Empower, Educate, Elevate On & Off the Mats

Pans Master Women Take Their Place on the Mats

Written by: Natalie Whitson


The Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship is one of four IBJJF ‘Grand Slam’ events, which also includes Europeans, Brazilian Nationals, and Worlds. As in many years past, this year’s Pans was held at the Bren Center, a spacious sports hall with room enough for 5,700 howling fans to enjoy the combats taking place on the 12 bright yellow and blue grappling mats below.


Brown _ Master 1 event

(Brown Belt / Master 1)

However, this year, the excitement began long before the actual fights, as the women – both long-time competitors and newcomers alike – arrived at the Bren Center and scanned faces in the crowd to connect with other Masters women they had previously known only through social media. Everywhere – except when the women were actually fighting on the mat – they were busy celebrating their presence at the venue already a victory for women’s Jiu Jitsu.

Thursday, March 8, International Women’s Day, saw the first competitions made possible by this year’s expansion of women’s events, namely the hosting of the women’s white belt Master 1 and 2 events, where a total of 36 women climbed the podium. By late Friday, when Lisa Albon took a group photo of all the available athletes outside the Bren Center, an additional 98 blue belts and 87 purple belts had won gold, silver, or bronze in the Master 1-7 women’s categories.

One woman who could really appreciate this historic event was Kris Shaw, one of the so-called Dirty Dozen, referring to the first 12 women black belts outside Brazil. Kris roamed the halls and floor at Pans all weekend, documenting this year’s tournament for BJJ Legends Magazine, which she founded in 2007. Kris also took several informal group photos of newfound Masters friends hoping to memorialize the event, and otherwise generously provided encouragement to the Masters women she met.

 By Saturday, the mood at the venue had become more intense, with Masters 1-7 brown and black belts scheduled to compete. Here were true champions of our sport, most having practiced the Gentle Art for at least a decade. In several of the matches, the skills of the upper belts allowed the smaller opponents to hold their own. Such could be seen in the brown belt Master 1 open weight class, with the top three medalists also winning gold, silver, and bronze at feather weight, light weight, and light feather, respectively, in their own weight classes while beating a woman who had medaled in the super heavy class.

By Saturday afternoon, the room was standing room only. Rebecca Lee Varady (Gracie Humaita) fought Andreia Midori Sumida (G13 BJJ) in a brown Master 3 light-feather match which saw a highly dramatic takedown attempt, fighting from the guard, side control, mount, and back mount with hooks, with Andreia eventually breaking out, although losing to Rebecca on points.

 In the Brown Master 1 lightweight event between Vanessa Marie Retes (Guerrilla Jiu Jitsu) and Mary Trimigan Holmes (Team Royce Gracie), the match – won on an advantage point by Vanessa – was characterized by active guard passing and inverted guard play. In the brown Master 2 open weight class event, lightweight gold medalist Jessie Chen (Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu) vanquished her middleweight fighters Gabriela Dolores Muller and Gina Sanchez, both from Alliance.

 Some women experienced dramatic comebacks. Brenda Marie Soto (Paragon BJJ Academy) lost on points in the brown belt Master 3 medium-heavy event to gold medalist Marie Bober (Alliance) but returned to win gold in the open class event, in a match full of energetic standup grip-fighting, rubber guard, and body locks. Other matches saw great sportsmanship, with brown belt Master 5 lightweight fighter Karen Peters (Coalition 95) having her hand held high by her gold medalist opponent Cynthia Fink (Alliance) after her loss on the mat. 

Brown _ Master 5 Cynthia A Fink - Alliance  vs Karen Peters - Coalition 95.jpg

Throughout the weekend, athletes also could get their photos taken with the adult women black belts who were competing, coaching, or watching the action up close. These included Gezary Matuda (light feather gold medalist this year, and feather Pans champ since 2011), Beatriz Mesquita (light weight gold medalist this year and Pans champ since 2011), Karen Deisy Antunes Girotto Borges (feather gold this year), Angelica Cabral Firme Galvao (gold middle weight this year), Nathiely Karoline Melo de Jesus (medium heavy champ this year), Maria Malyjasiak (heavy gold champ this year), Claudia Fernanda Onofre Valim Doval (super heavy champ this year), Luiza Monteiro Moura da Costa (open class champ this year), Bianca Basilio (bronze medalist this year and 2017 feather weight champ), and Talita Alencar (bronze medalist this year and 2107 light feather Pans champ). Also enjoying the fights on the floor were Mackenzie Dern (former Pans and World champion, and current UFC fighter with a 6-0 professional MMA record) and UFC fighter Marion Reneau (BJJ black belt with a 9-3-1 professional fight record).

