Bad-ass feisty fighter: one women’s adventures in the jiu jitsu.

Glammed up for a wedding

Morgan shares with us her experience navigating life after the sudden death of her husband, and how fitness and jiu jitsu has changed her life. 

Procrastinator, feisty, sometimes confident, sometimes not, and unexpected. Most people don’t expect half of the stuff that comes out of my mouth. I like to say things that shock people a little bit, especially with people I’m close to and I know what I can get away with. I like to see their reactions.

Could you expand a little bit on this last one and tell me more about yourself?

I’m never going to be everybody’s cup of tea and that’s okay. I don’t have to like everybody and everybody doesn’t have to like me. With all of the stuff that I’ve gone through in life, I’ve learned —or I am learning, as I get older—it’s about my happiness.

I struggle every damn day with thinking “I’m not good at this,” “I need to not procrastinate,” or “I’ve got to study, study, study,” and do all these things. I’ll get there when I get there.

We are so hard on ourselves. They asked us at work, “What is one thing you want for the new year?” and my only thing —and it encompasses a lot—is to be kinder to myself. And for my daughter to be kinder to herself. Not to think “I’m a bad kid because I made a mistake,” or “I’m a bad person because I didn’t do this,” whatever it is.  I’m over it!

Where in life are you right now and what challenges are you facing?

I haven’t had a lot of confidence in my life. Ten years ago my husband passed, right after my daughter was born. For the last 10 years, I’ve lived with my mom and my daughter and so I’m kind of the Sandwich Generation. The caregiver between mom and child. I also help my mom with my 92 year old grandmother. Right now I’m 39, I’m financially dependent on my mom and she’s dependent on me for help with the finances and with her health.

“I’m never going to be everybody’s cup of tea and that’s okay.”

Career-wise, I’m doing a self-propelled personal training program to become a personal trainer for the company I work for (YMCA). I’ve also had an opportunity to meet somebody running a security company who is interested in self-defense classes for women. Essentially, every day I am working in a gym and helping people. Since I love training jiu jitsu and self-defense, it makes sense for me to go and get a certification in self-defense after I finish my personal training so I can incorporate all of these things in my work.

Outside of work, I’m busy taking care of my daughter, trying to make sure that she is confident in who she is, and healthy and exercising and doing well in school. And doing the same for my mom. My mom came in to the Y yesterday, and I took her around and showed her exercises that she can do with her health limitations. I like to help people. Exercise has given me a lot in life and I would like to give back. I have tried a lot of things, such as art and making lotions, but in essence it all comes down to helping people around me.

I went back to school in 2017.  The program, when I took it, was one of the hardest. Thirty-five people started, five of us finished. The workload was insane. Right after starting, we had to come up with a business idea and create a business model for our business, from market research, to what it is that you are selling, to how much you are going to charge, to business partners and all kinds of different things. I would be up until 3am some days studying and working on my business. After all of this hard work, the teacher would question everything we did. The school was terrifying, but I stuck with it and it was the most amazing (and hardest) thing I’ve ever done!

I took that thinking and brought it into everything that I do. From business to life to jiu jitsu. It made me question myself and ask what am I going to do with my personal training that’s going to make me successful. People don’t need some crazy class where you have 20 people taking on some dude in a foam suit.) What’s needed is real-life self-defense. Things that will bring you muscle memory, so that if you were in a situation, your body just reacts. That is how I got to where I am and what I am trying to do with my life.

How did you start training jiu jitsu?

Getting my first stripe on my blue belt

I hate to say it this way, but I got into it because of a guy. I was going out with this guy and he trained at a place locally in Santa Rosa. It was the way he spoke about it, the philosophy behind it. Jiu Jitsu breaks you down and builds you up again as a better version of yourself. He recommended watching the documentary “Choke,” which is about the Gracie family and how it started. It was the philosophy behind jiu jitsu that really caught my attention and just felt natural. There’s always going to be someone who is stronger and faster and more technical than you, and you are always going to be beaten down to a degree, but if you stick through that and if you can get through all of the awkwardness, it is the most amazing thing you could ever do. It’s my meditation.

