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“I’ve been surrounded by death for most of my life.”
When she was 20 years old, Jo Thomson was sitting at the kitchen table, talking with the greatest influence in her life, her father, when he laid his head down on the table and, “went away.“ He was 51.
Now just embarking on the start of her seventieth decade, Professor Jo, as she is now known, thanks to her black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, credits her father for establishing the beliefs that have carried her so far in life. In fact, she felt so attuned to him, she was convinced that she too, would die at the same age he did.
“In my head, I’m like him.”
Her father was a merchant sea captain from Scotland, who married the Jo’s mother after they met in Australia during World War 2.
Her father was “never a quitter,” who urged his daughter to get the best out of herself, and suggested university as an option. This at a time when most women were still encouraged to become bank tellers, or to teach, or work in retail. Jo’s dad told her to “Do whatever you like, but do it well. Maybe even do something women don’t do, like engineering or meteorology.”
Jo enrolled in the then new discipline of speech pathology, and was just starting her third year when her dad died. No-one had been prouder of her achievements.
Jo’s mother too, was a huge influence, and often repeated the words, “Always follow your heart,” to her daughter. Her mum got Jo her first job when she was 15. It was in a nursing home, and thought that “cleaning false teeth and wiping bums” would be good for her.
“She was a very wise woman, my mum.”
On Jo’s first day at work, a resident died and lay there for some time before being taken away. Undeterred, the Professor kept working and has since spent most of her career assisting the aged. She’s still loving the same job after almost 40 years. In her own words, she does “helpy things” and makes friends. If one of Jo’s own patients happens to pass away, she cries. Every time.
In fact, it’s not just a job. Jo truly cares.
As for jiu-jitsu, the Professor will tell you she started it because she was lazy. That’s a bit hard to believe, because throughout her life, Jo has pushed herself to perform at levels most other people would shy away from. She has competed in marathon events, from running to paddling outrigger canoes. And she was a competitive powerlifter with a bench press record of 110 kilograms.
At the time, Jo was in a powerlifting phase and wandered into the gym which used to be next to where Harris Farm is now. She saw a group of young Brazilian men and women, with very poor English, wrestling on some mats in a corner. One of them was Professor Marcelo Rezende, founder of Gracie Barra Oceania, who as Jo puts it, was, “just off the plane.”
After watching them sweat it out for a few weeks, she asked them if they might train her son, Jake. Initially Professor Marcelo wasn’t sure because he didn’t have a junior program, but eventually he agreed and Jake became Gracie Barra Oceania’s very first child student. Age 12.
Jo remembers Jake went from being an only child to all-of-a-sudden having 20 older brothers and sisters. She is very proud of the adult Jake has become, and she credits Professor Marcelo for being a significant influence in his development.
“Jiu-jitsu was great for him.”
As for Professor Jo’s start to jiu-jitsu, the school had moved to Old Pittwater Rd., in Brookvale, so Jo found herself having to drop Jake off, then drive to the gym for her workout, then drive back. The “lazy” Jo couldn’t be bothered, so instead asked Professor Marcelo if she could join the jiujitsu classes.
Professor Marcelo had never trained a woman of Jo’s age, she was 48 at the time, but jiu-jitsu is all about inclusivity (one current student is a young boy with cerebral palsy who cannot walk), so of course he agreed to let her try.
Jo turned up three times a week. Every week. It wasn’t easy to begin with, but as with any good jiu-jitsu student, she persisted.
Three times a week. Every week.
It took a little over 8 years before Professor Marcelo presented Professor Jo with her black belt. Recipients of a black belt are far more likely to be in their 20s or 30s, let alone Professor Jo’s age of 56 at the time. The Brazilians have a saying…
Professor Marcelo considers Jo to be his second mother, and if you arrived at Gracie Barra Sydney, you’d quickly understand why. She cares for everyone. Every Monday she arrives at the school with a gigantic container of coconut cookies or some other baked treat. Gluten-free of course and enough for everybody.
If it’s your birthday you’re in for a special treat. Professor Jo might make you an entire container of cookies for yourself, or even draw you a picture, which is another of her passions. She has been drawing for her entire life and her favourite type of gift is a box of coloured pencils.
After her father passed away, Jo and her family cleaned out his office and found every single picture she had ever drawn during her childhood. He obviously loved and was very proud of his daughter.
40 years later, as both of her parents encouraged her to do, Jo follows her heart and continues to get the best out of herself. No doubt they would be prouder still.
“Before I started jiu-jitsu, I was so unfit and inflexible, I couldn’t even reach over my shoulder to grab my seatbelt.”
Peter Mercer was born in Melbourne in 1966, but spent most of his childhood moving from place-to-place with his family. His father was very good with his hands and with machines, so whenever they arrived in a new town, Peter’s father would find work in a workshop, as a fencer, as a tyre-fitter, or anything mechanical. When the work dried-up, they would move on again.
The family travelled around Australia in this manner from the time Peter was five through to when he left school. By that time, they were living in Cairns, in far-North Queensland. After school, Peter went backpacking through Europe for a couple of years, and similar to his family life, he travelled around a bit, working in restaurants or bars in each place until it was time to move on again.
Then one day, he flew to South Africa to visit some friends..., and ended-up staying for 17 years. Spending most of his time in Durban on the East coast of the country, Peter enjoyed the open spaces and good weather. His favourite hobby was hang-gliding, which is considered the most dangerous in-air sport it is possible to do.
Peter got a job as an industrial design toolmaker, which progressed into “model-building.” In the days before 3D printers existed, people like Peter would need to build prototypes for new inventions to work out how to develop tooling so they could be mass-produced.
