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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.
What prompted you to start The Mighty Dames?
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.