Luka and Natalie

Elevate Mag writer Natalie Whitson meets her heroine Luciana “Luka” Dias, a several time Pans champ from 2001-2009  

On Sunday, in one of the only Masters black belt events held for women that day, Denise Houle (Brasa CTA) fought in the black belt Master 4 middle weight event, where she lost on points to Sonya Plavcan (Alliance), in a match which saw knee on belly, fighting out of the guard, take downs, and inverted guards. She then fought and beat Deanna Lynn Yohe (Gracie Barra). In this round robin-format, Denise again fought Sonya, losing on points to win silver. Despite setbacks, Denise felt this was a very special tournament, competing as she did for the first time ever as a black belt as well as for the first time in her own age division. In the only other Master black belt event held that day (black belt Master 4 open weight), Sonya Plavcan ended up winning gold, Leah Rae Mancillas (BJJ Revolution Team) ended up with silver, and Deanna Lynn Yohe and Kristin Sommer (Gracie Barra) tied for third.

 Although the Pan Jiu-Jitsu Championships are now in the books, many competitors and coaches have said that this was a different event than in past years, thanks to so many people coming together from so many backgrounds to improve our sport. As stated by Professor Carlos Melo, post-Pans, “Some of you won. Some of you lost. Some of you were injured. Some of you were not planning on competing (but did). Some of you couldn’t afford to come, but still did. You guys showed up, competed hard, and showed the world you deserve your place on the mats. Without the community coming together, things wouldn’t have changed”. We join Professor Melo and his student Karen Peters in expressing excitement for the future regarding Masters 2+ Women’s Jiu Jitsu. The best is yet to come!

Credit photos in article by Mark Whitson

Caitlin Huggins shows how to sweep from the Bottom Half Guard Using the Banana Hammock Sweep.

Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag presents Caitlin Huggins, Black Belt and Instructor out of Top Martial Arts and Fitness located in Pineville, North Carolina.  In this video Caitlin shows how to escape being stuck in the bottom half guard and then sweep using the Banana Hammock.  Be on the look out for more techniques from Caitlin in the near future.


Herstory Comes to the 2018 IBJJF Pans

Written by: Natalie Whitson


International Women’s Day – held every year on March 8 – celebrates the expansion of women’s rights. Coincidentally, this year’s Women’s Day also witnessed the sudden expansion of women’s events offered by the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) at its Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship (“Pans”), North America’s largest Jiu Jitsu tournament.

 Although the expansion came quickly, it had been years in the making. As far back as 1985, Yvone Duarte – the first woman awarded a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – had helped create a separate female division in the Rio de Janeiro federation. It took until 1998 for the IBJJF to offer separate women’s divisions at tournaments, with all women’s belt levels divided between only two weight divisions. By January 2018, women had the same events as men at the World Masters tournament. However, elsewhere they only offered women colored belts a Masters 1 (age 30+) event, and no Masters categories at all for white belt women, in contrast to men who had categories for every age group and belt.

 This all changed less than two months ago, when Professor Carlos Melo, co-owner of Gilroy BJJ, learned from his student Karen Peters that there were no Masters events offered for her age (Masters 5 – ages 50-55) at the upcoming Pans Championship. Resolved to correct this, the two made a plan whereby Karen would get together a group of older women willing to register and compete at this year’s tournament. While at the same time Carlos agreed to request from the IBJJF that a suitable division be offered. 

 Unfortunately, the letter was rejected. Undeterred, Carlos and Karen then initiated a petition to the IBJJF, signed by 2,950 supporters. To everyone’s surprise, overnight the IBJJF offered women upper belts the same Master 2-7 divisions as men at Pans, while offering white belt women new Masters 1 and 2 events. 

 Even as they savored the victory, Carlos and Karen suddenly faced an enormous challenge related to timing. Unlike a ‘regular’ tournament which BJJ athletes have months to train and plan for, the women at the upcoming Pans had only a little more than three weeks before the registration deadline. To complicate matters, tournament fees now ran upwards of $139 per person, far more than those paid by “early bird” registrants. Despite these hurdles, Carlos and Karen spread the word among their fellow petitioners that as many women as possible needed to register for Pans, to show the IBJJF that their decision had been a good one. 



Black Belt Master 4 division had plenty of back and forth action between Denise Houle (Roberto Traven BJJ) v Deanna Yohe (Gracie Barra).