One day his boss sent him into the office to work on the computer, and he pretty much never came out again.
This was the 80s, so off-the-shelf computers didn’t exist. People needed to build them, and without any computer shops around, Peter learned to do it himself. When the Internet arrived, he learned networking and became so good at it, his boss lent him out to mates with other businesses, until he eventually landed a job working for an ISP (Internet Service Provider).
The Internet was new, and now so was hacking, with the ISP continually being broken-into by online attackers. As Peter learned to defend against the hackers, it set him on a path to a career in Internet security.
Eventually it was time to come home, and Peter returned to Australia, finding a job with Ernst & Young in their nascent computer forensics department. He met his partner, Cath and in 2004, Zac was born, followed two years later by Gus. Peter didn’t particularly like the corporate environment of EY, so started his own business and never looked back.
However, running a successful company required some sacrifices, or at least the workaholic Peter felt it did, so his thriving business came at the expense of his health. When he brought an 11 year old Zac into Gracie Barra Sydney for the first time, Peter tipped the scales at 118 kilograms, close to 30 kilograms heavier than someone his age (47) and height should have been.
Zac had trained in taekwondo and karate, but after performing what amounts to a single- leg takedown in a karate tournament, for which he was disqualified, Peter started looking at martial arts involving grappling. During his Googling, he came across a Youtube video of TV star Ed O’Neill talking about his first Brazilian jiu-jitsu lesson. Intrigued, Peter signed- up his son and Zac loved it from the start.
Peter watched from the benches for a year, never feeling like he had enough time to train, but eventually he was convinced to give it a try. During his first session he felt like vomiting, but he was struck by how his fellow students made his first experience so positive. Everyone knew how hard jiu-jitsu is for a beginner, so their consideration made him feel very welcome at the school. And he continued to come.
By training three-to-four times a week, and without changing his diet, Peter lost around 10 kilograms. He plateaued a bit at this time, but Professor Marcelo Rezende, the founder of Gracie Barra Sydney, would tell him, in a nice way, that he would be able to perform more advanced moves if he lost his gut.
Peter also wanted to compete, but didn’t want to do it at the ultra-heavyweight level, 95 kilograms and above, so he put the effort in and lost the required weight. In addition to being able to compete against others closer to his own height, he was also rewarded with his blue belt. In 2017, Peter travelled to the USA for the IBJJF World Masters tournament and came away with a bronze medal. 3rd best in the world for his age in blue belt!
These days Peter counts most of his friends through jiu-jitsu. He loves the sense of community that Professor Marcelo has instilled in the school and he has friends of all ages with whom he can have a drink at the pub. Something he never could have imagined before.
In addition, Peter says his quality of life is now superior to before he started jiu-jitsu. Last year he climbed the peak of Machu Picchu with Cath, which is something he never previously could have imagined.
That seatbelt isn’t a problem either.
“In my mind, I never thought I would have a comfortable life. I believed I was born to struggle and that my life would revolve around drugs, alcohol and brutality.”
Thiago Teixeira was born in Natal, a Northeastern province of Brazil, with warm weather and a beach lifestyle. His childhood was, in his words, “challenging.” His family was very poor, often only having couscous and milk to eat. His parents were unskilled workers. His father was an unemployed and his mother worked long hours to keep up with the bills. Thiago’s mother’s family had a strict military background. Her father was in the Brazilian Air Force and was very tough with his children.
There was a very strong drinking culture in Natal, and Thiago’s father was no exception to it. As a child, he was physically abused by his own father, and he carried this behaviour into his own adulthood. An alcoholic, he would spend the family’s money smoking, drinking and womanising, and when he was drunk he became a completely different person.
“His eyes would change,” recalls Thiago, and he would become very aggressive and violent to his wife and sons, including Thiago and his two younger brothers. They often had to hide and call an uncle to come and control him. The next day, Thiago’s father usually couldn’t remember much, but his family still bore the painful bruises. He said he would change, and Thiago’s mother did her best to forgive him, but it never happened.
Thanks to a football scholarship, Thiago attended a good school, but he felt he was unlucky. He could see other students’ families, with some of the finer things and apparently normal relationships. In comparison, Thiago felt his family was “upside down.” He experienced, as he describes them, “out of control” and “crazy moments.” He saw things like his father with a gun to his own head, playing Russian Roulette with himself, and he even attempted suicide himself.
In what was an early indication of his strength-of-character, the juvenile Thiago fought these personal demons. He was positive with himself, putting his life to that point, down to “experience,” and resolved to use his father’s example as one he would never follow.
When Thiago was 14, his mother found out her husband had a second life. He had another house, another woman and another two children. That was enough for Thiago’s mother. She divorced her husband and took her boys away from the suffocating influence of their father. They moved to her home town, Porto Alegre, in the far south of Brazil, where the climate was much colder.
When the family arrived, they didn’t have any warm clothes. They lived in an uncle’s lounge room for eight months, wearing borrowed clothes until Thiago’s mother found a job.
The job paid 450 Brazilian Reals per month, which is about 180 Australian Dollars. The family moved into a tiny studio apartment with a bunk bed for Thiago and his brothers, and a blow-up mattress for their mother. Once again, they had little money for food.
“My mum used to go to the market to buy fruit. She would come back and give us two bananas each, and say they needed to last until Friday.” They didn’t receive any support from their father. Nor did he try to contact them. Thiago hated his father for a long time because of the hardships he caused them.
“I learned a lot from my father, both the good and the bad. When he was sober, he was the best father in the world, but when he was drunk, it was very challenging.”
