Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Foes to Friends: One Journey From Opponents To Allies

"If You Want To Go Fast, Go Alone.
If You Want To Go Far, Go Together."

~ African Proverb

When two women meet in a competition setting they have choices.  The choice presents itself to see one another as adversaries or teachers.  The ego likes the adversary.  The heart loves the teacher.  There is already so much pitting women against women.  Our society almost designs it that way, in many aspects.

I'm not oblivious to the animal kingdom.  There are alphas and there are betas.  One is not better than the other.  They both serve different roles in the grand order of things.  But, lets face it.  You are probably an alpha female if you're drawn to competing in combat sports.  Its possible, yet unlikely, a beta would even be drawn to this.

So, what happens when two alpha females meet one another, eye to eye, in a combat sport setting?  Sometimes a journey of the soul ensues.  A journey of introspection, dark feelings, resolution, ending with deep mutual respect and sisterhood.

Here's the journey that Vickie Valdez and I have undertaken.  Our journey of friendship, competition, training, and understanding has seasoned us as women.  We hope that by sharing our process, you too may benefit in some way...


I became an athlete later in life. Growing up, I did not play any sports, which is what I thought being an athlete equaled. I opted out of gym class to take AP Chemistry. I was co-captain of the speech team and editor of the literary magazine. I crafted an identity around being nerdy and crafty and a love of learning. My body and what it could do was not relevant.

In my early 30s, I started lifting weights. I found a trainer and fell in love with the barbell. I obsessed about my squat and worked to improve my bench press. The metrics of it - logging reps and sets, setting PRs - were exceptionally satisfying. They would be a comfort when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 34. Lifting became a greater focus, as it was something I could control during a time when I felt out of control. I met with my trainer as soon as I was able after each chemotherapy session, and after surgery I had to rebuild much of my upper body strength.

About three years ago I joined a new gym where I’ve had the chance to learn completely new sports, like Olympic weightlifting and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). This is where I began to think of myself as an athlete. I started competing in powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting and BJJ - all with the excellent guidance of my coaching team and without injury. My understanding of my body, of what I can ask it to do, started to shift.

"Hard Work Yields Success"

Jiu jitsu, for me, has been more about getting my mind and my body to work together. The physical aspects are challenging, as is the need to repeatedly drill movements and techniques so they feel natural. But what I’ve struggled with, and continue to struggle with to be honest, is my mental ability in the fight. Unfortunately for my friend Almine, she was initially an instrument for much of my learning. 

Almine was my very first competitor in my very first BJJ tournament. I’d been training for about 6 months at that point, and have never been in a physical fight in my life. Once we slapped hands, my brain shut down. I panicked. There was a lady trying to hurt me. My brain stopped as she pulled me into guard and choked me in 38 seconds. My second match was better, but I succumbed to that same x-choke.

Over the next few months, she became my arch enemy. She was so nice I thought she was being fake, trying to get in my head. I wanted to beat her. I wanted to choke her. I called her not nice things. My teammates knew about all about it. My coaches used the thought of her as a tool to get me to train harder. I want to say that my lack of experience in competitive sports meant I was learning as an adult what most people learn in their youth. But I can’t really defend what is an exceptionally shitty attitude.

We competed against each other in three tournaments, during which I never did beat her. I was frustrated and acted coldly towards her - stuck in my own head. It was when she came to my gym for a charity competition that I was finally able to put myself in her shoes. To have empathy. She was scared. Usual competition jitters combined with a fear that the other ladies were going to be mean to her. Any enmity I had evaporated. I could see in her pieces of myself - someone who’s had to work to feel comfortable in her own skin. On that day we started building a friendship, and it’s become one I can rely on and am grateful for, both on good days and bad.

Vickie Competing
Photo Credit:  SmithHammer Photography

I’ve competed since and will compete again, but never again against Almine. I'm still working on the mental game, and have a lot more to learn. But this experience with Almine taught me that focusing on my competition doesn't help. Feeling angry or wanting to beat someone just means I’ve lost my control over myself. I’m really competing against the little part of my brain that is yelling that someone is trying to hurt me. I’m competing against my own sense of self and my willingness to keep fighting. I’m lucky that other ladies sign up to compete in my division as it gives me the opportunity to measure that progress against full resistance.

