This edition of Black Belt Corner features Felicia Oh whom we tried to interview for a long time. Things got delayed, and postponed, and we thought it was not going to happen. Turns out that in the last 3 weeks a whole lot in Felicia’s life has changed, and her story did not want to go public without it! The wait was worthwhile. Please enjoy!
Can you tell us a little bit about how you found BJJ, and what you have been doing lately?
I started training when I was 33 years old. I had done lots of different sports growing up but I wasn’t really good at any of them. I was decent; I didn’t get cut from the JV Basketball team but I never actually got to play. I enjoyed gymnastics a lot, and made the team but I wasn’t really that good. I just really loved sports, and worked very hard at them.
In 2000, I had an unusually bad outdoor year. I did the LA Marathon, and it turned into an awful time. And then, in October, I went on a last-minute climb to Mt. Whitney, and that was also a terrible experience. We got caught in a horrible storm, and never made it to the top. My friend’s husband told me about BJJ on our drive up so on the unpleasant drive home, I decided that an indoor activity might be a good change. The following week I went to watch a class at Jean Jacques Machado’s Academy, and signed up. After 6 months I did my first tournament, and after that I just kept competing.
It’s funny because it wasn’t like I did my first class, and thought “Wow! I’ve found a great sport”. It was just a class that I signed up for, and went to go learn. I kept going back, and the 2 days a week turned into 3, into 4, and so on.
I received my black belt from Jean Jacques Machado after training for 4.5 years. In 2006, I won the ADCC North American Trials, and my spot at ADCC. I finished 2nd after winning matches against two very seasoned women’s jiu- jitsu veterans.
Later that year, I got Epstein-Barr Virus, and have been plagued with health, and fatigue issues ever since. I competed a few times in the following years, and had started training for MMA but it was impossible to train at the high level necessary in order to compete. I’ve gone to different doctors but haven’t found any answers. This forced me to shift my focus more to teaching instead of training.
Now I’ve found myself having a great time teaching, and coaching kids! It was never something I was interested in doing! This year, I am helping to start the Valencia High School Wrestling program, the first one in the Santa Clarita Valley since they cut back their sports program in 1977.
For a while I’ve entertained the idea of getting back to competition. However, at 46, I’ve reluctantly come to accept that the body is no longer the same, and it has a mind of its own. There are increasingly more divisions, and competitors in the masters divisions so I decided to compete this year at the World Masters Jiu-Jitsu Championship, and took home a gold medal after just a few weeks of training!
Which belt level was the most challenging for you, and how did you overcome the challenges?
Wow! Every belt level has its own set of challenges, and then life has its own set of challenges on top of that. That would be a few books worth! There were times where jiu-jitsu was my safe cocoon, my escape, and made all my problems, all my worries disappear because the person on your back trying to choke you out was a little more pressing at that moment. It lets you have very focused attention; I love that, and the freedom that I feel in that space.
There were also times where jiu-jitsu was the source of my misery, and it has been very difficult. I would say my blue belt was a real emotional jiu-jitsu rollercoaster ride. After 2009 I was pretty much done with competing, and training. I only taught.
The fatigue made it really hard to train, so for 3 years I didn’t do anything. When I would try to get back to rolling or even running, some odd injury popped up, and it started to get very frustrating, and old after a couple of years. I was starting to think that I was done with training for good.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I started running again; felt pretty good, and didn’t get any injuries, and sort of decided to sign up for the 2014 IBJJF World Masters Championship. I didn’t think there would be anyone my age, and I did it more as something to make me commit to training again. But there was another woman, Sue Ausman, signed up so I put my gi on, and started training! The tournament is sometimes referred to as “Old Man Worlds” but being there this year was really amazing. It has grown so much! I got to see so many guys I used to watch, and whom I looked up to; they are back out there on the mat competing! There are also the brave men, and women that do both the regular Worlds, and the Masters because 30 isn’t really that old, and certainly doesn’t mean you are past your prime!
It has taken me some time to come around to this, and I would not have done the tournament before, but now I’m so grateful that there is a venue for competitors when we …uh… advance in our years, and realize that the competition itch doesn’t fully go away. Coming back to training; learning to enjoy jiu-jitsu for the pure joy of it, without competition as the primary motivation. That is where I am now!
What advice would you give to women who have a hard time in training?
It’s the same in life, and in jiu-jitsu that you just have to keep going. Even though you will get lost or you are uncertain; you just keep going, and believing. Sometimes it is a really hard advice to follow when it seems like things keep getting worse and worse. It’s easier in jiu-jitsu because you can tap, and you get to start over. Life does not always let you start over or give you a second chance, and the boundaries are not always as clear. So I find this to be much easier in jiu-jitsu than in life.