At school in Porto Alegre, Thiago and his brothers were teased for their northern accents and their poor clothes. The temperature was just above freezing and they were only wearing shorts and a jumper. Thiago would fight with anyone who said anything, so was always getting into trouble. He and his friends, mostly other underprivileged teenagers, would gatecrash rich kids’ parties and “hook up” with the rich girls while enjoying the reaction of the rich boys. His family thought he was spiraling towards a life of delinquency.
Sport and fitness kept him grounded, however. Thiago could always make friends wherever he went due to his sporting skills and physical capabilities. He made friends in the street playing football and basketball. He went surfing and skateboarding. He even represented his school in a judo tournament, without any formal judo training. And he won it.
Back in Natal, fighting had been an everyday part of life and one of Thiago’s best friends, whose name was Juliano, used to train with him in jiu-jitsu. He was much bigger and stronger than Thiago and they used to practice fighting on concrete or sand, in order to fight well at the parties they went to.
Thiago was always training. Even when he was hungry and tired. He would go for runs. He would lift weights. He would hit the bags. He trained in capoeira and jiu-jitsu. He would train with anyone who might be able to teach him something.
To earn some money to help his mother and brothers, Thiago started working on the street with a friend. They operated a black-market kiosk, called a Camelo, where anyone who wanted something, for example drugs or a gun, could come and the kiosk would source it for them.
Thiago tried drugs a couple of times himself, but didn’t like them. He felt he had an overriding “mission,” as he calls it, to assist his family to get out of their disadvantaged situation. He knew he couldn’t stay working on the street.
One day, when he was 18, Thiago went to a Brazilian Army recruitment presentation, where the army officer belittled him for his accent and appearance, telling him he would never succeed. Despite the attitude towards him, Thiago thought the concept of being fed and clothed, plus having a place to sleep, was too good to pass up. He enlisted with the hope that having steady employment and one less mouth to feed at home would help his mother and brothers.
Thiago admits, “The army saved my life.” It taught him about direction and discipline, and in that environment, he thrived. In basic training, Thiago worked hard and earned a medal of distinction for being the best recruit of his intake. The army wanted him to take a sergeant’s course to become an army officer, but it had always been Thiago’s dream to go to university. Ever since his early school days, when he determined the difference between his family and other families was the level of the parents’ education. In the richer families, he saw most often that the parents held tertiary degrees.
As a further inspiration to Thiago, his mother started a university degree in her forties, while continuing to work full-time and run the household.
“My mother taught my brothers and I about strength, perseverance, hard work and discipline. I have never meet anyone like her in my life. Today, she owns her own successful company, is happily married, and is in constant contact with her sons and grandchildren.”
So Thiago declined the sergeant’s training and being more attracted to teaching than to combat, he instead enrolled in a course to become an instructor of weapon craft, specialising in light-machine guns. The course also included a component for fitness instruction for army personnel, so Thiago got his first exposure to the skills that would take him so far in his life.
After finishing top of his instructor training, Thiago returned to Porto Alegre to work for the army. At this time, he finally enrolled in the university course he had always dreamed about, studying physical education. It was a very hard time financially. He was earning 2,500 Brazilian Reals per month (1,000 Australian Dollars), and his university course consumed half of his salary.
He attended Usinos University. A school with a very good reputation for quality education. He was glad he went there as his professors inspired him to become a teacher himself. Thiago could have gone to a cheaper university, but he wanted to be taught by the best. Thiago lived in the army barracks to save money. He had a car, but didn’t drive it, instead taking public transport and walking through dangerous areas of the city. Thiago woke up at 5 AM and went to work. After work, he would go to his classes, then study until 11 PM. It was a hard lifestyle, but Thiago remembered the motivations that drove him.
While he was studying at university, one of Thiago’s army commanders recognised his aptitude for teaching and gave him time to teach in Porto Alegre’s education system, including at the city’s respected Military College, a breeding ground for former Brazilian presidents. It was volunteer work, but it was one of the best experiences of his lifetime and he was inspired by teaching alongside highly qualified professionals who were very passionate about their work.
Sometimes it was dangerous too. Teaching at public schools, often he would require an armed security escort from his car. Another day, he was robbed of his shoes and when his class found out about it, a student retrieved them from the thief and returned them to him at the first break!
“In Brazil, I was always surrounded by good and evil. I feel blessed that I had both the opportunity and the strength to choose the good path. I made many mistakes along the way, but I admitted them to myself, in order to learn and change.”
However, the inherently dangerous environment forced Thiago to realise he would have to leave Brazil. So he started formulating a plan to move to Australia. Getting a visa for Australia is very difficult, with one of the requirements being to demonstrate significant financial means. Thiago’s first application was rejected for this reason, but he found another way.
While at university, Thiago maintained very healthy and active habits. He didn’t watch TV, instead he played soccer, went skating or surfing, trained in capoeira, and he even did some modelling. All this in addition to working for the army and his volunteer teaching. He started making professional friends in better areas of society who helped him to grow as a person.
For his modelling, Thiago was young, very fit and handsome, so he earned work on advertising photo shoots, TV commercials and even a short movie. Everything was in good taste, it had to be approved by the army first. Importantly, one of the friendly contacts he made was with a local politician, who endorsed Thiago for his Australian visa, such that his application was finally approved.
When he graduated, it was the proudest moment of Thiago’s life. And he had done it all himself. Without any financial assistance from anyone. One of his uncles later came to him feeling sorry he did not help him pay for his studies.
“It would not taste the same,” replied Thiago.