Almine & Vickie Competing At "SubLeague," Portland, Oregon


Competition was a new concept for me.  Excuse the pun, but it really was one I grappled with.  My background is climbing.  Unless you're going for some major speed record up "El Capitan," or doing an indoor climbing comp, people really don't compete with one another in climbing.  Its more about pushing your personal limits, enjoying nature, taking in the views, and cheering on one another, when you're pushed to your edge.  That's what I'm used to.

Almine, free-soloing, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii

Sure, I've also done "CrossFit" for a decade, and have been a certified coach for almost 5 years now, but I never saw myself as a competitor within the sport.  It was just more of a fitness class for me, where I got to see my girlfriends, and cheer one another on.

You'll notice a theme with me:  cheering one another on.   This is the essence of who I am.  I've always felt particularly passionate about this amongst women.  I've always felt myself to be a "cheerleader" for women, women's rights, and empowerment.

So, when I was given an opportunity to compete in Jiu-Jitsu, it was a foreign thought to me.  Sure, I liked watching the UFC.  I understand you don't have to be mean to be tough.  But, what I've found, over the years, is that not all women have learned that lesson.  They feel the two go hand-in-hand.  That they're inseparable.  That's unfortunate to me.  A famous example of this is the Rousey vs. Holm fight.   I've always had challenges with Ronda's trash-talking her opponents, treating them poorly (see "Ultimate Fighter" t.v. series), and threatening them.  I never saw a need for this. When Holly Holm knocked Ronda out, she exhibited pure class.  Staying with her trash-talking opponent until she received medical attention, making sure she was okay.  This was even after Ronda demonstrated horrible sportsmanship towards her at the weigh-in and wouldn't touch gloves with her, at the start of the fight.  "Why?  Why are you like that, Ronda?"  I've always wondered.  I didn't understand the need for it, and still don't.  I instantly became a Holly Holm fan, then and there.  Class, integrity, sportsmanship, and kindness CAN exist in combat sports.  In fact, to me, its the origins of martial arts.

Rousey vs. Holm, UFC #193

In my 3 years of BJJ, I've realized a lot of women start the sport, fighting invisible "ghosts."  These ghosts are comprised of memories, most of them painful.  They're fighting those "demons," really.  Not you.  Many people who enter the world of combat sports do so with a "chip" on their shoulder.  They're fighting and running against their darkest self.   When you can do as much internal introspection as you can physical training, you realize the meaning of the Ying/Yang symbol. They're interdependent.  Kindness and combat, actually, aren't mutually exclusive.  The word"Code" is fundamental to who I am.  I choose to live, to the utmost of my ability to the Bushido "code," or "Way."  This means, your competition is, in actuality, your teacher.  How can you feel anger at one whose about to teach you something?

Vickie has taught me many things.  She's wise.  She's funny.  She's kind.  She gave me a second chance.  This second chance came in the form of changing her viewpoint of me, and our connection.  She gave both of us the opportunity to go from "opponent" to "training partners."  She gave me a second chance, seeing me as enemy, initially, tofriend.  I'm grateful to her for this.  This is how I've always wanted to be seen. This is how I will always wish to be seen.

I'm not afraid of failure.  A win has never been as important to me as sisterhood and community.   My hope is for all women in combat sports to embrace this.  Its a wonderful thing when you can.  Its like a soothing balm to the heart.  Forgiveness is one of the highest emotional laws there is.

Vickie, (her Professor) Hillary Wright VanOrnum, & Almine

Because Vickie and I have transformed our friendship into one of deep mutual respect, we're now training partners.  We don't go to the same gym.  We don't even live in the same city.  In fact, we're 3+ hrs. apart.  Yet, we maintain an ongoing cyber "training log," where we post inspirational quotes, what obstacles come up for us on the mats (whether mental, physical or emotional), and have begun a wonderful year of goal-setting together.

Almine & Her Professor, Ryan Clark


"Impact Jiu-Jitsu," Portland, OR.  


"Clarks Univ. Of Martial Arts," Bend, OR.

Almine & Vickie's Sponsor:

"SmithHammer Photography"