Judge Judy knows. Judge Judy would probably roll too. Who would not want to have her as a training partner?
When your training partner takes too long to fix the belt, hair or gi pants.
When your instructor teaches worm guard.
When your training partner gives 100% resistance while drilling a new technique.
When your training partner tries to submit you after the time has run out.
When your training partner talks too long about winning the only match she had at a tournament.
When a lower belt corrects your technique.
When you are about to submit your training partner; he stops and tries to coach you how to finish the submission in order to avoid tapping.
When your least favorite training partner asks to roll.
When your training partners talk about how many gis they have.
We are ending our 5th anniversary celebration with a gi giveaway! We wrote about us in the last two blog posts and would like to hear from you now. Go to our Facebook page and follow the instructions for a chance to win a brand new gi! Good luck!
Here, in the second part of the Lessons Learned in Five Years article, we are listing 14 items that have stood out in our minds the most.
1. Pink is the most controversial color. Lots of jiu-jitsu women love it; lots of women hate it, and they are not afraid to voice their opinions. Some women believe that wearing pink makes them too girly, and not one of the guys on the mat. Let’s be honest, the color of your gi has no effect on your jiu-jitsu skills. Some like angry animals; some like kanji; some like skulls; and some like color pink! More tolerance, less hate towards color pink! Aren’t we supposed to embrace each others individuality? Let’s not make girls, and women feel inferior because they choose to wear a pink gi.
2. A1 and A2 are the most popular sizes. 80% of our adult gi sales are A1 and A2, the rest 20% is randomly divided between A0, A3 and A4. In the past year, our redesigned A4 size has become a hit among very curvy ladies. This month we started adding tall sizes to put an end to high-water pants.
3. Curvy pants are the most popular mix and match option. We are one of the first companies that started offering mix and match options in 2010, and based on the feedback the curvy pants were created. We had no idea that curvy pants would become our best seller separates. These are essentially half sizes that save the customers a trip to the tailor shop.
4. Popular vote does not necessarily turn into actual sales. There are people who comment on Facebook when we ask for feedback but never make a purchase. We’ve learned to always listen to the ones who have purchased from us, and to trust our gut feeling.
5. Not all colors sell at the same rate. Navy blue color has been in high demand, and seems to be ‘the color’ for 2013 and 2014. White and royal blue gis sell consistently because they are widely accepted in most gyms. Black gis are unpredictable; they sell in spurts. We do not aim for sprints here and there; we prefer a steady pace. Oh, and gis become especially popular as soon as they are sold out. This happens every time!
6. International shipping is expensive. Yes, it is and we wish it were cheaper as well. USPS medium flat rate box shipping charge in 2009 was 25.95 to Canada, and 41.95 to the rest of the world. In 2014 the rates are 42.25 and 61.75 respectively. Astonishing price jump, eh? We can kick, and scream about it all day but that is not going to make a change. The best advice is to order 2-3 gis at a time, and ask for combined shipping which at times is 60% cheaper.
7. As the business grows, the scam artists get bolder. One would think that all martial arts people are honest. We’ve had people claim that the package was stolen when it clearly shows delivered; ordering the wrong size, and demanding a free gi because in their mind the product is defective; threatening to post negative reviews if we don’t exchange a washed gi; damaging the gi, and blaming us for it; endless exchanges, and disputing perfectly fine transactions; asking for a rush shipment, and not paying the upcharge. No business is immune to scam artists. You have to get used to it, and minimize losses as much as possible.
8. Not every latest trend should be followed. We are trying to stay away from cliché design elements, as well as overly garish, gaudy, and flamboyant stuff that is in today, and out tomorrow. Your gi should be functional, basic, classic, and timeless, just like your little black dress.
9. You cannot please everyone. In order to have 100 percent satisfaction rate you would have to do custom gis, fitted perfectly to each individual body. If one person does not like the gi, it doesn’t mean the product is bad. It is not tragic, people have different taste and fit preferences.
10. You have to learn not to panick. The sooner you accept that things will go wrong, the less stress you’ll have to deal with. The time to worry is when there is something you can do about a situation. If you cannot do anything then just let others do their job. Will worrying and yelling expletives at DHL make the airplanes fly any faster? If the answer is no; then you might as well sit back, and read a book instead of angrily refreshing the computer screen for non-existing tracking updates.
