“As has been my years’ worth of experience training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it’s all about combating our fears so we can force ourselves out of our usual zones of comfort…Also like life, there are days in BJJ that beat you down and bruise you (ego and body), but it’s all just a healthy reminder that there’s nothing you can’t handle.” 

Casey O'Connell

I began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu two years ago. My roommate at the time had been training at this hole-in-the-wall academy down the street from our apartment. I was recently single and looking for some new exercise regime to keep my body and mind in shape as winter (and seasonal depression) approached. He mentioned that the female black belt and owner of the gym was running a women’s self defense program. Having the sense that my self-esteem was not where it should be, along with a history of trauma from abusive exes, the decision was a no-brainer. I signed up immediately. 

The instructor was intimidating, but in a positive way. She was a fierce, spitfire of a woman who ran her classes with an intense warm up and continued to pepper in brazilian jiu jitsu techniques as the course ran along. By the end of the program, she queried who would like to transition into a women’s only jiu jitsu program, and I want to say I was the first to raise my hand.

Casey O'Connell

I hadn’t anticipated enjoying rolling around sweaty on the ground in close proximity to others bodies (especially as years earlier I had tried out a Krav Maga class before on a Groupon and couldn’t bring myself to enjoy a second of it), but the Professor and academy itself were more than encouraging. 

She pushed me to be my best. She pushed me to finish those intense warm-ups, and I’ve never felt healthier or in better shape. She pushed me to compete, and I won 6 matches and two gold medals. Without her, I don’t think I’d be an actively practicing blue belt competitor to this day.

I will always be grateful to her and my training partners at the beginning, for their patience and continued belief in my abilities not only in Jiu Jitsu but also in life – to find and be the best version of myself. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them, without this sport. 

Casey O'Connell
Casey O'Connell

As an additional aside, I graduated from The New School’s Media Studies graduate program at the end of 2019. During this time, I created a documentary and short-form video honoring my first instructor and her academy in Northern New Jersey. Here’s an excerpt from a blog post I wrote to accompany the film projects:

As has been my years’ worth of experience training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it’s all about combating our fears so we can force ourselves out of our usual zones of comfort. I’ve also found that my Jiu Jitsu practice attributes directly to other areas of life needing routine discipline (much like the creative process, for example, and driving forward despite mental roadblocks on an off day.) Also like life, there are days in BJJ that beat you down and bruise you (ego and body), but it’s all just a healthy reminder that there’s nothing you can’t handle.

And there’s no one more supportive of that message than Professor Fiona Watson (black belt competitor, instructor, and owner of Notorious Mixed Martial Arts.)  With her guidance, we’re always being reminded that absolutely no one can take our wins away from us.  

The unique community Fiona was able to build at Notorious is just one of the many reasons I believe we’re all so motivated to grow, on and off the mats. I’m personally so grateful to have found such support there, in a place that feels like home, with an extended family that inspires us to be the best versions of ourselves.

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Casey O'Connell