The first class was women’s self-defense, and it wasn’t really terrifying. The person they paired me up with was super skinny and she was more hesitant than I was.  My first true jiu jitsu class was terrifying. It was full of blue, brown and purple belts and the owner, Mikyo, paired me with Vanessa, who taught me the triangle choke. She was so awesome and I love training with her still to this day. I was so terrified and nervous and shaky and I wanted to leave. But I stuck with it and got through warm up and she was just so nice and helpful. When the class was over, I was like “I am never leaving!” I was hooked from that first day and that was it!

“I battle my own confidence in that arena.”

This past December, I got my blue belt. For me, I am never going to stop. Part of that is what I am teaching my daughter by going, and going until I get my black belt or wherever I end up. It’s the weapon I am teaching her, as well as myself. I am proving to myself that I can do this. I don’t have to be scared or hurt. It’s okay to be scared, but I can do it despite the fear.

Do you compete?

Not yet. I battle my own confidence in that arena. I don’t want to embarrass myself or my team. That’s one of the big fears that I have to face in order to compete. But I will get there eventually—there is no doubt. It takes me a little bit of time to get through my own fears, and to work through them and get to where I need to be mentally. I also look at every day that I go, it’s kind of its own competition. There are times when I think, “I suck, everybody taps me out, I can’t get this person.”So for me, on those days when I am struggling with my own confidence, just going there and knowing that I am probably going to get my butt whipped, is a competition I win.

Recreating childhood photo

Would you say that you are a very competitive person?

I would say “no,” but I kind of am. It’s usually with myself. For me, they are in my head, the people that I need to try to catch up to. It’s my own confidence in myself that I competing against.

It sounds like one of the strongest benefits you get out of jiu jitsu is confidence and the ability to deal with whatever is happening in your life.

It’s not just confidence, but it’s the ability to deal with whatever comes at you. To take it and to flow with it. Jiu jitsu is all about leverage and doing the most amount of work with the least amount of force.  If you are open to it, it will change your life. I

It’s funny, the smaller the annoyance, it seems like the angrier I get. But the big annoyances I can look at like, “Okay, this is what I have to do.” The worse the situation is, the calmer I get. If it’s really intense, I can handle it. I just need to handle everything like that!

How does it feel to be a woman in this largely male dominated space?

I am really lucky that some of the most fearsome fighters at our school are women and I get to train with them. At the same time, I’ve been to classes where I am the only female. A lot of the guys are pretty awesome. They don’t scare me. And me being smaller, it makes them work in a different way— it makes them work harder.

Wasn’t feeling my strongest or fiercest, but I went to jiu jitsu anyway. Show up, even when it’s hard and you won’t regret it.

Being a female, it can go either way, depending on my day. But for the most part, we’re all equal. The people in my school have made it so welcoming. There’s always a greeting. It’s one of the few places where I feel like we all have equal rights.

What advice would you give to other women who want to to get into the sport?

You have to be a little crazy because people are going to sit on your face!  (laughs) You have to be open to it. Don’t go in and be like, “I don’t like feet” or “I don’t like sweat”. You have to give it a chance. It’s awkward, but if you can give it a chance to get past the awkwardness, you’ll find something totally worthwhile.  

I’ve never been in a fight in my life. If I were to ever end up in a fight, I’m little, I’ll probably end up on the ground. But there, I know what I am doing. For women, that kind of self-defense, you can take it and use it anywhere. It gives you a little more security in yourself. You can handle yourself and protect yourself. That’s more important that the awkwardness.

That’s usually what I tell people. Yeah, it’s crazy, and sweaty, it’s gross, but what you get out of it is so much more than the sum of its parts. I talk to people a lot, wherever I go, about the mental benefits that I get out of it. So I put it in my perspective. Don’t just go do it because it’s an awesome sport, but this is why I love it. If you give it a chance, you will find your own reasons to love it.  

