. She has been training for about four and a half years and is the founder of The Mighty Dames, a jiu-jitsu community centered on representation of female heavys. When she is not on the mats, she is busy at Bookworks, an early literacy program which provides story times and free books to children at low-income child care centers and elementary schools. Torrie answered a few questions about her life, The Dames and big girls’ challenges in BJJ. Enjoy!
You love grappling and reading. How did you discover jiu-jitsu and what kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I actually was not looking to do jiu-jitsu. I wanted to wrestle. I was a huge WWF fan as a kid and got into freestyle and collegiate wrestling in my late teens. After finishing up grad school, I moved back home and started looking for a wrestling gym. Since Florida isn’t exactly known as a wrestling state, the closest thing I found was my current gym that offers wrestling classes on Fridays. I came in for a wrestling and Muay Thai class and afterward my coach, Brian, showed me a couple of jiu-jitsu moves and I’ve been hooked ever since.
When I’m not reading kids’ books for work, I mostly stick to non-fiction books, such as history, politics and society centered books and older fiction. My favorite book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and I’m currently reading a book called Dancing at Halftime by Carol Spindel about the use of Native Americans as mascots in sports.
How often do you compete? What is the biggest hindrance for you? What is your biggest achievement in competition?
For the most part, I try to compete 3-4 times a year. I did not get into jiu-jitsu with the idea of being a hyper active competitor but I like to test myself from time to time against my peers. My biggest hindrance would have to be the combo of lack of opponents and time. Due to lack of competition in my division at the smaller events, I wait for the IBJJF championships in my area.
Also, I travel a lot for work and various other community groups, so my weekends fill up rather quickly with other obligations. My biggest achievement would have to be winning double gold at Miami Open in the spring of 2018. I had been out of commission for a couple of months due to a knee injury and had some really tough matches.
Are you having a hard time finding gis that fit properly? What do you want gi companies to know and improve about women’s gis for larger ladies?
Absolutely? It can be very discouraging to get into BJJ only to be unable to find a gi that fits and is affordable and be regulated to no-gi as you hunt for one that fits well. 90% of my gis are mix-and-match combo of gi pants and jackets from different companies. With my weight and height proportions I can rarely order a gi as is.
Once I find a pair of pants that fit well, I buy a couple and just rotate jackets that match. I would love if larger companies allowed mix-and-match sizes. For instance, I’m A5 in pants but float between A3 and A4 jacket meaning I have a bunch of pants just collecting dust. Another thing would be taking into account the height for bigger women. A lot of women in The Mighty Dames struggle with finding bigger gis for shorter women. At 6 feet my gis are often too long, I can only imagine the struggle for someone my weight and 5’5”.
Do you feel like larger women are sometimes invisible in BJJ?
Sometimes, yes. It almost feels like we are a niche, inside an already niche sport. That’s the part of the reason why The Mighty Dames came to exist. But it does help to have figures like Tayane Porfirio and others competing at the highest levels.
Why are there so few African American women in BJJ? What do you think should be done to attract more of them to train and compete?
Short answer, exposure. If you really think about it we don’t see many African Americans in other martial arts/combat sport besides boxing or wrestling. It’s simply not a sport traditionally tied to the community. Most of my family still thinks I do Karate. How we improve this? Exposure. Bringing BJJ into communities with more black people or doing events or seminars in public space or just having the sport more visible can all help.
I do think that the higher exposure of MMA helps as well. We are seeing more black athletes competing at the highest levels of MMA giving the younger generations new role models to look up to and want to emulate.
You have said that you prefer training with men over women just because you have more training partners that way. How often do you have a chance to train with women your size? Do you attend women’s open mats?
To be honest, I’m probably one of, if not the biggest person at my gym, man or woman. While I find value in training with all sizes, I need the weight of bigger training partners to keep me honest with my technique and development. I’m really lucky to be a part of the Central Florida BJJ community where we have quite a few big girls who are always down to roll and are great training partners.
About twice a month I try to make it over to train with Melissa Lohsen at Darkwolf MMA who just earned her black belt in December 2018. She is a fellow super heavy, only about 45 minutes away and her school has a couple other heavys so it works out great. She also runs Pretty Dangerous Women’s Jiu-Jitsu which hosts monthly women’s open mats at rotating gyms in Central Florida.
Larger ladies have been accused of using too much strength (the infamous Gabby Garcia/Mackenzie Dern match brought out the worst in some, calling Gabi a man and other names) in their matches. What is your take on that? If a smaller person is allowed to use their speed and flexibility, why is strength not acceptable?