Thiago is fiercely independent and he wears it like a coat of armour. He has a lot of bad memories from his early life and being in the army. He doesn’t sleep well at night. But he prefers to talk to friends and sort things out himself rather than seek specialist help. Just as he always has. Thiago had a lot of opportunities to take the easy path. A path that included drugs and crime.
“But I chose not to go that way…”
Again, it was for his family. With unquestionable loyalty, Thiago knew the right path was that of sacrifice and hard work. He felt responsible for his brothers and demonstrating a good example of how to live their lives. So now when he feels something is getting him down, he remembers the hard times in Brazil.
“I have been to Hell,” he says, “but now I’m living the dream.”
In 2009, after 8 years in the army, it was time for Thiago to leave. He received a sizeable payout from the army and after purchasing his plane ticket, gave most of the money to his mother. When he boarded the flight for Australia, he only had $600 cash in his pocket.
Thiago arrived in Sydney in December 2009, and went to stay with some Brazilian friends in Bondi. His English was very poor, but despite that managed to earn some money working as a builder’s labourer. $12 per hour. Unfortunately, his new flat mates were into drugs, which did not suit his disciplined army background, so when he heard about an apartment for rent in Dee Why, he moved to the Northern Beaches.
Thiago started attending compulsory English classes, riding a bicycle from Dee Why to Manly and back every night. He needed a job though and one day, riding home from school, he saw a tradie’s ute driving by. It had “Star Bricklaying,” written on the side with a phone number... He had no idea what bricklaying was, but a friend texted the number and asked if there was any work available. Philip Hack, the owner of Star, texted back, “I like your style, son,” and had Thiago come to work for him the very next day.
Philip, an older man from England, was very kind to Thiago. He recognised a hard worker and helped him with everything from his English to the skills of the bricklaying trade. After some time, Philip told Thiago, who was being paid $180 cash per day, that he could earn up to $300 a day working for someone else. It was a good-hearted gesture, which Thiago appreciated very much, and very soon he was earning $240 cash per day working for another company.
“I have a university degree and an army career, but I’d never seen so much money in my life!” remembers Thiago.
Now living by himself on Oaks Ave. in Dee Why, Thiago earned the nickname, “Soldier,” from his friends. He was working as a brickie’s labourer, attending compulsory English classes every night (riding a bicycle from Dee Why to Manly and back), plus he continued to train by lifting weights and doing classes at the gym. Then after nine months he started a course in business, which included marketing and management. When his friends asked him how he did it, he replied, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I eat well and I have a goal. There is nothing that will get in my way.”
Thiago also started formal Brazilian jiu-jitsu training with a local team. Throughout his childhood, he had trained in fighting techniques. His father’s side of the family were all troublemakers and used to fight a lot. Due to the necessity of self-defence in Brazil, their uncles and cousins, many of whom have black belts, taught Thiago and his brothers, aspects of jiu-jitsu, boxing, judo Muay-Thai, and capoeira. The training was without structure, irregular and consisted of techniques that would help them in a street fight.
Now in Australia, Thiago joined a proper team and was training regularly within a formal jiu-jitsu curriculum. He was happy to be back in a uniform and developing discipline through jiu-jitsu. Thiago has demons from his past, but the efforts required for jiu-jitsu, both physical and mental, have helped him to learn how to better control his feelings, focus and improve his interpersonal relationships.
“All the physical training I do now is not for my body anymore. It is for my peace of mind. So I don’t become a savage.”
In 2011, Thiago met Anna. “My angel,” he calls her. He had previously seen her at a party with another guy who was being rude to her, and Thiago had wondered why such a beautiful girl would be with someone like that. The next time he saw her at a party, she was unaccompanied and drinking water. Just like Thiago. They started talking and are now happily married with two children, Zion and Hunter.
Thiago attributes much of his success in Australia to Anna. She has helped him through battles with many personal demons from his past and has helped him to grow as a man too. A teacher herself and highly intelligent, Anna has encouraged Thiago to become more ambitious and focused.
After three years in Australia, Thiago decided it was time to get back into the fitness industry. He started a fitness course at a local college and was given an opportunity to train his jiu-jitsu team for their competition fitness. Under Thiago’s guidance, the team became very fit and showed amazing improvement in their competition results.
That led to an opportunity for Thiago to become a strength and conditioning coach on the YouTube series Wimp2Warrior. It was an amazing opportunity for Thiago, as it meant he could stop labouring and work in fitness full-time. As a then blue belt, and still with imperfect English, he took people with no prior martial arts experience and trained them for a proper MMA fight. Over a short 20 weeks, Thiago developed their fitness and technique to the extent that they were performing expert moves in their final fights, impressing the show judges immensely.
On the second series of Wimp2Warrior in 2015, one of the guest coaches on the show was a former UFC champion, Jens Pulver, who liked what he saw, inviting Thiago to train him for a comeback fight. The two shared a lot in common, not the least of which was violent childhoods. For Thiago, it was incredible that someone like Pulver, who could choose virtually any strength and conditioning coach, would choose him to train with. It gave him a huge shot of confidence in his own ability and he felt blessed to become his friend.
At this time, some differences of opinion in his jiu-jitsu team forced Thiago to leave his Wimp2Warrior job and begin researching other places to train in jiu-jitsu. One of those schools was Gracie Barra, Sydney, run by Professor Marcelo Rezende. Thiago started asking other people about Professor Marcelo, and even the owners of rival schools were glowing in their praise of his jiu-jitsu, his teaching and his character.
Thiago was feeling some bitterness at the circumstances of his departure from Wimp2Warrior and went through a stage of feeling that people only wanted to take advantage of others.
“Until I met Professor Marcelo. I believe he is gifted. He is a leader who only wants to bring out the best in others.”
