Joanne White

“These are the days I want back the most, the days where I can roll for fun with other women from all over the country, to learn something new from a visitor, to discover their stories, and create a bond using the sport we love, but which always expands to a more personal, lasting, friendship.”

Photo by Grapple Club
Josie Kelsey

My journey to and within Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has been a bit of a crazy one. 

I started training in May 2015. It took Jon, my other half, at least a year to convince me to give it a try, as I had always preferred Muay Thai and striking martial arts. I already enjoyed watching MMA, but never really saw myself committing to the ground game. 

However, after getting me down to the gym a few times, watching the classes and speaking to the coach, I finally decided to give it a go. 

I remember being really nervous to begin with, I’d always trained with guys – and had always loved the more male dominated sports like Football, American Football, Rugby etc – but due to some unfortunate incidents during my teen years, the thought of rolling around with a man who could potentially be much bigger and stronger than me was a difficult fear to overcome immediately. 

Jon and I made the coach aware of my apprehension prior to the class, so my first session was geared towards movement drills. They each did their best to help me feel comfortable, and most of all, to make it fun; I’m pretty sure I spent that whole class grinning from ear to ear. 

I still remember the first submission I was taught in that class, and it’s what made me fall in love with BJJ, and now almost 6 years on, the Bow and Arrow Choke is still one of my favourite subs to hit! 

After that first session, I threw myself into training as much as I possibly could, which at the time was an extremely difficult balancing act for me, as I had a 4 year old daughter to take care of, on top of studying full-time at university, working a part-time job to make ends meet, all the while trying to manage and maintain my chronic pain and fatigue under control, as I suffer with Fibromyalgia. Suffice to say, practicing the Gentle Art placed a heavy toll on my body, one I’d not previously experienced. 

Josie Kelsey

At the start of the year that I took up BJJ I also found out I that I had a form of Haemophilia (a blood clotting disorder), so had to regularly take medications, attend physician appointments, and have numerous blood tests, which also played a hand in draining all the energy from my body, which combined with BJJ was incredibly difficult to manage. 

If you were to look across my social media now, like many others out there, you would be greeted with a multitude of images of me smiling for photos, or videos from competitions, rolling with lots of energy and positivity. But behind it all there’s a daily battle that very few people see. The moments where I’m curled up in a ball at the bottom of my shower, my muscles feeling as though they’re tearing themselves apart, or my hands and feet feeling as though they’re on fire with ceaseless burning sensations. 

There have been times that I’ve just wanted to give up due to the pain and fatigue, when I’ve stared at myself in the mirror, my body on fire, wondering if it’s all worth it. 

That being said, when I’m out on the mats, and I’m tied up in someone else’s limbs, the pain and fatigue I experience is still there, but it’s become just another part of my game. It’s taught me how to actively manage my energy, to adapt my game instead of pushing myself as hard as possible when the situation doesn’t call for it, to pace myself, and to time my explosiveness. Fibromyalgia and Jiu Jitsu are most certainly strange bedfellows, but my love for the sport has pushed me to work hard, concentrate, and prioritise my health and my recovery more, so that I can return to the mats tomorrow, and train as much as I want, and hopefully compete more. 

My first year and a half of training was definitely difficult, with my health all over the place due to still finding my limits when training and trying to balance everything else outside of the gym, not to mention being in my final year of university. 

It was during my final year that I was tasked with creating my own brand for a major final project, which is how Rainha Fightwear was born; Starting a brand geared towards women, which celebrates women, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has given me some amazing opportunities to meet some incredible women in the sport who have inspired me in so many ways, travel out of the country to train and forge friendships around the world. 

It was also the January of my final year of university that I fell pregnant with my youngest daughter, Effie. This in turn lead to one of the scariest moments of my life, as at around 33 weeks I noticed she’d stopped moving, and was rushed off to have an emergency C-section, where the doctor turned to Jon and I, and flatly told us they weren’t sure if either myself or Effie would survive the surgery, as they had found a bleed in my abdomen. 

Thanks for the pep-talk doc! 

Spoiler Alert – I survived the surgery, and thankfully, so did Effie – my little tank – you would never know that she was a preemie to look at her. I on the other hand suffered quite severely with my mental health after that experience, and was diagnosed with PTSD and Anxiety. 

After my C-Section, I started struggling with my mental health, making my journey back to the mats that much more difficult, and due to my Fibro and Haemophilia, it took longer than I would have liked for me to want to get back on the mats. I was determined not to talk myself out of continuing my training, so I really pushed myself – probably harder than I should have – and trained consistently from 6 weeks postpartum with a view to getting back into competing.