11. High price does not equal higher quality. Every brand faces the exact same issues with production, shipment delays, miscommunication that affects the final product, defective stitching, misprints, wrong labels, etc. The list goes on and on. The question one should ask is; Is this defect minor and does it affect only esthetics or does it render the gi completely useless. Although we strive for the highest quality, some imperfections can be acceptable. We have chosen to offer affordable, high quality products, and will stay on this path.
12. We’ve made lots of mistakes. Mistakes happen. Sometimes a wrong size or wrong color gi is shipped out, and it is very disappointing for a customer who has spent her hard-earned money, and really needed the gi on a certain day. We’ve been yelled at, and told to tear our website down because we don’t know what we are doing. We feel terrible when things go wrong. Our goal is to work on minimizing the mistakes, learning, improving, and always finding a suitable compensation for the customer.
13. Most customers are awesome. If you are nice we will bend our own return policy rules rather often and liberally. Sometimes we exchange washed gis, send free pants, patches, free sample gis, shirts. You just have to ask. Be nice, and people will be nice to you.
14. A good message from a happy customer is worth more than money. Especially when we are having a bad week with delays, and hiccups; a kind message from a customer gives us the necessary push, and surge of energy to continue on the path. Fitting a frustrated customer into the right size gi or making a rush delivery to make someone’s birthday a very special day is rewarding. We truly appreciate it!
Thank you for reading and stay Powered by She!
In October, five years ago, we received our very first batch of women’s gis. Five months of somewhat hard work culminated in an actual product! It was such an exhilarating time; so much eagerness and a hefty dose of cluelessness. When you start a business, it is very much like stepping on the mat as a white belt; nervous beyond belief but too excited, and in awe to turn away. The white belt enthusiasm carried us pretty far, and looking back makes us wonder; how did we survive this?
Remember the feeling; driving home after a hard training session that could only be described as a gigantic disaster; you were emotionally and physically beat up, overwhelmed, upset and unable to control the tears? Yeah, in the first year we had plenty of meltdowns like that.
Starting commerce with a Pakistani vendor was like learning a new language. A western woman demanding answers was unheard of, and not well received at the factory. Cultural differences, communication errors, and constant clashes resulted in missed deadlines, and resentment on both sides. Fortunately neither party was a quitter, and things got smoothed out over time. Just like in jiu-jitsu you start trusting your training partners, the same happens in business. You find your groove.
When you reach the blue belt level, you walk onto the mat with a renewed confidence and the feeling of ‘oh yeah, I made it.’ After a couple of shipments of gis, that’s how we felt. We made it; the first product is out; we are in business! Woohoo! And then the first customer complains emerge; you panick. Seeing new gi companies pop up every week, and your very first bad shipment sends you to a full-blown panick attack. The kind that makes you hyperventilate; binge eat; and think ”bloody hell, I can’t take it any more”; I’m getting a real job next week.
The second and third year in business are the real test, the not-so-pretty-blue-belt phase. It’s the real grind of hard work, learning, making mistakes, learning, making more mistakes. Bigger companies are still not threatened by you because most start-ups fold by this time. Surely, this one will close up shop soon. But in the back of their mind they wonder, can this company really take customers away from me? How do they keep the prices so low? No matter how big their smile is, inside they are uncomfortable.
Many companies go under since the brand-new-business-excuse cannot be used forever. Making a hundred gis and calling it “limited edition” has its charm until every other company tries to do the same thing. The fluctuating product quality, uncertainty of dealing with vendors thousands of miles away, and cash flow problems can send any company spiralling downward, no matter how cool their products look. Very often you can’t tell if it is a real business, or one of the fantoms trying to make a quick buck promising the moon and the stars, then disappearing, and re-appearing under a new name weeks later.
At the purple belt level, the white belt enthusiasm, and blue belt hunger have disappeared. You kind of know that you will never use every technique you’ve learned. Starting to fine tune your favorite ones becomes exciting. Most of us have probably had our fair share of injuries by now, and hitting every possible open mat in 100 mile radius is not the priority any more. The game has some finesse but there is still so far to go. Training smarter, not harder!
In business, this is the time where things are running pretty smooth. Frantic, knee-jerk movements have been replaced by relative calmness. There are still days where things go very wrong but this is normal. We’ve developed solid customer and vendor relationships that we continue nurturing. Seeing the vision come to life, and grow like a mushroom thanks to the immense support from jiu-jitsu women is gratifying. However, the work never ends; we are far from putting our feet up, and sipping martinis all day. Finding balance while making a mark in the world is what we strive for. Thank you so much for being part of our first five years!