In the Professor, Thiago found something of a kindred spirit. Someone who inspired him. From the age of 15, Thiago knew he wanted to be a teacher of fitness and movement. He felt he was born to do it and he sensed the same thing in Marcelo. Both their wives tell them they think the same way.
So Thiago crossed to Gracie Barra Sydney and started to make an immediate impact. Now a purple belt, he was invited by the Professor and Anderson Silva to help them develop a jiu-jitsu specific fitness program, called Barra Fit. Anderson is a fitness specialist, but he knew Thiago was the best person to combine fitness with fighting to develop a strength and conditioning program to suit jiu-jitsu.
In its first year, Barra Fit has already delivered results. One participant, Cory Neill, became a 2017 double world champion, while another, Karen Naisoro, won a world championship silver. But even for students not competing at the elite level, many (including this author) experienced fitness improvements they couldn’t have dreamt of.
Thiago was even invited to present Barra Fit to the 2017 Gracie Barra World Summit conference, with a view to potentially rolling out the program to Gracie Barra schools around the world. Thiago also has a dream to educate kids in fitness and jiu-jitsu, because he believes that if kids can learn about proper fitness and nutrition, there won’t be any problems for them in adulthood.
Thiago’s goal for the people he coaches isn’t fitness alone. He doesn’t think everyone needs the washboard abs kind of fitness. He wants people to be healthy. And by healthy, Thiago means being happy, being without pain, eating the right way and being active every day. He believes that by living a healthy lifestyle, both physical and mental fitness are natural by-products.
“In my opinion, education is the key to a better world. If people stopped wasting time, started to study, work and cooperate, we would be able to help a lot of people. I have never stopped studying in my life.”
And Thiago wants to develop his dreams and goals within the Gracie Barra jiu-jitsu environment. He believes it is the perfect place for men, women and children to learn to be active and become healthier versions of themselves.
When you think about where Thiago has come from, living a brutal existence in abject poverty, then educating himself, then getting off a plane in a foreign country with only $600 to his name, then to build a successful life and a beautiful family, the whole time maintaining strong values, it is truly amazing.
Karen's boyfriend was doing some sort of exercise on the floor (a hip escape as it turned out) and she'd remembered him talking about going to a martial art class.
That's how it started. Five years on, Karen is a top-level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athlete who recently won a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships. She was unlucky not to get the gold.
It's something she never would have imagined in her wildest dreams.
Born to a Fijian father and an American mother, Karen spent the first few years of her life in rural Fiji before the family moved to Arizona where she remained until she finished her university education.
That family dynamic and upbringing has produced one of the nicest people anyone is likely to meet. Karen is always smiling, friendly and is genuinely happy to see you. Even for the most cynical, it's impossible not to like her.
It's hardly the image of an elite fighter.
When someone thinks of a competitive martial artist, they probably envisage something out of the UFC. A musclebound, tattooed person with a permanently aggressive look on their face. Someone to be feared.
That's not Karen.
Far from it, in fact. She comes across as more of a mother hen. The kids at jiu-jitsu love her and you know she'll be a great mum herself someday. She'd be a UFC promoter's nightmare.
So how does someone so nice develop the fighter's instinct required to succeed.
Before taking up jiu-jitsu, Karen didn't consider herself an active person. She didn't go to the gym or keep playing sport after high-school. She'd hang out with friends, spend time with her boyfriend, watch TV, maybe some reading... you know, the usual stuff.
Every so often Karen would take up a hobby, like knitting, but it wouldn't last long. She'd read the instructions, practice for a while, but after finishing her first scarf or whatever, she felt the skill was complete and move on.
At one such juncture, Karen's boyfriend suggested she come down to the jiu-jitsu school and try it out. She did, and all-of-a-sudden, found something she wasn't immediately good at.
Professor Marcelo Rezende, owner of Gracie Barra Sydney where Karen trains, remembers a tall, strong girl with a puffy face. Karen laughs about the puffy face bit, preferring to think of herself as unfit, but not overweight.
Like most white belt students in their first 12 months, Karen had no idea what she was doing, and unfamiliar with the feeling, found herself struggling with self-belief. Despite encouragement from the Professor, her boyfriend and fellow students, Karen lacked confidence in her ability, feeling she'd never develop the required skills. She battled the motivation to quit.
In time, the skills became more natural and Karen started to see the improvements in herself. After receiving her blue belt, she started competing and success came quickly. Karen was winning a lot of fights, but she still had a hard time giving herself credit. She put the wins down to factors other than her own competence. She told herself she was bigger than the other girls or she might've just been lucky to win.
Everyone was telling Karen she was good enough, so to satisfy her supporters, on the surface she projected confidence, but deep down continued to doubt herself. She didn't feel deserving, despite becoming one of Australia's highest-ranked fighters.
Coming into 2017, something changed. Karen's competition success meant she was invited to become an inaugural GB Oceania Ambassador, which included an all-expenses paid trip to the IBJJF World Championships. With such an honour bestowed upon her, Karen knew she had to work hard to maintain the expected standards. She decided to get fit to give herself the best chance of success. That's not to say she wasn' tin good shape already, but the fighters at the world-level are athletes and Karen didn't feel she was athlete standard.
Karen registered for an 8 week intensive BarraFIT program and trained 4 days a week at 6am. She did extras, both for jiu-jitsu and her fitness. She maintained a healthy diet. She did the stretching. She got enough sleep.
The transformation was amazing.
Karen become strong. Really strong. Her shape became lithe, lean and muscled. She was more flexible, more agile, faster. Her jiu-jitsu improved as a result.
