Interview: Competitor and Instructor Christie Sullivan

Ralph Gracie San Francisco 2012 Women's Team

Christie Sullivan is a Purple Belt (awarded in 2010) who fights and teaches for Team Ralph Gracie San Francisco. I snapped this quick photo on 120mm film of Christie and some of the other Ralph Gracie SF girls during our lunch break at the Leticia Ribeiro Women’s Camp SF 2012. Dang heavy bags casting shadows all over the place!

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

CS: I started training Jiu-Jitsu in 2006 during my sophomore year of college. My boyfriend at that time would rave about this sport, which many people had never heard of at the time– Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I learned Jiu-Jitsu was a major component of MMA and it was also considered to be one of the most effective forms of self-defense/fighting. Also at the time, a technical instructor from Ralph Gracie was opening up a new school right near our house. I remember how enthusiastic my boyfriend was about training and convinced me to go with him to try out a class. I was always a bit of a tomboy at heart because I was raised by a single dad, but I’d say I was more a girly girl and was focused on my studies.

I remember learning the armbar from mount and the upa – but most of all I remember that I loved it immediately. My first impression was that nothing had ever made me feel so physically and mentally challenged at once. There were a couple blue belts there that I thought moved like water around me with their “fancy” moves and I wanted to be just like them. I started training 2-3 times every week from that day forward, and once a blue belt, I began training 4-6 times a week. We were two of the academy’s first few students. I didn’t realize it at the time, but to this day I am so grateful he wasn’t the kind of person who wanted his training to be his “guy thing”. Even though our relationship ended a few years later, we are still dear friends. Oddly, he was the one who stopped training after a couple years. He is still very supportive and checks in on my training and competition.

My impression of Jiu-Jitsu has changed significantly over the years. As I white belt I was eager to learn as much as possible, was fearless, naïve and wanted to be one of the old timers. As a blue belt, I became addicted to training. This was the stage where I began to revolve my life around my training routine. The jobs I chose, where I lived and my career path, all came second to training. This mindset carried into the first year of purple belt. Last year I felt I had to restore some balance in my life. I decided to keep my same intensive training schedule, but to also focus more of my time off the mat with my family, new friendships, and re-visited my plans to apply to law school. It was also a dream of mine to be a part of a women’s program. I’ve had ideas in my head for a long time about what the environment would look like. I’m happy to say it’s now a reality and growing fast.

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 have supported myself financially since high school and earned scholarships to put myself through school. I believe everyone is given opportunities to thrive and succeed, no matter how much adversity you come from. It is learning to recognize them and run with them that sets you apart. When I was introduced to Jiu-Jitsu during college, it forced me to hone my time management and efficiency to a T. At the time I was studying at UC Berkeley, so I packed all my classes into three days, worked two-three days and trained four nights a week.

I believe that focused goals, good time management and passion can breed success for anyone. Jiu-Jitsu has contributed immensely to my life. It is a major pillar in my life. I fall back on it for strength and guidance in everything else I do. I see the principles of Jiu-Jitsu in relationships, my schooling and career. The biggest lesson is to never give up when you get broken down or lose. It has reinforced perseverance through many types of challenges.

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?

From my own experiences and what other females have shared with me, there are a myriad of reasons why women start Jiu-Jitsu, what motivates them to train and why they might not stick with the art. It can be something that entirely prevents them from starting or something arises during their time training. I don’t believe the quit rate is any higher of a percentage for women than for men, but I think it oftentimes is for a different set of reasons.

When I started training full time in San Francisco, I noticed that there were only 1 or 2 women at each regular class, but I could name at least 30 women off the top of my head who trained between the SF and Berkeley academies. Just like the men on the mat, they were of all ages, backgrounds and body types.

