Growing up, I was never the athletic kid. I rode horses, but I was a pretty distinct failure in any other athletic endeavor I tried, from high school track to touching my toes for the flexibility test in gym class. If someone would’ve told my seventeen-year-old self that she’d be an athlete in seven years, she would’ve laughed in your face.
It all changed when I was nineteen years old. I was in Costa Rica getting certified to teach ESL, and on the way back from visiting a friend, the taxi driver getting me home tried (unsuccessfully) to rape me. Even though I’d escaped physically unharmed, I was emotionally destroyed. I felt weak, vulnerable, and utterly unprepared for such a scenario, and I knew I had to do something about it. So two days later, I signed up for MMA classes at the local gym. A few months later, I started jiu-jitsu after some encouragement from my then-boyfriend, and from that point on, my life changed forever.
For about a year, I was living off a teacher’s salary in a third-world country. I was barely able to afford food, so splurging on a gi was out of the question. Still, every month without fail, I found the cash to be able to train. After moving back to the States for a year, getting a (better paying) job online, and then moving back to Costa Rica, I threw my heart and soul into jiu-jitsu. Make no mistake — I wasn’t good at it, and I’m still not good at it, but it’s changed my life for the better. It’s helped me face the anxiety and depression that I was finally diagnosed with about two years ago, and it’s given me a family that extends all the way around the globe.
That family stepped up to the plate in ways I never dared to imagine when last September, my “BJJ sister” and best friend Nichole “Ozzy” Ossman committed suicide after a silent battle with her own mental illness. Unsure of what else to do with my grief, I organized a suicide awareness event in Ozzy’s honor with the help of my wonderful employer at the Jiu-Jitsu Times. I’d originally expected maybe ten academies to participate in “Roll for Nichole”, but in the end, at least forty gyms from around the world participated by talking with their students and instructors about the importance of speaking up when your brain isn’t feeling like it should.
Because of how much jiu-jitsu has helped me through my own mental struggles and how much it meant to Ozzy, I’ve made it a personal mission of mine to speak up about mental illness in general, but especially in the BJJ community. I know that it’s easy to want to just “brush it off” just like many of us brush off physical injuries, but I firmly believe that by making this as easy to talk about as we discuss black eyes or strained ligaments, we can simplify the process of getting help for those who need it… including ourselves.
Jiu-jitsu has helped me in more ways than I could possibly count, and although I’m still “just” a blue belt, I fully intend on sticking with it for the rest of my life. More than anything, I want to spread the love for the sport so it can give others what it’s already given me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a world champion or see my name among the greatest athletes out there, but I’m perfectly content knowing that if my childhood self could see me now, doing half-decently in local tournaments and actually doing something about her mental health, she’d be proud. And honestly, that’s the greatest victory I could ask for.