Female Fighters Unite to be Inspired

Written by Phuong Huynh (March 4, 2014)

On March 1, 2014, Evolve Training Center in South San Francisco held its 2nd Bay Area edition of Inspire, an all female open mat, led by 2x Pan Am Champ, Kristina Barlaan. One hundred and twenty women between the ages of 13 to 68, representing 62 academies, traveled from as far as Texas, came together for possibly the biggest female open mat to date.

Ms. Barlaan initially started Inspire to provide an opportunity for women to roll with other women, build camaraderie, and to promote the growth of the sport. The event is completely pro bono with no entrance fee, using a borrowed location. Some people see this open mat as opportunity in so many ways; others have yet to understand its purpose.

I was conversing with my male teammate and he expressed he didn’t really understand the concept of a women’s open mat. Jiu-jitsu is for the little person and it would be more beneficial practice rolling with larger and stronger opponents, right? What’s the point of women pursuing training partners of the same size or smaller and weaker?

Female Fighters Unite to be Inspired

Female Fighters Unite to be Inspired 04Let it be known, there is learning value in rolling with women. It’s not always size and strength that beats you. Sometimes, it’s superior or unfamiliar technique coupled with unique physical attributes that does it. There are challenges to discover in rolling with people of different predispositions that have forced them to evolve special nuances to their game that make it work for them.

I’m a petite woman at 5’2”, 103 lbs. For the most part of my jiu-jitsu career, I lacked the opportunity to roll with adults smaller than me. It wasn’t until I gained a training partner that is about 4’11”, 100 lbs, that I was forced to address challenges I never even considered. Because of her speed and size, her knee slides to pass my half guard are lightning fast. Generally, I’m able to stall a person for a moment when I catch their foot, but I realized it’s definitely a challenge with someone tinier and quicker. I am also able to practice techniques on her that I had ruled out as too low probability, when they are decently probable against people that are not on the other end of the size spectrum.

I also gained a female training partner that is more flexible than me. Her legs always seem to appear out of nowhere when I’m attempting to pass her guard or preventing her from getting both hooks in. Her limber legs ever so dexterously weaves through me and controls my movement like an octopus. Both of these training partners are invaluable to me as they force me to consider other possibilities when fighting. Likewise, I’ve been told I pose unique challenges too with my “spider monkey” style of clinging on and climbing, and my tendency of slipping out, requiring them to roll “tighter.”

I interviewed a random sampling of women to find out what Inspired them to be here. The common themes found were the goal of making new friends that share the same interest, understanding how their game fares against other women, and leaving with more knowledge than what they came with.

Hailee Didio, 27, Blue belt, Showtime and Dumdumaya, CA

“I’ve been training for 7 yrs and I haven’t had very much opportunity in that time to train with girls, especially at my level. It seems like I’ve trained at many different gyms but it’s really hard to find girls. Even at tournaments, the most I’ve gotten even when I’ve taken first place is, like, 2 matches. So I was really excited to come out to meet other girls.”

Maia Dua, 13, Orange belt, Superior, W. Sacramento, CA

“[My sister and I] wanted to get more experience because at our gym we don’t get a lot of girls to train with. So coming here is a really good experience to gain more knowledge and to know what’s out there, not just in Sacramento. It’s really good to gain what other people know; not just in your area.”

Alanna Encarnacion, 29, White belt, Dumdumaya, Oakley, CA

“Before, a lot of tournaments and schools would have 1 or 2 females not always the same size as you. It was amazing to see [registration] was already filled to capacity. I thought, here’s an opportunity to train with many women. There has to be somebody my size at this seminar. So I came here for the training.”

Nora Cooper, 30, White belt, Smash Gyms, Sunnyvale, CA

“I’m hoping to compete for the first time in a month, which is one of the biggest reasons why I came here. To gain experience and see where I’m at when it comes to girls at other gyms. All the gyms have their own ways of training and their own techniques they prefer. When you only train with people from your own you get used to their way of doing things.”

Female Fighters Unite to be Inspired 01

Lenna Unlinger, 27, Brown belt, Cassio Werneck BJJ, Sacramento, CA

“I am the highest ranking female Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in all of Sacramento County. In order to get rolls with other females that are brown belt or higher I need to come to events like this. Inspire, and events like it, make it possible for me to meet with friends and fellow women practitioners my rank and above to train, and get better.”

