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Tuesday it was back to training. Andrei Andrezzo is another Cia Paulista black belt that I met at Pan Ams. A lawyer by day and great black belt by night, he runs a projeto social called Project Brazil, and he asked me to stop by and teach class. It was a good mat space inside a gym in São Paulo. I got started by teaching my coach Roli’s details on the basic mount choke that make it a freaking nightmare to receive. After demonstrating it twice, Andrei asked me to show it on another one of his black belts so he could check out the details. Normally, people tap before you can even get the choke fully locked in.

As I went to put my forehead on the mat and really apply pressure, I caught of glimpse of the black belt’s eyes. I know, I know, rule number one is no eye contact, but his were glossed over and he was zoning out. I hopped off, recognizing what happened, grabbed his legs, and starting waking him up. Oh sh*t, oh sh*t, oh sh*t. I really just walked into a gym in Brazil as a guest and put a black belt to sleep demonstrating. I’m dead. To my surprise, everyone started laughing at the fact that I was completely mortified and the now-conscious black belt commented, “Yep, it works.”

I decided to not teach any more chokes that night and focused on position and some arm locks. Andrei rolled with me lightly and we talked while watching the rest of training. “It’s a small mat space but everyone is really fun and relaxed here. Sorry so few black belts are here, if I’d had more notice there would be more.” I smiled and patted him on the back. “Andrei, there are more black belts in this room than there are in the state of Arkansas.”

Tuesday night was filled with a lot of nightmares and homesickness so I slept really poorly, but Wednesday Rafael Maragoni was bringing me into his gym to teach a seminar so I had to suck it up and put on my game face. He picked me up and we headed to the nearby city, where I was expecting a smaller seminar because of the weeknight seminar and the fact that it was only open to male students of his association and female students of any gym.

I was wrong. I walked in completely shy to a room of more than 40 athletes waiting on me and was seriously impressed. The seminar was great and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to people wanting to take pictures with me. I pleaded, “Help a sister out and do some photoshopping before those go on the internet!” The seminar ran very smoothly and we lined up. My turn to speak, but I’m not even good at public speaking in English so it was going to be tough.

As I looked out at all the students, I couldn’t have been more moved. Jiu Jitsu was something that I started to pass time, to get in shape over the summer. But as I grew in the sport, I got more and more addicted, and began traveling to feed my hunger. I began meeting the great people that make up the community of jiu jitsu, and it became more and more evident that this was much more than just a sport. I never imagined that I’d one day be in the black belt finals of Mundials, much less winning. I have pictures from just over three years ago of me in god-awful cornrows and braces, posing next to Kyra Gracie as a white belt in my first Pan Ams. And now, I had a black belt around my waist, sitting in front of a room full of people in Brazil who were there just to learn from me. It was surreal.

Jiu Jitsu changed me. I would never have spoken Portuguese, never have gotten to know the Brazilian culture, and I would miss out on my closest friendships (American and Brazilian). I was taken in by people from different teams and different associations all over the world without a second thought. I had no association with Rafael, Brasa, or his instructor Demian Maia. But they chose to bring me in. Being a gringa, teaching in the land where my passion started–I sound like I’m gushing here but it’s an honor that I can’t even begin to describe. I’ll never be able to give back to Jiu Jitsu what it’s given to me, but I sure as hell can try.

Continuing on the no-sleep pattern, after dinner Rafael drove me to Campinas where he dropped me off at a hotel at 4 AM. I woke up at 7:30 AM to meet Bruno and begin the carpool to Atos in Rio Claro. I will admit, I was pretty nervous to get there. Between Rafael, Guilherme, and Bruno, there were three guys my weight who could whoop my ass like a red headed stepchild (I’ll take this moment incase my coach is reading to say I’M NOT A GINGER), not to mention the other 99.9% of the Jiu Jitsu population.

It was a small Thursday-morning class, probably because of Ramon’s absence (with Anderson at the time) and a bit of chilly weather. But I think the thing that most impressed me about them was the dedication to drilling. Rafael showed three guard passes from where you get caught in what looks like a low de la Riva/half guard position. Everyone always get caught there, I just don’t think the position has a name. “Ten times each side.” Sixty repetitions of basic guard passes, and these are world champions. I’ll be damned if they didn’t do every single one and incredibly diligently. I was drilling with Bruno under the close watch of Guilherme, who made sure to correct every tiny detail–down to the positioning of my toes. No wonder these guys are so good.

I rolled first with Rafael and it was awesome. I’ve rolled with a lot of incredibly good grapplers, and he rolled with me in the style that is great for lower ranks to learn (let’s be honest here, I’m a black belt but I’m a low rank in comparison of skill). He didn’t attack, attack, attack and make me feel helpless and just smash me for seven minutes. He flowed, moved, and reacted to what I gave him. He didn’t force the sweep, he waited for me to make a mistake passing before so I could learn. He didn’t smash me and take my back, he let me turtle incorrectly before working off my mistake. I learned so much in seven minutes and I had a blast.