Let’s talk about body positivity and fashion. What does body positivity mean for you?

When I look at myself, I like my eyes, my legs. I work hard for my legs, they are fabulous. Everything in the middle, eh. But because of jiu jitsu, I’ve been trying to change how I look at myself, my shape, or what I look like, by focusing instead on what I am capable of doing.

When it comes to fashion in sports, it’s a pain! Literally! I’m short; I’m not even 5 feet tall. Even when I go to buy a gi, I can’t buy a women’s gi because they are too narrow in the waist or the pants don’t fit across the thighs. I usually go for a men’s gi, or unisex gi. When it comes to workout pants, if I want something mid-calf, it hits me at the ankle instead. Or it doesn’t fit right over the tummy and it rolls down like a pair of pantyhose. It’s very hard to find workout clothes for someone who is not thin and average height.

Training with my daughter at the Mother’s Day class

I like the C9 from Target brand, but there is always something that doesn’t fit quite right. There’s a brand at Ross, Gore-Tech. I have a pair of pants that I like for my classes. They come up high in the waist so I don’t have to worry about them rolling down, but they are long in the leg and i have roll up the legs a bit.

A tee shirt that fits length wise usually doesn’t fit in the width. It’s too tight across the belly. It’s just hard finding things that fit correctly or that I feel comfortable in.

Sports bras, I’m always yanking them up, especially if I am wearing a lower cut tank top. They tend to slide down a little bit.

I do like Under Armour bars, but i am usually yanking it up. I usually like the higher necked ones but if they are too high up I start to feel to constricted. I like them a little on the tight side, so you feel bound in there. It’s not going to slide or roll. Your clothes get yanked on in jiu jitsu.  

Being short is difficult. Petite clothes are still too long. When you’re petite, everyone expects you to weigh 100 lbs. I don’t. I weigh almost 140 lbs. In fashion, everyone is supposed to be average height and thin. I’m not.

Are there any petite brands that are more accommodating to other shapes?

Not really. I just tend to go with average sized clothes. Old Navy used to be one of my favorite jeans, but they are still too long. I found a pair of Target brand jeans that weren’t too bad. But again, everything is just a little too long. Most petites, when they say “small,” they mean super small. I’ve never even bothered to try a petite brand for workout clothes.

While I can find certain pants that I like in the way they fit, I do have a few, one of them is C9 from Target, but it depends on each brand. Each style of pants they come up with is a little bit different in the cut or the stitching. The Gore-Tech I really like because they don’t stick to the mats when I grapple. But they don’t always fit in the leg, and can be baggy or loose at the knee.

I would suggest higher waisted styles for someone like short and somewhat round like me. They fit better and don’t roll so much.

When it comes to fashion, something else I look at is price. I don’t always have a lot of money. I find a lot of good deals at Ross. I found a pair of UnderArmour pants for $15.  They don’t fit quite right, but I just roll them up. I found a pair of Fabletics at Ross that was decent. It gets frustrating.

There is no easy answer. Everybody’s different and I get that companies have to focus on the masses, but they tend to forget the other folks. It’s a niche that needs to be filled.

“Just be kind to yourself. To yourself, to everybody…”

Baking muffins

What advice would you give to your 20 year old self?

It comes back to my New Year’s resolution for the last couple of years, which is to be kinder to myself. We are always so hard on ourselves about every little thing that we do, from the way we look, to the way we act, to the way we study, to whatever it is that we do.

Just be kind to yourself. To yourself, to everybody. If I could go back and change one thing, I would have liked to find jiu jitsu sooner. Whatever it is that gives you that fire, that passion, that boost in your confidence. Find that, and stick with it. Whatever gives you that feeling, fight for it, and be kind to yourself and give it to yourself.

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