Let me tell you… I have thoughts on thoughts on thoughts about this topic. I always found this argument a bit hypocritical. Isn’t one of the main selling points of jiu-jitsu learning how to overcome a larger opponent? And what is too much strength? There is no measure for it. I understand that it can be very frustrating to deal with a stronger opponent, but jiu-jitsu is full of frustrating things. It is easy to name call and come up with reasons to bash larger women who compete, to explain away a loss but it is much harder to admit you simply have not devolved a game to handle a larger opponent. Also, these mix matches in size like Gabby Garcia/Mackenzie Dern are in open-weight bracket where the individual signed up knowing that all weight classes are able to enter. If they know the stakes going in, why should it be an issue?
Personally I see it as a cop-out; a preconceived excuse. As long as I or any other heavy isn’t out here trying to seriously harm someone, I see no issue with using my physical attributes to win in a physical contact sport. If the biggest/strongest person always wins, I should be undefeated in competitions. And I’m clearly not. I get outworked and outmaneuvered by smaller opponents all the time; it’s all a part of the game.
According to IBJJF any lady above 175 is a super heavyweight. What’s your opinion on that? Is it fair for women above 175 to have to compete against 20-60+ lbs weight difference while lighter weights get to compete against someone much closer to their weight?
There can be some big weight differences, sometimes 50 – 80 lbs., in the IBJJF super heavy division. Is that ideal? No. In a perfect world, we would have more weight divisions and women to fill their brackets, but we don’t at this time. Organizations are not going to change their model unless they have to and shallow divisions do not provide motivation. We see more and more heavys joining the sport and now we need to get them competing. Once more women show up and prove that another weight class is viable; I’m confident will happen. Look at all the success that older female competitors have had in affecting change in the IBJJF. I think female heavys should follow their example and prove we are more than just talk.
The Mighty Dames started on a whim. About two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the “Plight of the Big Girl” where I laid out some of the issues I had come across being a bigger woman in the sport. After receiving a great response from fellow heavys, I wanted to create a space to continue the conversation. I started up the Facebook group “The Mighty Dames: Big Girl BJJ Crew” in May of 2017 with the hope of connecting female heavys from all over the world.
Jiu-jitsu can be daunting for anyone to start, and it can be very discouraging when you are the only woman of your size in a gym. Either you get paired up with men or women, someone who is undersized. It can be awkward and isolating. My hope was that The Mighty Dames would help show some support to all those women, to show them that they are not alone and that there is a whole community behind them willing to help out and encourage their journey.
What are your plans for The Mighty Dames this year?
We have a couple of things coming up for the Dames. We will be celebrating our second year in May with some giveaways and I am working on getting more gear for larger women, rash guards and spats. Mostly we are going to keep doing what we have been doing: providing a platform to represent and connect female heavys and promoting positive, healthy body image.
What is your biggest pet peeve in BJJ?
The gym cult mentality. I just don’t get it.
If you had a chance to train with any black belts, who would they be?
I will be the first to admit I am terrible at watching upper level BJJ. But I would love train with Hillary VanOrnum or Dominyka Obelenyte.
Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.
Before jiu-jitsu, music was my main obsession. I was a band kid for most of my life, even going to college on a music scholarship. I played tuba and trombone mostly, but I also play four or so other instruments as well. My early 20s was filled with jam sessions and open mic performances with local musicians.
Check out Torrie the Grappler on Facebook, @torriethegrappler and @themightydames on Instagram.
It’s time for February gi giveaway! Tell us something good that you accomplished or something nice that someone else did for you last month for a chance to win a Fenom gi. Good luck!
*If you are a sponsored athlete or a brand ambassador for another gi company, you will not be eligible to participate in this giveaway.
1. You will be friends with everyone in your gym like a big happy family.
There are so many different personalities on the mat so there is a good chance someone will not like you, just like you don’t like certain people for whatever reason. It is normal that you develop stronger bonds with some people and others get a nod and a mumble of a hi, how are you. Same hobby will not guarantee immediate and lasting friendships. You will avoid training with people who have hurt you, give you creepy vibes, don’t click with you or are generally terrible training partners. It is possible that you are the annoying person to someone and they avoid you. There is no need to worry too much about it and go out of your way to make someone like you. If it happens naturally, great. If it does not, don’t force it. Gym, like workplace, will have some conflict and some camaraderie. Some people simply dislike you. You cannot change your personality to please someone, but you can always try to be a good training partner and not roll like a bonehead.