Minette Valdes, 31, Blue belt, Guerilla, San Jose, CA

“I thought it was an amazing opportunity to get together with bodies alike because training with men is definitely different.”

Angela Sauermann, 42, Brown belt, Itabora Ferreira Alliance, San Francisco, CA

“I really like having the opportunity to train with women I’m actually friends with and hopefully become friends with more women. It’s unlike anything else to train with girls you’re going to compete against. There isn’t really a substitute for it. And it’s just a lot of fun.”

Lorena Duran, 42, Blue belt, Vitruvian Fight & Fitness, Visalia, CA

“What brought me out here is the opportunity to train with other women my size at different levels. Without change there is no growth. Sometimes you got to be able to change your atmosphere [and train with a] variety of different women; not just men. Opportunity of anything is what brought me out here.”

Vanessa Dumdumaya, 14, Orange belt, Dumdumaya, Oakley, CA

“I came to SF to train with all these ladies because I thought it’d be a good experience for me. I’m hoping that I will get better as the years go on. I learned a lot of new techniques today and I got to train with a lot of new people and it was great meeting them all.”

Chuente Casteneda, 26, Blue belt, Pipeworks Gym and Sacramento BJJ Academy, CA

“When I found out about this event with over 100 ladies to train with, I couldn’t help but come. I was super excited to meet other women with the same passion of mine. Jiu-jitsu has changed my life and I’m happy to share it everyone else whose life has also been impacted.”

Jyn Aguas Romualdez, 30, Purple belt, Caio Terra Association, San Jose, CA

“What brought me out here today is to meet all the other female jiu-jitsu practitioners that share the art I love. To learn and develop my jiu-jitsu through everybody else’s experiences and hopefully be able to help someone else out too in whatever way.”

Female Fighters Unite to be Inspired 02Gia Thomas, 26, Blue belt, Art of Jiu-Jitsu, Costa Mesa, CA

“I just always love the opportunity to train with women whenever possible. Different women from different schools… I think it’s really important for people to forget about their teams for a couple of hours and just share their love of jiu-jitsu with one another… Make new friends, learn a couple of new things, and maybe teach a few things.”

Kayti Quesada, 39, Purple belt, Combat Base, Visalia, CA

“Really, any women’s open mat to me is an incredible opportunity to help women be stronger.  It’s about this camaraderie, this sisterhood that we’re building. It’s so exciting…the energy in here…this is why I’m here. It makes me a better practitioner. It makes me a better person. It gives me an opportunity to give back to the art that really helped me become a better person.”

Shimone Sweeten, 35, Blue belt, Red River BJJ, Wichita Falls, TX

“I really wanted to come to see what Kristina’s doing with Inspire… how she’s approaching new people and how to keep women training because a lot of people quit. Hopefully, I can take back what I learn back to Texas and try to start something there like this. Give it back. Learn, basically.”


Also mentioned by many of the participants is their admiration for Kristina Barlaan, a very accomplished and inspirational figure in the jiu-jitsu community. Some had been following Ms. Barlaan’s career since her blue belt days or when she started her first open mat. The event included a free seminar so many had traveled far for the opportunity to gain any knowledge she was to share.

Female Fighters Unite to be Inspired 05Not mentioned by the participants, but awesome nonetheless, were the sweet raffle prizes gifted by the generous sponsors. Up for winning that day were gis, rashguards, t-shirts, tank tops, sport bras, caps, sling bags, DVDs, supplements, soap, lip balm, journals, patches, and many more from OSS Clothing, Fenom Kimonos, Ozamurai, CTRL Industries, Combat Skin, 31FIFTY, Inside BJJ, Girlz BJJ Lifestylez, Just a Girl in a Jiu-Jitsu World, FighterTech, Jiu-Jitsu Journals, and Gi Soap. No participant left without a prize that day.

Ms. Barlaan’s future plans for Inspire is hosting one at least every six months and venturing further out to other parts of California, and even to other states. She also looks forward to reviving Petite Inspire which is for girls ages 5-15, whereas Inspire is for ages 13 and up. More information on future events can be found on their Facebook fanpage, https://www.facebook.com/InspireBJJ.


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