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Preschool teacher wins Pan No-Gi: “In general, I think the parents love that I train martial arts”

Nikki at the top of the podium at the 2014 Pan No-Gi. Photo: Personal archive
Nikki at the top of the podium at the 2014 Pan No-Gi. Photo: Personal archive

In the fall of 2009, Nikki Sullivan took on Jiu-Jitsu as a new hobby. Five years later she won the Pan No-Gi purple belt lightweight title. In between, she became a preschool teacher. Over the past year she has made it to Abu Dhabi as a blue belt, earned her purple belt and made it to the top of the podium a few times. The Indiana native finds time to train just as other serious athletes do but while also making a difference in the lives of youth on a daily basis.

Check out how Nikki manages her time of training and teaching, what awkward situations have arisen from two dueling roles she plays and her plans in the future:

GRACIEMAG: What got you into Jiu-Jitsu?

NIKKI SULLIVAN: I’ve always liked to ‘wrassle’, even before I knew what I was doing. My brothers and I used to roughhouse all the time when we were little. I’ve always been interested in the martial arts. I tried taekwondo my freshman year in college, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for. I wanted to feel like I could defend myself if I needed to. My senior year in college, a friend recommended Jiu-Jitsu. I took a class through the university, and immediately fell in love with it. I got involved with the BJJ club at Indiana University. I wanted to roll all the time, anywhere. I remember rolling outside in the grass a couple of times, or even on a racquetball court once, haha. (I decided not to do that again.)

When did you decide to become a preschool teacher?

I knew I loved teaching since I was a kid. I decided to major in education when I was in college, but did not decide to work with the preschool age until after graduating and working for a few years.

Have the two roles, Jiu-Jitsu competitor and teacher, conflicted in terms of priorities and schedule?

4_GB72_StampSiteIt can be tough to balance teaching full-time with training and teaching Jiu-Jitsu as well. Some days I’m so drained after work that all I can do is drill. I make the most out of the down time and breaks that I get- I’ve had to learn to conserve my energy throughout the day. And I drink lots of coffee!!! I have to make sure I’m eating right so I don’t crash. I love being able to hit the training really hard on weekends, when I’m mentally and physically fresh. Sometimes I’ll do mini workouts at school: I’ll hold the kids and do squats, or have one of them climb on my back while I do pushups. The kids love it. Sometimes I’ll have them do bear crawls, bunny hops, etc. to get their energy out. I have time to plan and prep at work, so when I get done at 4, I’m free to train or do whatever else I need to. The best part about being a teacher… we get breaks! Summer, fall, winter break, etc. This summer, I was able to just focus on training, and it was wonderful. The breaks give me time to put in some more intensive training, and also to get some much-needed rest. Also, my school has been great about letting me take vacation days when I need to travel for tournaments. My boss and co-workers are very supportive of my passion for Jiu-Jitsu. I have a great team around me.

How often are you able to train? What’s an average daily schedule like for you?

I train 6 days a week, an average of 4 hours per day. On an average week day, I work 8 to 4, then have about an hour after work to chill before training. I then train until 8 or 9. For instance: on Tuesday, I help teach our kids judo class at the academy from 5-6, then train 6-8, then sometimes I’ll hop over to the university club after and roll until 9:30 or 10. Sometimes, when I’m prepping for a tournament, I’ll go in a couple mornings at 6:45 and get in some extra drilling before work. I also teach a women’s class on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. I train from 10-4 on Saturdays. I road-trip to other schools in the area when I can. I’ve also been trying to add some strength training in there. I have a really hard time making sure I take rest days. They’re super important though.

Do the parents find out that you do Jiu-Jitsu? Any interesting run-ins or embarrassing jokes?

There have been a few times when I came in to work with a black eye, and I got some looks… some questions. One time someone jokingly asked if I got into a fight, and I had to respond, “Wellll… yes…but let me explain…” Eventually, everyone gets used to the fact that bruises are a part of my life. In general, I think the parents love that I train martial arts. Most of them still think I do karate. They will make jokes like, “Oh, so that’s how Miss Nikki keeps you in line!” Some of the kids have siblings that go to my kids judo class. I brought in some of my tournament medals one day and let the kids wear them around, which they loved! I think the parents really enjoyed seeing their babies being little champions.

How much were you preparing for Pan No-Gi when you won the lightweight division?

I was training as much as I could. My training schedule didn’t change too much, but I was going into the gym at 6:45 a.m. a couple mornings a week to get extra drilling and rolling in before work. I also try to grab a buddy and drill after or in-between classes to get extra reps in. I go to a school in Greenwood on Sundays for competition training, and that’s super helpful for tournament prep. Lots of working from the feet, shark-tanking, etc.

Walk me through your matches. Which was the toughest?

In my first match against Hanna Rauch, I got taken down, then swept, passed the guard, took the back, and finished with a belly down rear-naked choke. In my second match against Danielle Alvarez, I pulled a high guard and caught a tight armbar early in the match. My final match against Eva Tarnay was probably the toughest. I pulled guard again and was able to sweep, then it was a battle to pass and control on top. She was aggressive, never gave up, and had great movement. I’m not sure if I ever got points for the pass. I was able to take the back and attacked submissions until the end of the match. Her defenses were great! This was the only match that I was unable to finish with a submission.

What’s next for you?

I’m competing in the FIVE North American Invitational Championship in Miami. I want to do Pans and Worlds in the Spring and maybe the Europeans if I can swing it.

Watch the semi-final of Pan No-Gi:

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