Karen was good enough to compete and win. The difference now was that she knew it. She believed in herself.
Karen travelled to Abu Dhabi for the UAE World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship. She lost her first fight, coming up against a very strong, heavier and experienced opponent. Professor Marcelo put it this way, "Karen did very well against her. If she hadn't done all that extra training, she would have been destroyed." After the fight, Karen's opponent, a world champion, told her that nobody had challenged her like that before. An awesome compliment!
Although she didn't get the result she wanted, Karen was pleased with her efforts and had learned she belonged in elite company. It gave her an extra shot of confidence going into the next big tournament, the IBJJF World Championships in Los Angeles.
Karen told herself, "There is no way I'm leaving without a medal." There was no doubt in her mind. She had done the work and truly believed she could win.
She did. At the tournament with the strongest assembled field of competitors in jiu-jitsu, Karen won her first two fights by submission and the next - the semi-final - on points. She had made the final and was guaranteed a medal. The only hypothetical to be determined was the colour.
Karen and her last opponent were evenly matched. In the final seconds of her fight, they were even on points and grappling fiercely. They fell off the edge of the mat and Karen's opponent was awarded two points for a sweep.
Depending on who you ask, Karen was either robbed or desperately unlucky. The woman herself is philosophical about it, knowing she did the best she could and that the result turned on a subjective call. Such is the nature of sport. She'll be back.
Any way you look at it however, a world championship silver medal in a grappling martial art - for someone who five years earlier was fairly inactive and lacked belief in themselves is amazing.
There must be something to this doo-ditsu...
"Yes, you're black. Get over it."
Unus Gaffoor's mum was blunt with her then nine year old son.
One of seven children, Unus and his family emigrated from South Africa in 1974 after the dismantling of the so-called White Australia policy. A policy which until then, had discriminated against non-European applications for migration.
Of Indian descent, Unus' family bought a house in the developing area of Campbelltown. An area of Sydney which 40 years ago still had a rural feel to it, and was about as caucasian as caucasian could be.
"There were definitely no other black kids at school," remembers Unus, "and after the first comments from other students, Mum's attitude taught me to ignore it. If I got into fights, it wasn't about racism. And I ended up as Captain of my high-school, so it obviously didn't matter."
Unus was just another kid. He played sports, mucked about with his friends, and had a happy Australian upbringing. After school he went to uni to study accounting and computer science, finding the latter discipline much more interesting, before making a career in software programming.
Unus didn't mind falling in and out of love either. In his mid-twenties, he married for a second time and had two kids. A son, Zane and a daughter, Leah. And it was via Zane that the family found jiu-jitsu.
"Zane had challenges with other kids, so we wanted to keep him active," says Unus. "He just didn't take to any team sports. We tried him in everything."
When Zane was 13, his mum, Clare, started going out with Geoff Toovey (Unus and Clare had divorced a few years earlier), who at the time was the head coach of the professional rugby league club, the Manly Sea-Eagles. The club was training with Professor Marcelo Rezende at the Gracie Barra Sydney school of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Geoff suggested Zane try it out.
"Straight away he absolutely loved it," says Unus. "He was getting a good workout and had a lot of older guys being a positive influence on him.
Unbeknownst to Unus, Zane had been facing issues with bullying at school. He knew Zane had always been a bit aloof from other kids his age, hence all the sports, but his son had stopped short of telling him about his problem.
Zane was a big kid. But a gentle one. The kind malicious kids identify as an easy target. The type who are unlikely to fight back. Unus had always told Zane that he had a right to defend himself, but he'd never stood up to bullies on his own. Now in the positive environment of Gracie Barra, Zane was hearing the same thing from other male mentors and was being equipped with the tools to carry it out.
One day, on the way home from school, Zane single-handedly threw three of his tormentors into a creek. After that, only one of them persisted in troubling him, which is when Unus found out about it, because the school rang him to say Zane had, in self-defence, used jiu-jitsu to submit the bully.
The school quietly acknowledged to Unus that Zane had done the right thing to defend himself, but said he still needed to be punished for breaking their no fighting rule. Unus understood the school's decision, while still being proud of his son for standing up for himself.
Ever since he started jiu-jitsu, Zane had been asking his dad to join him in training, but Unus felt he was too busy with work. He honestly never felt he could take the time - an hour out of a day a few days a week - to train jiu-jitsu. Unus also played a lot of golf and felt that was sufficient exercise, despite being a few kilos overweight. Finally, after three years of pestering, Zane finally convinced Unus to attend a promotional, "Bring a Friend" day at the school.
"The warm-up nearly killed me," says Unus, "after the hour was up, I felt like dying, but I could see it was a really effective workout. Everyone else looked so fit without doing anything crazy. I was hooked."
It wasn't long before Leah joined in too. Already fit through school gymnastics, but now hounded both by father and brother to try jiu-jitsu, she was the third family member to become addicted. Interestingly, both Unus and Leah have progressed through the belts at the same speed, right down to the stripes. Leah even met her husband, Mohamed, through her jiu-jitsu training.
Unus, himself, is 50 now, and can't imagine a life without jiu-jitsu in it. He feels he hasn't been in better physical shape since his twenties. Unus' network of friends is dominated by jiu-jitsu, thanks largely to Zane, Leah and Mohamed.
"It has changed my life completely, and my future, going forward now, is all jiu-jitsu."
He tells everyone the greatest value he has received from jiu-jitsu is much better bonding with his kids. In most situations children drift away from their parents as they get older, but because of the common interest in jiu-jitsu, Unus and his kids have stuck together.