My team were amazing during this time and incredibly supportive. They drilled techniques with me carefully so that I could still get in some decent training but without over-working my stomach after my surgery. They had no issues with me bringing the baby in to the classes, and having to breastfeed matside between techniques/rounds. I have been so lucky to have my girls grow up on the mats with a gym full of such incredible surrogate uncles for them to look up to.

I put myself forward to compete in a white-collar MMA event, which I loved, but realised after the fact that competing, even at an amateur level, with three broken fingers wasn’t my smartest move… I also got to compete at an event called Fight Like a Girl, which is an amazing event run solely for female competitors, by female competitors, and at the Cheltenham open the summer after I gave birth to the E-Machine, and absolutely loved the experiences. These competitions really helped to focus my training, and helped me to get my confidence back.

The following summer I was awarded my Blue Belt from Jimmy Johnstone. Soon after I caught the competition bug once more and signed up for Kleos – which has always been one of my favourite events to attend – just weeks after my promotion, which didn’t help my nerves at all, and I well and truly bricked myself going into it.

To this day I’m still not sure how I was able to bury my nerves going into the event. I remember getting weighed in, then snacking on some pic n’ mix whilst I waited on my match being called, and watching some of the other competitors going at it from the side-line. I had an incredibly tough opponent in my division – thank god it was just the one – who I was able to inch over the finish line on points, which gave me an amazing feeling of accomplishment on its own, but wanting to push myself I also signed up for the Absolute Division. 

I managed to win my first fight by submission, a Rear Naked Choke – lovely, but by the time I was called on for my second match, my body was done with me, it had nothing left to give – my muscles were on fire, my brain just couldn’t function, and the bright lights and loud sounds of the venue became so overwhelming that everything became fuzzy. That’s not to take anything away from my second opponent though, she was a beast! So fast, so technical, and so tough, I felt I was constantly under pressure, and couldn’t figure a way out, even at full health she would have been a tough roll, so taking the L in the match was no big deal, I was just happy to be there with so many other amazing women.

That’s one of the main reasons I’ve been so adamant about competing, despite my afflictions, because as much as I love training with all the guys at my gym, training and competing with women is a completely different experience. Their speed and agility, their flexibility and mobility, and their technique, everything feel so much sharper. In my experience, they’re more up for a scrap, and always hunting for a sub and looking for a win, there’s no hesitation, I love it! – Whereas oftentimes it feels like men approach you with ‘kid-gloves’. 

It’s because of this affinity for the promotion of women in the sport, especially having Rainha as a platform available to me, that led me to start holding monthly women’s Open Mats at our gyms in Bournemouth and Southampton. I’ve always wanted to give back to the community what was given to me when I started, and now that I’m in a position to drive these initiatives, I really want to get as many women on the mats together as I possibly can. 

These are the days I want back the most, the days where I can roll for fun with other women from all over the country, to learn something new from a visitor, to discover their stories, and create a bond using the sport we love, but which always expands to a more personal, lasting, friendship. In addition to the Rainha Open Mats, I also started running my own Women Only Beginners Classes, which have been immensely rewarding. 

If I’m honest, teaching has never been something that I’ve wanted to actively pursue, but being able to bring in not only those who already participate in the sport, but to introduce it to new people, and watching them fall in love with it too has really been an inspiration to me. Seeing their eyes widen in an ‘ah-ha’ moment when they finally nail a movement, or pull off a sweep or submission that they didn’t feel confident in finishing when watching it demonstrated, or that they’ve been working on getting right, it really lifts my heart and lights a fire under me to do more.

So, my journey in Jiu Jitsu has been a crazy one, but it’s also been an incredible one. I have also been extremely lucky during 2020 as I live with my training partner, Jon – who’s now a brown belt – and we run a gym in which we also live. Fortunately we’ve been able to train throughout the pandemic and we’re never too far from some random late night rolls, or maybe some skill-sharpening drills, or even hosting zoom classes. During those moments when we could re-open the gym we had an increase in women on the mats, who I really look forward to coaching, and training with, when things are finally able to return to some semblance of normalcy. 

My family think I’m crazy for putting my body through it all. My friends are getting used to me training and the array of BJJ bits I share across social media – to the point where some were actually (and finally) starting to get involved in between the various lockdowns and enjoying it!

BJJ has been, single-handedly, the hardest and greatest sport I have ever gotten involved in. Sure, it has destroyed my body, but it also built me back up to be so much stronger both physically and emotionally, and for that reason, I know it’ll be a mainstay in my life, regardless of how broken I feel.