My 2012 IBJJF Europeans Experience
Stepping off the plane I feel a surprising sense of security. Despite being entirely alone since I hugged my mom goodbye at LAX, I have arrived in Lisbon, Portugal in one piece. I rush to get to my next checkpoint before I forget my list of things I need to do altogether. Arrive safely to Lisbon, check. A long layover in Amsterdam with snarling and impatient locals who have surely signed me off as a foreigner is finally a thing of the past and now I can worry about putting my slight knowledge of Portuguese to use. I make my way towards the exit of the airport ignoring the signs overhead due to the herd of miscellaneous jiu jitsu hoodies in front of me who look more accustomed to the territory than I. Next on my list is to arrive at the currency desk, check. My mother handed me a wad of cash before I left so I’d have money to exchange into euros for the cab ride. It’s something my mother would normally do although this time I believe she felt more inclined considering I had just totaled my car a week before– a dispute that is still in the beginning stages with my insurance company. If it weren’t for my quick craigslist find for a new ride I’d had never have made it here. I can accept a lending hand when it’s warranted.
After exchanging my money I get in line for a taxi, carefully looking over those outside of the airport assigned pick-up. Being kidnapped or even ripped off is not on my agenda. While on the short ride to the hotel I use the driver as my first victim. “Voce fala ingles?” He knows a tiny bit of English but overshoots his judgement for my level of understanding even though I told him I only knew a little Portuguese. He speaks fast and I attempt to process his slur in my head before I resign and settle with a “hmmm sim.” There’s a pause and we kind of agree to just give up and before I know it I’ve arrived at my safe haven where I will reside for the next five days.
I had two days to adjust before I competed. Female blue belt featherweight was set for Friday at 9am. I spend time with a friend exploring the city with the purpose of getting my mind off of the competition but its the night before and I can’t ignore it. I am here to compete. That’s the only reason. My first trip out of the country is more than I had hoped for but I must not forget my purpose. I will show off my hard work tomorrow and I will bring back the most prestigious gold I have earned yet. I will make Cobrinha proud. Now if only I could sleep.
Morning of and I calm my nerves with a scrumptous yet potentially hazardous breakfast at my hotel. Everything is going as routine. I’ve competed enough in the past to have a routine. Walking to the venue I plan my game in my head. Pull guard and sweep or submit. Attack. Entering the venue it’s a cozy yet monumental building with high ceilings and various places to sit. Copious amount of light finds its way through a variety of windows above our heads in what seemed like the perfect route for the morning sun. I follow the rays until my eyes meet the bullpen area. To no avail, I sip water hoping to settle down the burning sensation that has corrupted in my stomach. I hear my division called and I walk down to warm up. There’s no turning back.
I am a competitor. Or so I think. I try to remind myself why I’m here. Waiting in the bullpen I stress about not being warmed up enough. My muscles and hands are freezing but my heart is pumping like I’m being attacked from all sides. This happens to me every time I wait for my name to be called and my match to start but whatever I had felt before was nothing compared to this. Am I stretching enough? Are people staring at me? Are they sizing me up? I try to look like I know what I’m doing. I’ve only been at this for less than three years but I try to tell myself that this is what I do, that I belong. I have traveled all the way from Los Angeles to compete here in this melting pot of new and different opponents and I’ve been through hell just to get here. I don’t think I trained enough. I don’t think my recent hardships were good enough reasons to refrain from training. I should have done better.
My name is called and I’m walking towards the ring coordinator. He doesn’t bother looking at my I.D. and he tells me to wait. I never looked at the brackets online in fear that it would cripple me more than my existing anxiety is now. I must have had a bye considering all the girls in my division are going already on a couple different mats. Finally I’m called to enter. My gi is being checked and I’m wondering if the gi I had borrowed was a stupid choice. It’s decked out with patches that have nothing to do with me considering its previous owner is a world champion black belt from Brazil. This is the third time I’m borrowing it because my navy gi is no longer acceptable to compete in and I’m hoping it will give me the same luck it did when I competed in Vegas six months before.
I’m directed to mat 10 where I set my things down and pace. I listen to the same song over and over again– Lisztomania by Phoenix. It adds the perfect amount of bounce for me to do that jig where I hop to and fro, rotate my hips, toggle my weight between shifting feet, flail my limp hands around, scan my surroundings and attempt to look like I’m pumped, like I’ve done this a million times, like I’m so prepared that I can sustain a normal breathing pattern. It may add to my social anxiety if I realize how dumb I actually look but fortunately enough my audience is no longer my main worry. The match before me is coming to an end as a familiar American in my weight class has her hand raised. I make small talk with the ring coordinator as if I can afford the luxury of straying my attention from the six minute war I’m soon to willingly partake in. A glance at my opponent registers no emotion. I have never seen her before which is really a rarity. I don’t recognize the name of the academy or team on her patches. I don’t even know her name or where she even came from. It doesn’t matter. I take one last sip of my water because I can already feel my mouth drying up like a desert storm.
I’m forced to wiggle around the winner of the last match as she puts her shoes on but I don’t want to postpone so I end up rudely shoving past her as I bow and enter the mat to meet my opponent. We shake hands and the match starts. I pull guard slower than usual because she prompts no urgency. Immediately she’s working a pass. My match was a blur and all I can gather was my tired soul attempting to use what I know but not being able to. If I had a better understanding of what was going on I’d be able to better recount my actions but somewhere between fighting the double-under pass for the third time and getting mounted, I had lost the match. That’s really all I needed to know. As I stand up to the sound of the whistle, my thoughts are suddenly rushed back into my head as I realize what has happened. My hand isn’t raised and I even begin to pull away before the full showing is done. My hair is falling out of its bun and into my face, my gi is wide open with my belt barely holding on somewhere around my waist as I am scrounging for my belongings. My only thought, besides how much I want to puke and be able to breathe is that I must leave. I gather my things and walk back to the hotel before I’ve fully recovered. Briskly walking past the stares of onlookers, I feel no shame for the abrupt exit but rather for the embarrassing performance I had just given in what was my only chance to prove my worth as a competitor.
It took a little for my feelings to conjure their way into a valid, logical, rational thought process. Sometimes it’s hard to look at situations subjectively but outside sources tend to help entirely. In reality, I am a blue belt. I can fail at competition and I can be the best but when it comes to the grand scheme, anything I do at this belt level will not matter in later years. Watching the black belt matches and the emotions that are never revealed win or lose is what put everything into a concrete lesson. Here I am, two and a half years into this sport dealing with a loss that is really just a tiny bump in the road while my discouragement is a landmine. The only real problem is not my match but my lack of motivation because of it. I spent the remainder of my time feeling grateful that I had the experience. Perhaps losing is temporary and the true obstacle is my own mind. Jiu jitsu is a mental game. An individual sport despite the need for training partners and a mentor. There is no one there to compensate for your lack of skills or to hold your hand. Scary, but it makes winning even that much more special. The European Championships was a huge learning experience for me and I have grown a better understanding of the sport as well of myself. I can only hope to administer these newfound learnings into the following ten years of my competition future.