By Valerie Worthington
If you are a grappling enthusiast of any level and you are not familiar with Hannette Staack, you are missing out. One of the most highly decorated competitors—male or female—in the world, Hannette possesses eight world titles at the brown/black level and three Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) gold medals.
If you ARE familiar with Hannette and have had the opportunity to watch her compete, you have witnessed her intimidating pre-competition game face, her strong connection with her coach and husband, Andre “Negao” Terencio (a well-respected IBJJF referee and an accomplished grappler in his own right), and her unflappable demeanor during her matches. To watch Hannette compete is to watch an expert in the sport systematically and calmly execute her game plan, making it look easy. At the most recent Mundial in June 2011, for example, she won her division in spectacular fashion, executing a textbook flying armbar just seconds into the finals match.
What you might not have had the opportunity to learn about Hannette is that she is a warm, funny, caring person, in addition to being a technical, detailed instructor. In person, she is just as likely to crack a joke as she is to revamp your perspective on a technique you thought you already knew, by sharing a few details that make all the difference. And if you do meet her in person, she will know your name by the time your conversation is over.
Hannette demonstrated all of these facets of her personality at the most recent Women’s Grappling Camp (http://www.womensgrappling.org), held at Princeton BJJ (http://www.in Princeton, NJ, November 11-13, 2011. She was the featured instructor for a weekend of technique, training, and stories; she also ran a co-ed seminar on the afternoon of November 13, which enabled some men to learn more about how much she has to offer. The techniques she showed were all from the same starting position and built sequentially and logically off of one another. She also provided time and a unique method for drilling the techniques.
One of the most significant things Hannette shared with the campers was the story of her personal journey with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). In a very real way, her personal journey is reflective of the overall story of BJJ, which is frequently lost on those of us who discovered it in the United States. BJJ had a long and storied history before it ever made it to the US, and it behooves those of us who love the sport to understand it. Hannette’s story can help provide us in the US with a living, breathing link to the history of the sport we all love.
As a child, Hannette had always participated in sports, but never Brazilian jiu jitsu, as the cost was prohibitive. In those days, for Hannette’s family, the cost of a gi was equivalent to half of her parents’ monthly salary. Overcoming this, she found her way to her first grappling academy when she was 18, just out of school. Her first instructor was a police officer, who agreed to take her on even though her father could only afford half of the tuition. Given this opportunity, Hannette promised to give her all.
For the first 5 months of her training, she was ubiquitous at the academy, as well as the only woman. It was difficult, she notes, because the guys didn’t always understand what she was doing there. Many of them assumed she was there only looking for a boyfriend, though the suggestion made her bristle, as did the women she observed who actually were doing this. As evidenced by the fact that she earned her blue belt in 4 months, Hannette had a different agenda. She also started competing early on, winning 3 tournaments as a white belt; her mother could barely watch because of nerves! It was after competing that she realized she loved BJJ and competition, and her life changed forever.
Training BJJ caused Hannette to tone down her life. She stopped being a “wild child,” as she had been earlier in her teens. And while 18 was relatively late to start BJJ by Brazilian standards, Hannette quickly realized she always wanted to keep going, keep learning, keep training.
After a certain amount of success, she lost in the final of her first national competition in Brazil, after 5 months of training. This was a good experience for her. It put her back in the “humble shoes,” as a Portuguese idiom puts it, and helped her redouble her determination to progress in BJJ.
Things took an unexpected turn, however, when she started dating a white belt after she earned her blue belt. This man started asking Hannette to stop training. He didn’t understand that Hannette truly was training BJJ because she loved it and wanted to learn. He thought she was there to meet men. He became wildly jealous, and this only worsened after they moved in together, even though she gave up training for a year and a half to be with him. Ultimately, this man started beating Hannette.
Eventually, Hannette had an epiphany; while at her job at a cell phone company, she stayed late to work with a client. Her boyfriend showed up at her job when she didn’t come home “on time,” and became physical with her and threatened the safety of her family. That was the final straw, and she left him that day, going to the safety of her mother’s home. She decided she had had enough and that it was time to leave him—and to train again.
While this was obviously a traumatic chapter in Hannette’s life, she is grateful for the fact that it helped her realize she would never ever again give up on her dreams.
After this difficult time, Hannette moved on and continued training, when her life took another momentous turn. Her instructor, Master Flavio, brought her to a different academy to train with some of the students there. She felt fairly confident—until she got “schooled” by one of the students. The instructor of this student was one Andre Terencio, then a brown belt. Some months passed after this event, because although she wanted to train with Andre, she needed to put some money together to be able to afford it.
But eventually, they ran into each other at a club, where she was dressed up and dancing samba. One thing led to another, and they started dating—at which point she got to train with him for free! She decided she’d never stop training again for anyone or anything.
In addition to becoming the man she would marry, Andre also helped Hannette become more disciplined. By this time, she had started to entertain the dream of becoming a BJJ world champion, and Andre helped her develop the discipline she needed to achieve this goal, which she eventually did multiple times. The first three times, she won as a purple belt, a brown belt, and a black belt, consecutively.
Despite the fact that she still gets nervous when she competes, and that she did not want her black belt when it was awarded to her, she frequently returns to Andre’s mantra for her: “BELIEVE! You have to believe!!” This mantra has come in handy in many situations. For example, in 2005, she had a run of bad luck, including a torn ACL and various other injuries stemming from some substandard judo instruction. She had to have surgery, and jokes that it was during this year that she developed a bottom game, because playing on top was too painful.
2005 was the first year the ADCC tournament was open to women, and Hannette desperately wanted to go. It was invitation only, but she didn’t have any connections. Nor, as it turns out, did she have the necessary paperwork to enter the USA (the tournament was held at the Pyramid in Long Beach, CA, a familiar sight for many grapplers.) Up until the eleventh hour before the tournament, Hannette was struggling in the Brazilian consulate, trying desperately to gain permission to travel to the US to compete in the tournament, for which she had finally received an invitation.
At the end of her rope, Hannette despaired of things working out until Andre implored her to BELIEVE and they ultimately received the approval they needed and were off to the US.
Hannette ruminated about the treatment of women in those early days; at that ADCC, there were two weight classes, and she had to share a room with her opponent, Juliana Borges. Borges ultimately beat Hannette in the final on a takedown, and Hannette had to see the trophy in their hotel room. In 2007, she returned and won the tournament, but she still had difficulty because she was not directly acquainted with anyone related to the tournament.
In short, Hannette has experienced challenges in BJJ because of her gender and because she doesn’t have the connections that some people have. But she has advice for any grappling women on those days when they are feeling doubt and asking themselves why on earth they do this crazy sport: Never give up. Follow your dreams. And BELIEVE!