2. People outside of the gym want to hear about your training all the time.
No! Please, no! Not every birthday party, wedding, baby shower or family dinner night wants to hear about your awesome, incredible, amazing omoplata. Yes, we know you train. It’s your hobby. Don’t be that person who has nothing else to talk about at a social event. What was the last interesting article you read? Tried out a new recipe you saw on Instagram? Won a BBQ competition? Please spare other people from your constant BJJ euphoria, we see it daily on your FB page.
3. Everyone will be great at jiu-jitsu.
That’s a tough one. It is a struggle for anyone to admit that they are average or a slow learner. Training can be fun even if you are not a world champion caliber athlete. It’s a hobby, enjoy it. Learn and accept that you are getting better at your own pace. Some people compete, never win anything and it’s fine. Some people never compete and are happy if they can finally do a backward roll. Comparing yourself to someone else on the mat and having unrealistic goals is a guaranteed path to negative thoughts, resentment, frustration, and general dissatisfaction.
4. When you start training you must only wear BJJ related clothing and accessories. Everywhere.
Remember before you started training jiu-jitsu? You had clothing that didn’t have BJJ, jits, jitz printed on them and they weren’t white-blue-purple-brown-black-belt design? Yes, find that clothing again. It is great to wear them every now and then.
5. Black belts in BJJ are also black belts in life, and they are qualified to give advice about everything and anything.
Some BJJ black belts are great motivational speakers with a huge social media following. Some. A lot of black belts are not that great at teaching, finances, relationships or time management. Be careful what advice you are seeking. Again, BJJ black belt does not mean they are black belts in all aspects of life.
6. Expensive gis are the best.
No gi brand that has their gis made in Pakistan or China owns a textile factory or a manufacturing facility. All men’s and women’s gis come from the same source of fabric. All brands have their gis made in a factory that someone else owns. If only we could tell you how many brands are made in the same facility, by the same workers, using the same fabric… but we can’t. If you like the design and the fit of the gi, buy it, but don’t assume automatically that it is better because of the price.
7. You must train a lot, even when injured and observe class by taking notes when not training.
Oh dear, how many times have you seen this? Someone posting online: I broke my wrist last week, and the doctor said to stay off the mat until it heals. Majority of advice given is total opposite to the doctor’s: Oh no, just tape your hand to your chest and roll. I had 5 broken ribs and a dislocated jaw and still went to class 8 days a week. Why would you not listen to your doctor who has spent years in medical school and instead follow a group of strangers’ advice? What’s the rush anyway? Heal the damn injuries. It’s your body, the one and only you have. They are not giving out medals for bravery. Taking notes while injured? Well, if you must. If you have nothing else to do, then by all means, go sit and take notes. You won’t remember any of it later anyway.
8. Every black belt is a great instructor.
Some black belts are great competitors, some are great instructors, some are both and some are none. It doesn’t take much to open a gym these days. As long as you have a small space, mats and sign on the door, you are in business. No teaching experience or certification is required. Warning signs of a not so great instructor: holds back information, punishes students by holding back belt promotions if student has asked about a belt promotion, ridicules students, makes crude jokes, intimidates students who want to leave, is vague or lies about his own black belt lineage, doesn’t allow cross training or going to open mats. You are not married to the gym you start at, you can always change and find an instructor you really enjoy learning from.
9. You must take private lessons.
If your instructor tells you that he has some secret techniques he only reserves for private lessons, stop and think. Wait a minute, I pay my monthly dues to learn, why is the instructor holding back information, and why is he making me pay extra to learn those special secret techniques? Does it make sense? Not at all. If you want to take private lessons to work out some snags in your game and have one-on-one time with the instructor, that’s fine. But don’t ever be coerced into taking private lessons with the promise of a quicker promotion or a special secret technique. It is shady and fueled by greed.
10. You must roll with everyone.
This is troublesome especially for brand new students who think they have no voice, and must accept any rolling partner no matter what size or shape. They believe they are not allowed to say no. Always remember, it is your training, your body, and you will be paying the medical bills (not the gym, not the person who injures you) when you get hurt. You can and should choose your training partners. A great instructor will never let brand white belts roll with each other anyway. They do more harm to each other than anything else. Be vocal and if you are being forced to roll with people who are reckless, you may want to reconsider if this place really is for you. Lots of injuries, few familiar faces, and a huge turnover of new white belts is a sign of a gym that does not take good care of its students.