They all plan to open their own Gracie Barra schools when they become black belts, and Unus wants to use his coding skills to develop software to help school owners deliver their services more effectively.
Within the Gracie Barra jiu-jitsu community, their future looks bright.
“Sorry for being dull.” said Cory.
He had just finished his interview for Gracie Barra Stories and was being sincerely apologetic.
Cory had just been talking, amongst other things, about his time in the Australian airborne infantry, and one particular situation where he was positioned in an armoured vehicle turret, raking the Afghan hills with his machine gun, in response to Taliban RPG and machine gun attacks.
Cory’s a pretty modest guy. Dull?
Far from it.
Cory Neill was born, grew up, and still lives, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. It’s on the coast, about 15km from the central business district, and isn’t a thoroughfare to the city, so it’s fairly quiet and relaxed. Think beaches, cafes, restaurants, bars and sport. Especially surfing.
The Northern Beaches’ personality is reflected in Cory. He’s quietly spoken and chilled-out. He looks a bit like a surfer, except for his blonde hair being short and the fact he’s built like a tank. But not in a gym-junkie kind of way. He’s very athletic.
Cory can surf. His father used to make surfboards for a living and family tradition dictates Neill kids receive their first board when they turn one. Surfing’s not his passion, though. He loves Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It keeps him sane.
After finishing high school, Cory wanted to join the army, but his mother wanted him to learn a trade first. Being as he describes himself, “such a Mummy’s boy,” Cory acceded to her wishes and spent six years working as a carpenter. Yes, of course on the Northern Beaches.
In 2010, Mum was happy that Cory would have something to come back to, so he enlisted in the army and began his training.
Private Cory Neill was a very good soldier. Discipline. Fitness. Weapon craft. You name it. With his carpentry skills, he could even build fitness equipment for his mates in camp.
After six months of training, Cory wanted to become a paratrooper with the 3RAR. The 3rd Royal Australian Regiment light infantry unit. Of all army recruits, less than five per cent get posted to the 3RAR. Cory was one of them. In his unit, Cory was a machine gunner, lugging around an 11kg gun, compared to his fellow soldiers’ 4kg rifles. He loved the military life and everything that came with it.
In 2012, the 3RAR was posted to Afghanistan for six months, to help train the Afghan army in its fight against the Taliban. But on the night of 29 August, Cory became involved in deadliest attack on Australian forces during the campaign.
A rogue Afghan soldier opened fire on the Australians, in a so-called, “green-on-blue,” or insider attack. Three were killed and two injured. Cory had been given some field medic training, and spent 20 minutes working on his friend, Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, but was unable to save his life. Such an experience, no doubt, leaves its mark, and so it did with Cory. He had also witnessed the deaths of Afghan civilians, including children, and was having dark, violent dreams, which conflicted with his gentle nature. Even on his unit’s return to Australia, the nightmares continued, and it started to affect his work..
In what was completely out-of-character for him, Cory began to display moments of insubordination towards commanding officers. As a result, the army kept a close eye on him and eventually Cory was diagnosed with PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The symptoms of PTSD include recurring nightmares, irritability and emotional numbness. Unfortunately, it had an impact on his private life too, causing the break-up of his marriage. The army sent him to therapy and offered medication, but Cory didn’t want either option, so he was permitted an honourable discharge in 2014 to focus on his health.
Cory re-entered civilian life and started a carpentry business to keep him occupied (thanks Mum). However, it wasn’t the answer and his symptoms persisted. He was having dangerous thoughts. Not at all suicidal, but reckless. Like going skydiving and doing, as Cory puts it, “something silly.”
He found himself training at an MMA gym for a few months, but as a former soldier, the lack of a proper training curriculum led him to look elsewhere. Cory liked the grappling elements of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so in late 2015, he decided to try the Gracie Barra Sydney school, run by Professor Marcelo Rezende.
Straight away, Corry knew he’d found what he was looking for. When asked what he likes about Gracie Barra, Cory says, “The people are amazing, the training is quality, it’s systematic…,
“…and they have the best gis.”
On his first promotion, Professor Marcelo gave Cory three stripes as there was no doubt he knew how to roll. Cory trained multiple times each day and immediately caused all manner of trouble for the higher belts.
With Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s physicality, its wealth of techniques, and regular tournament competition, Cory had found a lifestyle which challenged him, kept him calm and allowed him to focus on the important relationships in his life. Like that with his three year old son, Kye.
“My little mate.” Cory calls him.
Kye is often at the school when Cory is training, either watching Peppa Pig, helping to (loudly) count to 10 during the warm ups, or telling everyone how tough his daddy is. The two of them sometimes sleep in the backyard together. Under the stars in a swag (an Australian portable bedroll), just like Cory did in the army.
As soon as he could, Cory began entering jiu-jitsu tournaments in Australia. He feels the competition gets him out of his comfort zone. That uncertainty is an emotion he embraces, as it reminds him of his happier military days doing training exercises with his mates.
Success was immediate. Cory won every tournament except one, and usually every fight by submission. So with Professor Marcelo’s encouragement, Cory flew himself to Abu Dhabi for the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
After four fights and four arm-bar submissions. He flew back a world champion.
Cory also self-funded a trip to the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, hosted by the IBJJF. Another three fights later, he was a double world champion.
Jiu-jitsu has renewed Cory, both physically and mentally. He can’t remember the last time he had a nightmare, and off the mats, he’s back to being his former, calm self.
Sadly, many of Cory’s army mates are still struggling with the mental demons of PTSD, so he Professor Marcelo are hoping to share his story with the military. Using Cory as an example, they hope to demonstrate that Brazilian jiu-jitsu can bring health and positivity into people’s lives.
