Written by: Natalie Whitson
International Women’s Day – held every year on March 8 – celebrates the expansion of women’s rights. Coincidentally, this year’s Women’s Day also witnessed the sudden expansion of women’s events offered by the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) at its Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship (“Pans”), North America’s largest Jiu Jitsu tournament.
Although the expansion came quickly, it had been years in the making. As far back as 1985, Yvone Duarte – the first woman awarded a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – had helped create a separate female division in the Rio de Janeiro federation. It took until 1998 for the IBJJF to offer separate women’s divisions at tournaments, with all women’s belt levels divided between only two weight divisions. By January 2018, women had the same events as men at the World Masters tournament. However, elsewhere they only offered women colored belts a Masters 1 (age 30+) event, and no Masters categories at all for white belt women, in contrast to men who had categories for every age group and belt.
This all changed less than two months ago, when Professor Carlos Melo, co-owner of Gilroy BJJ, learned from his student Karen Peters that there were no Masters events offered for her age (Masters 5 – ages 50-55) at the upcoming Pans Championship. Resolved to correct this, the two made a plan whereby Karen would get together a group of older women willing to register and compete at this year’s tournament. While at the same time Carlos agreed to request from the IBJJF that a suitable division be offered.
Unfortunately, the letter was rejected. Undeterred, Carlos and Karen then initiated a petition to the IBJJF, signed by 2,950 supporters. To everyone’s surprise, overnight the IBJJF offered women upper belts the same Master 2-7 divisions as men at Pans, while offering white belt women new Masters 1 and 2 events.
Even as they savored the victory, Carlos and Karen suddenly faced an enormous challenge related to timing. Unlike a ‘regular’ tournament which BJJ athletes have months to train and plan for, the women at the upcoming Pans had only a little more than three weeks before the registration deadline. To complicate matters, tournament fees now ran upwards of $139 per person, far more than those paid by “early bird” registrants. Despite these hurdles, Carlos and Karen spread the word among their fellow petitioners that as many women as possible needed to register for Pans, to show the IBJJF that their decision had been a good one.
Black Belt Master 4 division had plenty of back and forth action between Denise Houle (Roberto Traven BJJ) v Deanna Yohe (Gracie Barra).
In response, within weeks, one hundred and sixty Master women signed up for the tournament, including 20 white belts, 69 blue belts, 45 purple belts, 20 brown belts, and six black belt women. To better understand the magnitude of this feat, compare this number (160) to the much smaller number (120) of Masters women who participated in the 2017 World Masters tournament, an event which enjoys a month long registration period. All were inspired to make history – or rather, herstory – at the 2018 Pans, as well as give future young women and girls opportunities that many of today’s Master BJJ athletes have never had.
Many of these women had never competed before, or had not competed in years, but were willing to give it a try, supported by a small army of volunteers. During the next month, a new 2018 Pan Master 2-7 Facebook page fairly crackled with daily updates from current and prospective registrants drumming up competitors, with some women willing to go up in weight or down in age to find a fight.
Behind the scenes, individuals, as well as groups such as Girls in Gis, Josei Heishi Jiu Jitsu, and untold others fervently worked to sponsor fighters who could otherwise not afford to compete, or offered credit card miles, and/or places to stay. Lisa Albon, a professional photographer, offered two women a full photo package, while another photographer offered discounts on photos taken during the event. John Villarruel, a professor formerly with Karen’s and Carlos’ club, generously offered to coach those without their own coach at the event. Ingrid Bauer set up a Google document to help women coordinate travel. An eye was also kept towards the future, as Karen and Carlos designed a Pans Masters 2-7 T-shirt, with the proceeds supporting future Master competitors. Meanwhile, Girls in Gis designed a Strength in Solidarity patch to support its scholarship fund, to help women afford to train and compete in future events.
The media also was instrumental in getting the word out. Besides Facebook itself, Old Man Jiu-Jitsu Podcast and Elevate Jiu Jitsu Magazine both interviewed Karen Peters and Carlos Melo on their efforts, while Verbal Tap Podcast helped spread the story. Elevate Jiu Jitsu Magazine also offered an honorarium to send an athlete to Pans to write an article documenting the historic event.
And it worked! By the morning of March 7, all these women – as well as 3,000+ other athletes – would begin to arrive at the 23rd edition of Pans, held at the University of California at Irvine, in search of gold.
Credit photos in article by Mark Whitson