Sophia Drysdale started jiu-jitsu in 2002 in Melbourne, Australia. She had been in gymnastics for about 10 years when a long-term injury forced her to retire. She was looking for something that was physically and mentally challenging, and her search stopped the day she found BJJ.
Sophia trained in Australia for 5 years, and after doing very well at local tournaments she decided to compete overseas. She won her first Pan American Championships as a blue belt and then again as a purple belt two years in a row. That is when she decided to move overseas to focus more on training.
Sophia moved to the US in 2007. For the next few years, however, she was dealing with a series of major injuries that halted her competition career temporarily. In 2009 Sophia started training in Las Vegas with Robert Drysdale, and received her black belt in 2010. Two years later she won a gold at the No-Gi Worlds right before becoming pregnant with her first child. A year and a half later she had another baby. This year Sophia has been busy teaching women’s jiu-jitsu seminars in Australia, Mexico and the US, and she is back on the competition scene. She added Pan Ams gold, and the Worlds bronze to her impressive list of achievements.
Although she still trains very hard and competes, her focus is a little different. She wants to teach more, and help inspire and empower women. She wants to show that you can be a mother, and an athlete at the same time. Even though she did not take home a gold this year at the Worlds, we are pretty sure she was the only mother on the black belt podium. Considering her youngest is only a year old, and she had stopped breastfeeding 6 months earlier, that is quite an achievement.
What was the most challenging belt level for you?
My brown belt was the most challenging belt because at the time I was overseas on my own searching for an academy that I could call home. I had suffered from some really bad injuries, such as torn cartilage in my ribs, complete shoulder separation, and herniated disc in my neck. Competing was also tough because brown and black belt were in the same division. Mentally it was tough to deal with being an up-and-comer, and knowing that I was competing against some of the most seasoned black belts who I had idolized throughout my journey.
What advice would you give to women who are struggling?
BJJ is always tougher for women since we are the minority on the mat. I would say that most women have dealt with sexual discrimination, being ostracized or bullying of some sort. But this is changing. Today the journey for women is much easier than it was back when I started.
There are so many more women who train now, and they have formed solid training groups which is a huge help. Additionally, there are more female black belts, so there are more role models who teach women’s classes and seminars.
This is important on so many levels because women see that it can be done. You can achieve your black belt, be a world champion, a teacher, and a mother! Seminars are an opportunity to pass on techniques that are better suited for women. I teach techniques that have taken me years to refine, and I know they work! Seminar, camps and open mats provide an opportunity for women to cross train, learn, share, and grow together and build lifelong friendships.
BJJ is a way of life. If things get rough, there is nothing wrong with taking a break, and getting back on the mats when the fire is strong again. Also, changing your attitude at certain times can help. If you are feeling bad, tired or weak, it is better to focus on having a great workout, and spending time with friends rather than focusing on winning all your matches. Having a strong support network helps tremendously. It is much easier to overcome obstacles if you have an empathetic coach, a friend or a partner who understands the sport and what you are going through.
Day after day we see Facebook status updates from jiu-jitsu women who are having the most amazing training. Everything is awesome and great. This makes us wonder what really is behind this non-stop awesomeness.
We want to know what makes your jiu-jitsu unique. What are you known for? Are you a clone of your instructor or do you have your own distinctive style? Are you a super athlete? Are you a submission machine? Or are you a slow learner who struggles day in and day out always being the last one to be picked for rolling? What makes you good, different or both? How would you describe your jiu-jitsu without the following words: awesome, amazing, fierce, sick, and beast?
Please comment as long or as short as you wish, and you will have a chance to win a Fenom gi. Good luck!
Brunei (Negara Brunei Darussalam) is a tiny country with a population of about 416,000 people. It is located on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo that is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Brunei is a devoutly Muslim country but also respectful, and open to other faiths and beliefs. It is an oil rich country with some of the most breath-taking, untamed rainforests, and opulent buildings.
A few months ago we started receiving gi orders from Brunei, and were wondering how in the world did Brunei jiu-jitsu women find us.
We asked one of our customers, Ling, to talk about BJJ in Brunei. Ling is a 33-year old mom of three, soon to be four, kids. She is a youth worker, and a life coach, and has been training for about 8 months now. She is a white belt, and her whole family trains together.
Ling, how did you get started and what is happening in BJJ in Brunei?
