See Me Rollin’
An almost-middle-aged woman falls hard for fighting
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor Eduardo Rodrigues demonstrates a choke using the gi during a class at Berkshire Nautilus in Pittsfield.
I am in the orthopedist’s office describing my pain level and inquiring about the bruise that is making my entire leg look like it has jaundice. The four incisions he made the previous week for an ACL replacement and a meniscus repair are angry and swollen. But I am more concerned about the bruising. That’s when he tells me that he drilled a nine-millimeter hole into my tibia to thread the new ligament through and attach it to my body.
“You mean like a bullet?” I feel queasy at the idea.
“Yup. I think you’ll be very happy with this knee when all’s said and done.”
I have been out of commission for more than six weeks. My leg swells and shrinks with the weather. It is pointless to ask the doctor when I can train again since we are just getting into the idea of my possibly walking without crutches.
This madness began nearly two years ago. It was a boiling-hot, summer day and I had seen a flyer for a children’s self-defense class that I wanted to enroll my son in. He was having anxiety over “kidnappers coming,” and I thought this would give him some skills and some confidence. He was the only kid in that first class. The instructor was a compact man with a thick Brazilian accent and tattoos everywhere. I felt lazy just sitting there watching them sweat it out, so I shyly made my way to the middle of the room and started running with them in my capris and sports bra. We punched and kicked and rolled on the ground. It was awesome. I couldn’t wait for the next class. But more kids showed up then, so I backed off.
Before these classes, I had zero knowledge of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). My grandfather had been a boxer. My brothers and I beat the crap out of each other with old gloves, bare-fisted when Mom wasn’t home. When my son started training, I watched intently.
Jiu jitsu is a Japanese phrase commonly translated as the “gentle art.” This makes most of us mat rats laugh. It’s a grappling art that focuses on timing and leverage. Brazilian jiu jitsu, thanks largely to proponent Hélio Gracie, is a further-developed practice for ground defense and gives smaller opponents a chance to dominate their rival. It is based on chokes and submissions and is one of the cornerstones of mixed-martial arts.
After a few months of taking my son to the kids class, I decided to take a mixed-martial-arts class for adults, one that incorporated BJJ, Muay Thai (a form of kickboxing), and other combat arts and conditioning into one and a half hours of total hell. I fancied myself an athlete prior to the class—I hiked, ran, danced; took my bike on long, hot rides; played every sport imaginable from the moment I could walk—but I nearly died those first eight weeks.
Eventually, I started looking forward to spinning around, donkey-kicking, and the absolute rush of sparring, getting in hits, taking hits. (I’ve had several black eyes.) Twice a week wasn’t enough. I wanted more. With my son’s urging, I decided to try my hand at grappling. I think he was excited to pound the hell out of me in an environment where he wouldn’t get in trouble for choking his mother.
That was at the end of September 2015. Some nights I would come home barely able to hold back tears of frustration. I wasn’t picking it up easily like every other athletic thing that I had tried in my life. After those classes, my son would warn the others in the house before I even got to the door: “Ma had a rough class tonight. Don’t say anything to her.”
I started training even harder in January. My son had competed in his second tournament in Boston, and I committed myself to a competition in Albany slated for March. I stopped eating bread and cheese. I didn’t touch wine. I ran miles on my “day off.” I went to open-mat sessions at night, after training that morning. I didn’t go out, ever. My friends were frustrated. My family thought I was getting too thin. My kids were my only support system—they understood.
A day’s meals consisted of two eggs with spinach, black coffee, an apple, a handful of raw peanuts, more spinach with unadorned tuna, a banana, and a protein shake after training. I didn’t even have cake on my 39th birthday. By March 5, I was mean. Terrified, but mean. I weighed in at the event a solid 5'6", 135 pounds of muscle. I was the oldest competitor in my division.
Matches are only four minutes, which seems like a blink and an eternity at the same time. My heart was pounding before I made contact with my first opponent. Once I got her to the ground, everything felt quiet, de-spite the screams of my coach and the whistles blowing in other rings. I could hear my heart and the heavy sound of her breathing. For that first match, my first ever, I won a gold medal in the Women’s Masters Novice Division for Featherweight. My next match was against a heavier competitor—I was bumped up a weight class so that she could have an opponent. She was short, very stocky, and when she took me down, I felt a whoosh in my guts and a sickening pop in my knee.
The road ahead of me is long. I’m still training—boxing, swimming, doing ground drills, tons of physical therapy. I’m told it will be two months before I return to the mats in full form, maybe more. But I will be back.