Why Women-Only Open Mats are Thriving and How They Benefit the Community

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ThanksGrappling Day SoCal Women BJJ Open Mat November 18, 2012 / Photo: Dane Grace

November 18, 2012 marked the day of my first attendance at an all women’s open mat held by SoCal Women BJJ. As a couple of ladies set out to strengthen the community of women in Jiu-Jitsu, they grew from wanting to fulfill their own training needs to planning events each month that are hosted by various academies around the Southern California region. The open mats are for any experience, age, rank or affiliation. My will to become more active in the female scene led me to finally attend one, which completely overturned my negative and unrealistic pre-notion that they aren’t worth my time. This was my experience:

It felt like a school dance at first. You know the ones when you’re just learning to understand the opposite sex and there’s a big gap in the middle because everyone is afraid to ask for a partner to dance with? I walked into 10th Planet in Burbank, CA ready to be the social and outgoing girl I always am but suddenly I got nervous and the apprehension that prevented me from ever attending one before had sunken in. What was the social standard here?

Tove Sodersten, Me, Giovanna Thomas / Photo: @erinherle Instagram

I managed to make small talk with some ladies before I stepped on the mat but still weary of what I would endure. I entered the mat area that was spread from wall to wall leaving the only route from the front to back a mandatory barefoot trek. I didn’t know a lot of the girls which surprised me because being active in the general Jiu-Jitsu community, I thought I had a pretty large directory of faces to go by but I didn’t– because I only know girls who either compete, girls I have trained with at other gyms or girls who are simply well-known. The unrecognizable faces meant I was missing out on a whole lot.

The premise of this SoCal Women’s Open Mat was to go in your gi, or in your No-Gi attire should you choose, and pick a partner to roll or spar with. They had a timer going but it was really just a free for all and that made me nervous. Why was I nervous when I’ve been training Jiu-Jitsu for over three years with experience visiting other gyms, rolling with strangers while making it as least awkward as possible with jokes and overall being able to extend my love of the art with others? The difference was that these were girls and being surrounded by them was a new feeling. I have about ten girls that I train with and others that I know but I’ve always classified girls as either aggressive and competition-oriented or not. And somehow that caused me to never attend an all girls open mat prior to this one.

Jiu-Jitsu enthusiasts walked in from every which way, slowly filling up the room; the front seating area designated for the husbands and boyfriends, the changing room in the back, the walls of the mat area lining the first initiators already sparring. There was a rock climbing wall that I found out was used for kids as an obstacle course, a type of fence on one end to close off the mats similar to that of an MMA octagon. Organizer Jill Baker, a brown belt from Bakersfield BJJ in Bakersfield, CA traveled an hour and a half for this event and entered the room as a slew of girls greeted her with open arms. I had competed against her before awhile back and so I knew who she was but had no idea she was a mom, an instructor, a leader for women’s Jiu-Jitsu. Competition only gives you a small glimpse into what the art holds for many people and what they’re capable of. A 5-10 minute match limits what we know of these girls and given an open forum like these open mats, it allows us to really build a bond on many levels. That’s what Jiu-Jitsu is about, anyway, right? Bonding to people, bonding to the art, bonding to confidence, self-esteem, strength and the will to become a better you.

As I looked around at all the girls training, I was looking for someone to cling on to while hoping that I’d be called to roll rather than the other way around . I saw Jill as she stepped on the mat. I confessed why I had never come before and explained, “I just always felt that I needed to train with guys and that training with just girls wasn’t enough,” and she simply responded, “that’s how we all feel.” These girls were really just my peers and now I became more self-conscious knowing that my accolades in competition and role as a member of Jiu-Jitsu media meant nothing to these girls because it shouldn’t. We are just there to roll and learn and share. This was no longer about not understanding the opposite sex at a dance, these were people just like me that I should be getting to know. Did I fit in?

Rolling with Jocelyn Chang / Photo: Dane Grace

I rolled with a girl, Giovanna Thomas, who I had met through my writing and took the initiative to ask her to roll since I had really come to train with her. Our academies aren’t exactly the best of friends and so we were taking up the opportunity to learn from each other outside of the politics. I saw many girls rolling, about 20 of them altogether. And then walked in 4 black belts. Kris Shaw, whom I knew from media, Jocelyn Chang whom I had just interviewed about her story of overcoming breast cancer, Luciana Bassoli whom is a friend of mine, and the first female world champion ever, Leka Vieira.

I rolled with Kris Shaw and Jocelyn Chang, two black belts under Leka who have been in the sport for awhile, and it was a true honor. After finding more reasons to sit and talk, I was approached by a blue belt who wanted to roll with a higher rank. I gladly accepted and was able to meet Melissa Campanela who had just given birth 8 weeks prior. A mom with two kids, she taught me that Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t stop should you move on to have other priorities in life, that even with an 8 week old present right outside the mat with dad, you can still train. She said that her gym, the same gym that Jill Baker attends, allows her to have the baby at training while she gets in her mat time. Meeting someone like her reveals that there are more reasons to train than just competition, that you can continue training despite life’s beautiful “interruptions” and that there is beauty in Jiu-Jitsu as a woman. It’s also amazing that gyms are becoming more accommodating to women, a true showing of evolution as far as gender is concerned.

These open mats were started by a female named Cecily Garcia who was in need of some training partners more closer to her size when she moved from the east coast. With permission from her instructors, one of them being black belt Felicia Oh, she created the first event on June 26, 2011. With 20 or so women in attendance, it was the start of something that would soon become a monumental idea that I wish will spread throughout all of the Jiu-Jitsu community even though it already has begun.

Leka Vieira, first female black belt world champion! / Photo: @erinherle Instagram

Having the ability to build a network of females in your local community is an asset. Should you have concerns, interests, questions that can’t be taken care of by your instructors, you can go to these women you’ve made connections with and receive the realest and most relatable answers. The SoCal Women BJJ is a network of women who are working towards not only getting more women interested in the sport but keeping them here.

If you are in the Southern California area, the next open mat will be on December, 16 at Brea Jiu-Jitsu in Brea, CA. The following event in January will be at Jocelyn Chang’s Let’s Roll academy in Torrance, CA. Cecily Garcia has since returned to the east coast leaving Jill Baker as the prominent organizer. If you would be willing to host please contact Jill and follow Socal Women’s BJJ on facebook: www.facebook.com/SoCalWomenBJJ

There are other organizations throughout the world that accommodate females in a similar fashion holding open mats and seminars for women only such as Girls in Gis in Texas, Inspire in Arizona, NYC Women’s Open Mats, London BJJ Women’s Open Mat and many, many more. Jen Flannery of 50/50 BJJ Academy in Arlington, VA also holds many all female seminars with top athletes. Look for open mats in your area and I promise you will gain layers of awareness, appreciation, support and inspiration.

This video below is a compilation of various Northern California gyms that offer women-specific training and their take on why, how and where women train together.

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