It’s a Wednesday, the day before my division at the Rio Open.
It also happens to be my birthday today. I’m blessed to be in Rio, but the celebrations will have to wait until post-competition.
I’m lounging on the beach in Ipanema, watching four carioca women play beach volleyball. All are donning string-clad bikinis. They show off their avid volley skills with each head butt and dive into the sand. How they keep it all together in the tiny suits is quite impressive.
I sit back in my lounge chair visualizing my impending fights at tomorrow’s Rio Open tournament. I know I’m close on weight and by end of day, I will have made three visits to the nearest drugstore – drogaria – to check my weight. I’m a kilo under (2lbs) each time, but it’s the pounds to kilo conversion that makes me nervous and anxious to check a couple times that day.
I’m at the beach for at least 4 hours— Enthralled with people watching. The beach is sprawling with thousands of red lawn chairs, with locals and tourists alike, sipping their coco waters, reading gossip papers, all while dozens of vendors sprawl the beach selling matte (type of sweet tea), açai, and cangas (a popular thin cloth towel—the Brazil flag is a popular choice for gringos visiting).
I put my headphones on and start my visualizations. I think of my pre-competition morning routines. I recall the loud echoes of the Tijuca Tenis Club from the last time I competed at the 2010 Rio Open as a blue belt. I go over my game plan, the sweeps and attacks I want to execute come tomorrow. Then I hear my teacher’s voice in the back of my head, like the voice of a parent in your subconscious that reminds me not to stay in the sun too long pre-fight. So I pack up to head back to the apartment.
The day of the tournament, a housemate came up from the ConnectionRio house in Barra to keep me company and help with whatever I needed. We took the metro to Tijuca, arriving an hour and a half before my division started. I sat in the stands briefly before starting my warmup. Back home, my teammate Julian usually runs me through a warmup that gets my breath, muscles and heart rate at a pace similar to training. I feel comfortable going into my first fight with a good sweat going because my muscles are warmed up and you don’t have the shock of the first grips and breathing hard. As I was called to the mats, I felt clear headed and happy to be there. I looked over and behind the barricades was an enormity of support. Gordo and Dennis were there to coach and support me, along with more than a dozen friends and training partners from the Gordo and De La Riva academies, all there to show support by cheering me on.
In my first match, I faced a girl from Godoi Jiujitsu. I secured a sweep early on from my guard, she returned a sweep to make it 2-2 tie. I quickly stood up with the leg and came to take her down. Because we were close to the boundary, the ref awarded me an advantage and reset us in the center. Time ran out and I won on this advantage.
The semis match was one of my best tournament matches to date. It is a match I will never forget because I not only fought my best, but it was a big lesson in never leave it up to the ref and to know whether you scored points or advantages for a takedown close to the boundary marker.
Although I took down my opponent 2 times with a single leg, both times the takedown began in bounds, but she landed out of bounds. At about mid way through the match, I executed a clean oomplata sweep from my guard, which brought her to her to her back, but I didn’t come up on top quick enough and she returned to her knees. I was ahead 3-0 on advantages at the 6 minute marker. In the final minute of the fight, we were reset in the center once more. She pulled open guard, then sunk to deep half. I saw her outside arm exposed & I saw I could take it for an armbar. I cut my knee through, wrapped up the arm, stepped over her head and sat back, and the arm perfectly across my body and extended. I felt it stretch tight across my body as she yelped and came to her knees. I couldn’t believe it when I saw her head pop out!! I was forced to repose the guard. Time ran out just seconds later. I looked over at Dennis Asche, Gordo’s American black belt (founder of ConnectionRio), who was coaching me for the second time at the Open. I raised my hands close to my face, smiling and praying. I believed I’d won the fight.
Although I had the 2 takedowns, the sweep and the submission attempt, because my opponent landed out of bounds on the takedowns & came from on bottom to the top when she escaped the armbar, that is considered a sweep for her and advantage for me. Even if though she didn’t initiate the sweep, the referee considered this two points. Apparently this is up to the discretion of the referee and in this case it was not in my favor.
I took a risk going for the arm and giving up the 2 points if she escaped—which she did. I can’t say I regret going for the submission, because we should always go for the submission! But I do think in the moment I felt I was dominating the fight with my takedowns, sweep and attacks from guard and didn’t see how much of a risk it really was in the moment.
When the match ended, I looked back at the fence in disbelief. Dennis, was also in disbelief. He felt I should have been given two for one of my takedowns and that she shouldn’t have been awarded two points for the armbar escape. It was hard not to feel like I’d been “gringoed” in the fight. But I had to respect the decision and move on.
After the matches, I went to the podium to receive my bronze. Alongside me at the podium, also on the third place marker was Karen, the reigning world champion at my belt/weight. I recognized her from the World Championships, which took place just a month earlier. I guess it wasn’t her day either.
JiuJitsu tournaments remind me that everything is up for grabs in competion. The champion that day isn’t necessarily any better than the others on the podium. There could have been many close calls, where finals are decided on just advantages and maybe someone had a buy. I say this, not to take away from the champion, or fluff up the losers, because I’ve been on both sides. It’s part talent, part drive, and lots of luck. But hard training will usually trump the need for luck or at least diminish the number of times you’ll need it.
They say you win or you learn. I learned. Make sure you get the points and finish your submissions darn it!
Keep training hard and never give up after your losses– especially the narrow ones.
I know I wont!