BJJ has some amazing thinkers and writers, and if you’ve read the work of Valerie Worthington over at Breaking Muscle, you’ll get a lot out of this interview. A big thanks to Can over at Artemis BJJ and Slideyfoot for conducting this. You’ll find more with Val in the next issue of Jiu Jitsu Style Magazine.
Can: How did you first get involved with BJJ?
Val Worthington: I got my start in jiu jitsu through a circuitous route. I was in graduate school and I had become very sedentary, because I wasn’t very good at graduate school. It consumed all my time. Then, once I got a bit of a handle on it, I realised I wanted to get more exercise. I decided I was going to run a marathon. I ended up running two marathons: I then realised I don’t really like running that much.
However, I had decided that I liked pushing myself physically: I wanted to find a different way to do that. I thought about martial arts, because practitioners can practice for their entire lives, they are never done. The first martial art I tried was muay thai, which I did for a couple of years. I liked it – again because I was pushing myself and I felt like I was learning – but the actual live sparring I wasn’t such a fan of. I didn’t like getting kicked and punched as much as I liked punching and kicking other people.
The place that I did muay thai also had Brazilian jiu jitsu. The first time I saw judo rolls, hip escapes, people standing up in guard and doing sit-ups from guard, my first thought was “Those people are crazy, I could never do that. But I have to do that!”
This was in Michigan, where I was in school. I did jiu jitsu in Michigan for a couple of years, and then went to Chicago, California, DC and now I’m in New Jersey.
Can: Cool. Do you remember what year it was roughly when you started?
Val Worthington: It was 1998, I believe.
Can: What do you remember of the scene at that time, as that was still early days in US BJJ?
Val Worthington: It was early days and what I remember is how little I knew of the scene. When I hear other people’s stories of how they found Brazilian jiu jitsu or how it found them, it usually involves the UFC. Specifically, the exposure to what a smaller person could do to a larger person. I didn’t know anything about the UFC, I didn’t know about the Gracies, I didn’t even know that there was jiu jitsu beyond the little sphere where I was doing it.
So, I’m not a jiu jitsu historian, in any sense of the word [laughs]. I just knew that I had a visceral attraction to this thing. I managed to continue to train even though it seemed like it was a very unlikely fit for me.
Can: If I was to put you on the spot and ask you, tomorrow you have to set up a women’s only class at a new school that was aimed at absolute beginners, how would you go about doing it?
Val Worthington: Wow, that really is putting me on the spot. I think I would start with a survey and I would try to get some information from the women. I would make it anonymous, to help get honest information. I’d want to do that ahead of time, so that I had a chance to look at the survey. I’d let that guide me.
The kinds of questions I would ask would have to do with how much athletic experience those women had had in the past, why there were coming to this class, I would try to get at whether or not there had been any kind of trauma, in some sort of sensitive way. I would ask them, to the best of their knowledge, what their immediate future plans were for jiu jitsu. That information would guide my choices.
If it turned out there were some people who were “I want to throw down”, then there were other people saying “I was attacked and I want to know how to protect myself”, then maybe I’d split the class in two, doing different things at different times. But I wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of anybody I was trying to help unless and until I got a sense of what those needs were.
I understand that it’s different from what you’d do if you just want people to be mainstreamed into your classes. Maybe the women who self-select into something like this are going to have a certain demographic, but I think I’m just going to want to have more information.
Can: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers of this interview?
Val Worthington: I love jiu jitsu and jiu jitsu has done so much for me in my life. I’ve been around jiu jitsu for a long time. There are other things to life besides jiu jitsu: there was a time in my life when I would have thought anyone who said that was blaspheming. Some things have happened to me in recent years that helped me to realise that my relationship with jiu jitsu has grown and changed and will continue to do so.
The one thing I guess I would want to tell people who love jiu jitsu the way I feel I do is that’s ok. Everybody’s journey and experiences are going to be different. Everybody’s love is going to be manifested differently. There is room for all of it. Again, it’s a matter of knowing yourself, knowing what you want and being true to that.
In my case, that means sometimes choosing other things over jiu jitsu, so that I can then come back to it and love it even more.