I went to Kurt Osiander, our head instructor in SF, and asked if I could organize and create the class. I’ve had ideas about what sort of structure and learning environment I wanted it to look like. He was very supportive of this idea. At Ralph Gracie, the dream of a women’s class and team is now a reality. Our class has taken off and we are growing fast! The average class size is anywhere between 8-13 girls. The experience level is anywhere from women who are there for their first day to colored belt competitors. The class is structured to drill fundamentals, sequences, positional sparring and regular sparring.

Having a women’s community allows women to improve more of their offensive game because we can train with women of similar body type and weight. As a competitor, it feels very different to compete against a small and technical girl, they move entirely different and leave much less space. When you are on the mat training with men, you can develop strong defenses, but practicing hitting your sweeps and submission is often more challenging. Practicing on a similar body type allows you to perfect it and then you are more likely to be able to use it on different body types.

The females I look up to in the sport are Leticia Ribeiro, for being a pioneer in Jiu-Jitsu for women and Mackenzie Dern for her impressive tournament success and likeability off the mat.

Separately, I admire those in the art who live a balanced life and are admirable human beings in how they conduct themselves off the mat. There is more to life than Jiu-Jitsu.

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?

My aspirations for the art are to be healthy enough to train until I’m a little old lady!

I would like to inspire other women to train and support them in their own training journey.

In regards to the sport, I am constantly working on being more comfortable in competition. I don’t think I’ve been able to display my level of technique because of how engulfed I feel with nerves. I am committed to working through that and being able to perform at my best. I had a lot of close finals matches in 2012. I would like to continue to improve in competition and reach the top of the podium more often in 2013. I think I’ve put in the hard work and technique to expect this of myself. I would like to win multiple IBJJF titles during my competition career and one day earn my black belt.

Advice I have for women who are curious about trying Jiu-Jitsu:

-Jiu-Jitsu is probably not how you think it is! You might think it looks weird grappling on the ground or training with other men, women, whomever, but as soon as you try, you’ll feel the organic elements of the movement and the empowerment you gain from learning the potential of your body and mind.

-You will be very sore and you won’t understand a lot for the first year, that’s ok, keep drilling and training and you’ll have big “ah-ha” moments where you will find a breakthrough in your training.

-Research many schools and try out a handful before you sign up. You can switch at white belt and most people won’t care, but when you earn a belt from an instructor, it’s harder to make the move—but not impossible. Most people choose a school for its location. This will not always be what is the most important for you in the long run. Ask yourself what you want out of training and how often can you commit? Do you want a strong competition program? A school with a women’s program? A very technical school? A more MMA based school? These are all very important. Try to ask around to get as much information as possible. If you don’t know anyone in Jiu-Jitsu, ask the instructors and a few colored belts on your first class.

-Make your training non-negotiable, if you decide 2 days per week, or 4. Stick to it, don’t even allow yourself to decide every week whether you are going. Just get there and you usually won’t regret it.

Advice for those women already in Jiu-Jitsu:

-Never give up. There were many times I wanted to throw my belt away and give up. I’m so glad I didn’t. Jiu-Jitsu is a bunch of plateus, with steady increases of improvement, so be easy on yourself if you feel you have reached a plateau. Ask your training partners to explain how they are catching you, how they defend what you are going for, if you like to play on your back, start working on your top game. You might get caught more but you’ll improve on the holes in your game.

-Drill, baby drill! and watch high level matches in the academy or online. I drill 3 passes, 3 subs, 3 sweeps, 10-20xs each, 2-3xs a week. After major tournaments, I watch the black and brown belt fights online, especially in the women’s divisions. I wouldn’t recommend instructional videos as a white belt, but there are great ones out there for blue & above. You should learn your fundamentals before you try “fancy” variations.

-Write down your short and long term goals. I can’t emphasize enough how much this improved my game, tournament success and mindset. We need short term goals for our game to improve and long term goals to remind us to push through those plateus and reach those dreams.

-Have fun! Make sure the journey is fun and healthy, otherwise the belts and titles won’t mean as much.

Ralph Gracie San Francisco Women's Team

Photo by Hiroshi Matsui.

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