I first heard about BJJ when I was a kid. My dad was huge fan of the Gracies, and he would bring home video tapes of the Gracies’ fights for us to watch. He said, if you want to learn how to be the best fighter, you need to learn BJJ. He was a 3rd degree karate black belt at the time. However, back then BJJ schools, and classes were unheard of in Brunei. Even the term jiu-jitsu would leave a lot of people clueless and confused.
Right now I’m glad to say that we are blessed to have access to BJJ. Our instructor Eazy is local. He is a purple belt, and participates actively in competitions. Occasionally we have black belt guest instructors who fly in to teach seminars. We have two branches, one near the capital and the other in another district. The academy is called Busiido BJJ, and we belong to Checkmat association. So far we have about 10 women who actively train BJJ. Our coach’s wife, Fuzzers, is a blue belt and the highest ranked woman in Brunei.
Is it challenging for women to train in Brunei?
Initially because of our conservative culture, most women would feel a little awkward if they had to partner with a guy for the first time. However, eventually we get over our shyness because there is only a limited number of female partners. Over time we also develop healthy friendships with our teammates and that makes it easier to train. We can’t let the boys have all the fun!
The fees at our academy are affordable but buying gis is very expensive. Everything has to be ordered online internationally, and the shipping cost plus the exchange rate makes everything pricey. Another limitation is the lack of tournaments. If we want to compete, we have to travel outside of the country.
What do you like about BJJ?
I love that both my husband, our three kids, and I all train together. It draws us closer to each other, and make family time extra fun. I enjoy learning new techniques at BJJ. Right now it’s all about the chokes. I also love spider guard, and de la Riva guard. I enjoy seeing my endurance improve, and being able to perfectly execute that move after practicing it many times!
What makes Brunei a great place to live?
I would like to invite everyone to visit Brunei. It is a very beautiful, and very unique place. We are a tiny country but we have our own culture, and everyone is friendly here. It’s a peaceful place, a great place to raise kids, and we generally have an easy paced life. We are tax-free nation, and every Bruneian has access to free education and healthcare. We have some of the nicest beaches that are less crowded than other popular tourist spots. Come and visit us!
Cindy Omatsu was born on January 19, 1961, and started training in July of 1994 at Redondo Beach, California. She walked by the aerobic room at Gold’s Gym, and saw a bunch of guys rolling around on a big mat. At that time a lot of women in South Bay area were being attacked, so she thought it would be a great idea to learn some self-defense. She was hoping to find another woman in class but there were none. The one thing that really got her attention was when her training partner grabbed her wrist. The strength and force of a man’s grip was hard to deal with, and she realized why women would just give up when attacked. She was hooked after the first class. At the same time Cindy’s family was going through a rough time because her dad was battling cancer. Every class helped Cindy deal with her dad’s sickness, and gave her strength to help her mom care for him. Sadly, Cindy’s dad passed away.
After training for a year at Gold’s Gym under Renato Magna, she switched to the Machado Academy at Redondo Beach. Cindy received her black belt from Rigan Machado and Leka Vieira in 2002, making her the first American, as well as the first woman outside of Brazil to receive a black belt in BJJ. Cindy is currently teaching at Let’s Roll Academy in Torrence, and at The Brentwood Club in West LA. She is the OG of women’s BJJ in the US, and her contribution to the sport is invaluable.
What was the most challenging belt level for you?
I feel that my purple belt was one of my toughest belts. This is the belt where you learn which techniques really work for you, and your body type. Your game is really developing here, and you are learning to perfect your moves. I have had many purple belts tell me that they feel stuck or plateau at this belt. At purple belt level it feels like you advance five steps, and then get knocked back down ten. As an instructor, purple belt is where I see a lot of improvement, and growth in my students. With a lot of mat time, and consistent training the rewards will pay off!
What advice would you give to women?
Women who are at white or blue belt level, ask your instructor to watch out for you so that you are training with students who won’t injure you. If you can train with upper belts, do so because they will give you pointers as you roll with them.
I also tell jiu-jitsu women to give yourself kudos if you pass a guy’s guard or hold them in side control or mount. Sometimes you aren’t going to get the tap but you are getting dominant positions, and stabilizing them. Take it as a compliment when a guy starts putting more pressure on you or starts using more strength. It means he is getting frustrated, and your technique is working!
Injuries can happen at any belt level. It is important to let your injuries heal, and be very, very, very patient. I have had my share of injuries with strained MCLs, torn ACL, and shoulder. If you don’t take care of them or let them heal, they will definitely come back, and bite cha in the butt!
Enjoy the experience and journey that each belt level brings. Have fun! If you aren’t learning, and having fun then it is time to quit!