INSPIRE: Interview with Kristina Barlaan

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This is perhaps one of the most productive summers I have had in a long time filled with women’s open mats, intro summer program teaching, private lessons, the Female Fighter Project’s first art show, at risk teen self defense workshops and training with MMA fighters in Japan. I can’t think of a better way to close it out than attending the Inspire 1st Bay Area Edition: All Female Open Mat. I recently had the opportunity to interview Inspire founder Kristina Barlaan about what initially attracted her to the sport and the community building she does. Welcome to the Bay Kristina!

How did you first get into BJJ? What were your first impressions of the sport? How have they evolved over the years?

I was first introduced to BJJ by my Muay Thai instructor, Dan Black. Dan was a blue belt under Cesar Gracie (that’s where I was training) and when he saw how flexible I was, decided to show me some basic moves (triangle, armbar, and kimura). It was all no-gi so I didn’t really get it, so I didn’t think that BJJ was for me. I just didn’t get how someone small like me could effectively use technique and leverage because everyone just seemed so much stronger and more athletic than me. It took me a year to actually give BJJ a try again. My team mate at the time Virgil Ortigas told me to try a class, but with the gi. He let me borrow one of his and I was hooked. All of a sudden, BJJ made sense. I was so amazed by how much the gi could change my outlook of the sport. I just remember being fascinated by the amount of control I could have and I really appreciated all of the detail BJJ could offer. I felt really strong and powerful even though I was the smallest person in class. It’s a feeling that I have been able to keep with me my entire career. Not much has changed in my mentality from White to now Brown. I love learning and I love how BJJ makes it possible for me to continue learning in all aspects. For me, learning and applying new things to my game and my life have always been empowering. Jiu-Jitsu has really helped me to bring that out.

What were some of the personal challenges you had to overcome to get where you are at now? How has BJJ contributed to the quality of your life?

I know I am not alone when I say that I have a lot of issues. Everyone has their own story and obstacles. Despite growing up being talented in a lot of things, I always felt like I was never good enough. A lot of my drive to be good at things growing up was because I thought that the better I was at a certain skill or activity, the more people would like me. Needless to say, this was not the reality of things. The numerous crafts and activities I strived to be good at just distanced me further from people. It’s hard for people to see it because I’m pretty outgoing, but I have A LOT of anxieties with social anxiety at the top of the list. Being in class, teaching, or being in a position where I have to “perform” a task in front of other people has never really been a problem since that is where I am most comfortable, but it was in the time where I wasn’t fulfilling a specific role where I would feel myself fall apart. If I’m not being useful or good at something, what worth do I have? I am just inadequate and a waste of skill. That was the thought that has plagued me for most of my life. Jiu-Jitsu has helped me to overcome a lot of these destructive thoughts. I don’t want to say that Jiu-Jitsu gave me purpose, but what it did do was give me tools to work with. If I don’t like a position or situation, I can always choose to either stay and be crushed by it or fight my way out. I don’t have to simply accept what is being given to me. I can always make something better out of what I am given. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t good enough or I was inadequate. It just means it didn’t work that time and there will always be another opportunity to try again.

What inspired you to start a women’s class? How has it been received? Can you tell me a little about the women on it, age range experience etc…Who are some of your mentors?

Growing up, I have always wanted to be a part of a sports team. I didn’t get to play any team sports growing up because I was dancing (although I was on the 3rd grade basketball team and I really didn’t enjoy it because I didn’t feel like I fit in, lol). So when martial arts came along, I was really excited to be a part of a team. I also have this big drive in me to want to lead. I would think to myself, “Jiu-Jitsu makes me feel really good about myself and I would LOVE to be able to share that with other women. I want to be surrounded by other women who feel the same way as I do about Jiu-Jitsu.” Even before I had my own Women’s class, I was already doing my best to keep the other women I was training with motivated. I wanted to see them grow and progress, to see them reach their own personal goals. I also wanted the Jiu-Jitsu moms, wives, and girlfriends to not feel intimidated by the sport, so I would reach out to them too. Being able to lead my own class just seemed to be the right thing for me to do. I started my first Women’s program in August 2011 with Team GD Jiu-Jitsu/Nova Uniao HQ in AZ. It was very small at first, but I think that’s because the Jiu-Jitsu program was located within an MMA gym at the time. When GD Jiu-Jitsu moved to its own location, the class really flourished. My students were mainly moms ranging from their mid 20’s to mid 30’s, but they really trained hard. The majority were white belts, but there were also a few Blues along with my main training partner and purple belt, Sarah Black who is also a Black belt in Judo. Many of them also compete and do really well. When I started off, there would be only 1 girl in class, but I didn’t mind at all. I loved being able to teach even if it was just to one person. By the time I had left AZ, my classes would consistenly have 6-8 women in class. A small day would be 4, but it would still be very productive. I am very proud of what I was able to start in AZ. Now that I have moved back to the Bay Area, I have been given the Women’s program at Caio Terra’s Institute of Martial Arts (Caio was actually one of my first instructors along with Cesar Gracie and they promoted me to Blue before I moved to AZ). It’s small now, but I really believe I can build it. I don’t care if the ladies want to compete like me. I just want to give them a class where they can learn this beautiful sport while also being able to feel free to be feminine. I want to pass on the feeling of empowerment that I feel when I train Jiu-Jitsu. I look up to women like Hannette Staack, Leticia Ribeiro, and Hillary Williams. Of course I admire their Jiu-Jitsu and their accomplishments, but what I admire most is their role in leading women to be strong individuals. They are more than just World Champions and they are more than their titles. These ladies are really putting themselves out there to change the World and pave the way for future generations. That is the kind of legacy I want to leave.

What are your general and personal aspirations for the sport? What words of advice do you have for women who might be curious in trying BJJ?

I am not perfect and I am full of flaws and mistakes. I have made choices both good and bad, but I choose not to live in regret of these things, no matter how much they might have hurt at the time. That’s what I want to bring to this sport. I may not be the best athlete or have the most titles, but that isn’t going to stop me from achieving what I want most. Like I said, titles and World Championship are nice, but I want to be MORE than just a great Jiu-Jitsu fighter. I want to have more than a really good looking Jiu-Jitsu resume. I love this sport and how it has given me the strength to change my life. I love how this sport has introduced me to so many wonderful people and really opened my eyes to the kind of potential I have. Do I want to be a Black belt World Champion? Have my own school with a killer competition team and an outstanding program? Of course I do, but even more than that, I want to be the kind of person who inspires change in people. I want to help people see that they can change their circumstances, that they don’t have to be trapped by whatever negativity might be holding them back. I lived a lot of my life that way and Jiu-Jitsu is where I refuse to have my positivity compromised. I would tell any woman curious about trying Jiu-Jitsu, to come with an open mind. Jiu-Jitsu is more than just a martial art, sport, or hobby. It can be a tool to change your life. Sure you can learn techniques that can help you to defend yourself and you can also get in great shape, but most importantly, when you do Jiu-Jitsu, you join a community. You allow yourself to be vulnerable and strong at the same time all while sharing that experience with other people who are feeling the same things in different ways. No where does it say that you have to be tough or physically fit to do Jiu-Jitsu. Just bring who you naturally are and be ready to learn and enjoy the journey.

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