A brown-belt aged just 18, Gabrieli Pessanha is continuing to carve out her space among the elite of international BJJ Born and raised in Cidade de Deus — the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood made famous by the movie City of God — the Infight representative, under the guidance of Márcio de Deus at TMD House, has a résumé packed with big wins.
Currently leading the UAEJJF rankings, with expressive titles at every Grand Slam this season (Tokyo, London and Rio), Gabi has been amassing experience as well as titles. But her victories extend well beyond the mats.
Graciemag caught up with her and learned from her the secret to defeating one’s fears and more. Check it out.
GRACIEMAG: Who is Gabi Pessanha and how did she come upon BJJ?
GABI PESSANHA: I used to hang out a lot at the soccer field near my house in Cidade de Deus — playing ball, flying kites, playing. Until one day they invited the kids to train BJJ in the church’s social project. I wasn’t at the field, but my friend Lucas ran to my place to call me. I didn’t want to train, but he to go to just check it out. I didn’t much care for grappling, sweating. I’m very shy. One day Marcio de Deus, who is my teacher to this day, from seeing me watch the training so often, invited me to train. I attended the class, came back the other day, and never stopped.
So your dream became to be a great BJJ champion, or did that take time?
In the beginning it was more just for fun, but I’d show up focused on training and learning. I never thought I’d become a competitor, that I’d travel the world to fight — stuff like that. One day, Marcio said at training that a 17-year-old Infight fighter — Lucas Valle — was going to fight abroad. My eyes lit up; I wanted that too. I thought it was impossible, that we weren’t going to be able to save up for me to go, but I worked even harder and motivated to be better than I was every day. And I succeeded.
About your most recent engagement, at Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Rio de Janeiro. How was the experience of fighting at the top level so close to home and friends?
I was very happy to fight near my home, my training mates, who motivated me so much Every Grand Slam is nice to fight in. Last year I chose not to fight in Rio, because there was no prize in my category (juvenile), so I worked at the event. I feel at home fighting in the Grand Slams, but that didn’t remove my usual nervousness. Not because I consider myself the favorite, but rather because, like I said, life is made up of experiences, and I’m grateful to God because even being young and a brown-belt, I’ve already experienced many things that have made me mature as a person and athlete. One of them is about favoritism. I think it’s 50% for each one. BJJ is a lot like chess, indeed: It’s not the best one who wins, but rather the one who makes the fewer mistakes, who is more focused and has the better strategy. It’s useless to be the favorite and not have focus when the time comes.
In the Rio event, you faced some tough black-belt champions, and athletes with much more experience. Were you more tense than usual?
Life is made of experiences, like BJJ. I remember that at the 2016 Pan, I was still a juvenile blue-belt, I lost the absolute. The fear of losing made me lose. Not to take away from my opponent’s accomplishment — she deserves all the merit — but before the fight I was like this: “Damn! What if I lose? What will people think?” I didn’t have any training partners around. Although Prof. Rogério Poggio [leader of Infight] was there, there was nobody from my day-to-day who knew my game up close. I got nervous and lost. I carry that experience with me to this day. Whenever I’m about to fight, whether it’s a known opponent or not, I always think my greatest opponent is me, because I have to beat my nerves first of all, my fear of losing, my fear of freezing up in the fight. I fight myself a lot — that’s why I don’t get intimidated by the opponents I face.
You must have gotten past a lot of hurdles to reach the level you are currently at as a competitor. Please talk about that.
BJJ changed my life greatly. I don’t know who I would be today without it. I’ve been through a lot of good and bad things that would have been much harder to deal with without BJJ. The discipline of the sport helps me a lot due to my young age. I matured a lot in a short time. I thank God for the experienced I’ve had. One thing I go through reasonably often is getting squeezed in my training. Sometimes I leave thinking, “Why do I do this? I suck at it!” and usually it’s close to a championship. One week before fighting, I get run over and can’t manage to do anything at training. I even think I’m gonna get trounced in the upcoming championship. But there was a day, with my friend Victor Oliveira, that he brought to me a part of the Bible that says, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.” And whenever I train “in tears,” I know I’m gonna win with shouts of joy at the championship. Another thing is that I don’t let this fame thing go to my head. I get happy, because it’s a sign I’m on the right path, and it ends up being a fuel for wanting to get even better. I had to give up some things to train and prepare myself, get better than before, and it was worth it. I’m happy to be able to motivate other people, just like many have motivated me.