What a fantastic idea.
Sean Fong is a normal guy.
He has a job, a girlfriend, mates to have barbeques with, he’s into UFC and trains at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school to keep fit.
All pretty normal.
You start to get a sense that Sean is a bit different when you get to know him better and you learn about his outlook on life.
Sean is truly happy.
That’s something not many people can honestly say about themselves.
Sean loves his job, loves his girlfriend, loves his mates (and barbeques), loves his UFC and loves his jiu-jitsu training. He sometimes trains three times a day, and thanks to his hard work, Sean recently travelled to Abu Dhabi in the UAE and won a world title gold medal. He is also a double-amputee.
Sean was accidentally dragged under a cane train, in his native Fiji, when he was seven years old.
Professor Marcelo Rezende, the owner of Gracie Barra Sydney, and founder of Gracie Barra Oceania, remembers the first time Sean came to the school.
“This guy rang up and asked all the usual questions, so we invited him down for a trial, and he said, ‘Oh by the way, I’m missing an arm and a leg.’ My instructors said to me, ‘What do we do?’ and I said, ‘Just get him in and see what he can do!’” Sean went in and immediately knew that jiu-jitsu was for him. Forever.
Gracie Barra, which originated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has a, “Jiu-Jitsu for Everyone” philosophy, that Professor Marcelo believes is epitomised in Sean. The Professor’s enthusiasm is almost palpable when he talks about it.
“If this guy can come in and make his life better through jiu-jitsu, then jiu-jitsu really is for everyone to improve their lives. It’s the most inspirational story I’ve ever heard!”
Sean shakes his head when he hears this and reminds the Professor that he’s just a regular guy who doesn’t feel any different to anyone else.
“Everyone’s got problems.” says Sean, matter-of-factly, “Mine are just visible on the outside.”
The implication that he’s in a good place, mentally, rings true, as everyone knows someone - with two arms and two legs - who isn’t content with their life in some way.Sean used to be a well-paid office manager at a legal firm in the city, but the work lacked the fulfilment he wanted, so he made what he calls a, “lifestyle” decision and asked Professor Marcelo if he had any jobs going at Gracie Barra. He had been training for six months and knew he had found his calling. The salary was lower, but having worked there for five years now, Sean hasn’t regretted the decision once. Sean exited the rat race and now lives five minutes from work. Instead of working late, he gets to spend much more time with his girlfriend, Karen, and the worst queue he has to deal with is at Wood Fired Coffee, the cafe close to the school.
Sean is now the Program Director at “GB Sydney,” and is far more satisfied. He loves his job because, like the Professor, he enjoys the reward he gets from seeing people become better versions of themselves through jiu-jitsu. That has far greater personal value than any extra income he might earn elsewhere. New students to the school can be a bit taken-aback when they see Sean for the first time. Although they try to hide it, meeting victims of horrific accidents - with the injuries to show for it - doesn’t happen every day. Sean is used to it and within the comfortable confines of the school, which is like a second home, he is happy to tell people the story of his accident. If they ask. Sometimes questions about his accident aren’t quite so welcome. Every so often, people will approach Sean in public and by way of introduction will say something like, “Hey! What happened to you?”
Obviously, this is a gross invasion of privacy and Sean has to fight the urge to retort with a query about the asker’s own personal life. Back at the school, however, Sean is just a normal guy, and people don’t even notice there’s anything different about him.
As it should be.
So yes, Sean’s road to a jiu-jitsu world title might be less travelled than someone possessed of all four limbs, but that’s only because of the difference in his physical capabilities. For Sean, his achievement is no greater than anyone else’s, no matter how often Professor Marcelo repeats, “It’s the most inspirational story I’ve ever heard!”
The World Championship gold medal was earned through simple hard work and Sean is justifiably proud of it. He can’t wait to return to Abu Dhabi next year to defend his title.
We can observe the benefits of hard work from anyone with a desire to succeed, but the thing that makes Sean truly inspirational is his contentment with life.
Resigning from a job for lifestyle reasons is the dream of many, and Sean demonstrates how foregoing the “benefits” of a higher salary can result in social, mental and physical rewards.
Sean moved on from his accident long ago. It doesn’t define him. He’s just a normal guy who has chosen to enrich himself by living the jiu-jitsu lifestyle.
“Gracie Barra has been oustanding for my daughter. Her confidence has grown so much in the eight months since she joined. So much so that she recently competed in her first competition with complete confidence. Great coaches and a real team environment that I hope she will be a part of for life.”
Rob McGovern - Parent
“The first feeling I had after (the competition) this morning was the warmth of gratefulness and pride that comes from being part of Gracie Barra. I know there was a time in my life when I didn’t do jiu jitsu, but now I can’t fathom life without it. Thank you for your support, your knowledge, friendship, putting up with minor meltdowns before comp, making me laugh, making sure I don’t die, challenging me constantly, being all-around amazing and giving me more than I could have ever expected from a sport.”
“Marcelo has been a pioneer in grappling sports in Australia. I first engaged him at the Brumbies in 2004, and he quickly developed a syllabus of grappling drills that were specific to rugby from both a technical and condition perspective. Furthermore, when at the Wallabies in 2005-2007 I sent many players to him for individual and small group training. Without exception, the players love his sessions and appreciate the value for specific game preparation. Eight years on, I still seek to update my knowledge with Marcelo. He is the best grappling coach I have worked with.”
“Marcelo has been fantastic in helping us design our contact skill and conditioning programs for the 2012/2013 pre-season and season.
His technical skill and coaching ability set him apart from other coaches. He has a long history with the Brumbies conditioning team”