11. Women must always be paired up with another woman when there are even number of women on the mat.
Just because you two are both females, doesn’t mean you should be training together. A 120 lb and a 190 lb woman paired up is not a good match. You are better off pairing up with a male of a similar size. You don’t see a rooster and super heavy males paired up for drilling so you should not either. Find someone who benefits your training the most. Training with women is great but don’t let yourself become the “female white belt sitter”. It sucks being paired up with new females all the time while guys are improving their game by rolling with higher belts. Speak up!
12. Quitting is never an option.
This has to be the crown jewel of all BJJ myths. If you promote the slogan that there is no quitting in BJJ, why do so many people quit? Why do we not see a waiting list on the door of each gym because they are at max capacity? Try to remember the names of the people who started training at the same time with you. Look at the gym group pictures from years ago. Ah, there is this dude, I remember him. He always wore a gi one size too small. I wonder what happened to him. Oh, and this girl, she was so good. Right when she got her blue belt, she got married, had a baby and we never saw her again.
Lots and lots of people quit for all sorts of reasons. Quitting is always an option, you can do whatever you want in your life. It is your time, your money, and your body. Jiu-jitsu is for everyone but not everyone will like it. If BJJ no longer interests you, choose something else to do. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad or inferior because you decide to move onto something different.
Brag & Win January gi giveaway winner is Courtney P. from Canada, and Jiu-Jitsu Gypsies fourth anniversary open mat raffle winner is Carolyn N. from Florida. Courtney is a black belt and the organizer of WTF-Women Who Fight, a women’s jiu-jitsu group dedicated to the growth of BJJ in Eastern Canada. Carolyn describes herself as a broke college kid, and a brand new white belt who has been using hand-me-down gis. This is her first brand new gi. We are very happy for both ladies and we hope the new gis spark joy!
Dallas photographer, Maryna Matorina, captured this fantastic Fenom action shot at IBJJF Austin Open and we absolutely love it. It represents jiu-jitsu at its finest: staying calm and collected while applying a submission in a nerve-wrecking situation. Tournaments are some of the most stressful events for kids and adults alike: butterflies in stomach, adrenaline pumping, teammates and instructor watching, opponent’s team yelling. At times it feels like a total blur; time is frozen and there seems to be serious miscommunication between the brain and the body. The brain goes blank and your game plan that you drilled for months has left the building. Even though it is a popular belief that there is no losing in BJJ, only learning, it feels great to submit your opponent while serene and rocking a gorgeous gi. Congratulations!
Our newest women’s gi jacket is made of premium, pre-shrunk, brushed pearl weave fabric. Pants are made of pre-shrunk, super soft cotton drill fabric. The gi has oversized, immaculate tropical flowers embroidery on the pants, trademark F, and smaller tropical flowers accent on sleeves. If you are in between sizes, we recommend to go with a smaller size; it is not a shrink to fit gi. The gi retails at a very affordable 115.00 dollars, and as always, mix and match in regular, tall, and curvy sizes are available. Enjoy the endless summer vibes, and happy shopping!
We are kicking off a new Brag and Win series. Every month one lucky lady will win a Fenom gi of her choice. All you need to do is tell us something good you have done in the past month, no matter how big or small, or something good that happened to you. Let’s hear it!
We have been testing out a new women’s gi size in the past couple of months. A0 Tall size is a hybrid size between A0 and A1. It is perfect for someone tall and slim, someone in A0 weight, 85-120 pounds, and A1 height, 5’2” – 5’5”, bracket. If regular A0 is too short on you, and regular A1 is too wide then A0 Tall is an ideal choice. A0 Tall joins our other very popular tall sizes, A1T and A2T, and after minor tweaks we will make it permanent in our product line. At this time we offer the new size in black pearl weave, navy pearl weave, white bamboo, and white premium pearl weave in Mandala and Tropical Flowers designs.
We asked one of our customers to give us feedback on the new size. Amber is 5’4”, 117 lbs, and this is what she said,
‘I absolutely love my navy blue pearl weave Fenom gi. Being 5’4 and rooster weight has made it very difficult to find a kimono that fits properly. A0 Tall length is spot on, the arms are fitted properly so my opponent doesn’t have extra material to grab, the chest is slender and gives me a shaped look instead of a blue block like most. I have washed the gi for a couple of months now and the color has not faded! That is saying a lot for a navy blue. I don’t notice any excessive shrinkage either. Usually a gi that starts out at a good length ends up shrinking too much to pass competition regulation. I cannot say enough amazing things about this cut and really feel that Fenom succeeded exceptionally well in making a kimono that fits my body type.’
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!