 In response, within weeks, one hundred and sixty Master women signed up for the tournament, including 20 white belts, 69 blue belts, 45 purple belts, 20 brown belts, and six black belt women. To better understand the magnitude of this feat, compare this number (160) to the much smaller number (120) of Masters women who participated in the 2017 World Masters tournament, an event which enjoys a month long registration period. All were inspired to make history – or rather, herstory – at the 2018 Pans, as well as give future young women and girls opportunities that many of today’s Master BJJ athletes have never had.

 Many of these women had never competed before, or had not competed in years, but were willing to give it a try, supported by a small army of volunteers. During the next month, a new 2018 Pan Master 2-7 Facebook page fairly crackled with daily updates from current and prospective registrants drumming up competitors, with some women willing to go up in weight or down in age to find a fight.


Brown _ Adult _ Female _ Rooster 1 - Amber Rymarz-freitas - Gracie Barra 2 - Analilya Chrystelle Calzada - Studio 540

 Behind the scenes, individuals, as well as groups such as Girls in Gis, Josei Heishi Jiu Jitsu, and untold others fervently worked to sponsor fighters who could otherwise not afford to compete, or offered credit card miles, and/or places to stay. Lisa Albon, a professional photographer, offered two women a full photo package, while another photographer offered discounts on photos taken during the event. John Villarruel, a professor formerly with Karen’s and Carlos’ club, generously offered to coach those without their own coach at the event. Ingrid Bauer set up a Google document to help women coordinate travel. An eye was also kept towards the future, as Karen and Carlos designed a Pans Masters 2-7 T-shirt, with the proceeds supporting future Master competitors. Meanwhile, Girls in Gis designed a Strength in Solidarity patch to support its scholarship fund, to help women afford to train and compete in future events. 

 The media also was instrumental in getting the word out. Besides Facebook itself, Old Man Jiu-Jitsu Podcast and Elevate Jiu Jitsu Magazine both interviewed Karen Peters and Carlos Melo on their efforts, while Verbal Tap Podcast helped spread the story. Elevate Jiu Jitsu Magazine also offered an honorarium to send an athlete to Pans to write an article documenting the historic event. 

And it worked! By the morning of March 7, all these women – as well as 3,000+ other athletes – would begin to arrive at the 23rd edition of Pans, held at the University of California at Irvine, in search of gold. 

Credit photos in article by Mark Whitson

Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag talks with Shama Ko about 2018.

In November 2017 Nicole Houle with Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag was able to catch up with and interview Shama Ko to discuss the future of Girls and Gi’s in 2018.



Girls in Gi’s is an organization dedicated to building and strengthening The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community for females as a whole.  Shama Ko is the driving force behind this organization.  Girls in Gi’s has recently come out with a new “Strength in Solidarity” patch to support the movement of women’s Jiu Jitsu and the recent addition of the Women’s Masters 2-7 divisions for the 2018 Pans.   Please visit the Girls in Gi’s website at  to purchase a patch.  All proceeds go to fund the 2018 Sponsorship program designed to provide sponsorship opportunities for those in need.






Carlos Melo and Karen Peters Interview. The driving force behind the petition that changed history for the Master’s Women’s Divisions at the 2018 IBJJF Pans.

Written by: Nicole Houle


We did an interview with Carlos Melo and Karen Peters who were the masterminds of the petition that has quickly turned into a movement toward equality for women in Jiu Jitsu. Carlos and Karen are the true definition of the word humanitarians. We are so proud to present,  Uniting our Jiu Jitsu community through Equality and Competition. 



The steps that Carlos and Karen have taken are inspiring to us all. They have joined forces and truly changed the lives of 1000’s of women who compete in Jiu Jitsu between the ages of 30 – 70 years of age. They have worked tirelessly to keep this opportunity alive and moving forward in order for the movement to be successful.  They have also united our community as a whole. Congratulations to you both for not waiting for someone else to take ACTION!

Call to Action: We are calling all Women Masters 2, 3, 4, 5,6 and 7. ALL BELTS.. Please go sign up! If you need help getting there please look into going to the Girls in Gis scholarship and or reaching out in the 2018 Pan Am Master 2-7 Facebook group.

Everyone at Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag  would like to express our thanks to all of the people who have stepped up to help in any way that they could.





Learn how to do “The Bully Pass” with Caitlin Huggins

Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag presents Caitlin Huggins, Black Belt and Instructor out of Top Martial Arts and Fitness located in Pineville, North Carolina.  Caitlin shares with us “The Bully Pass” which is one of her favorite ways to pass the guard from the combat base when in open guard.  Look to see and hear more from Caitlin Huggins in the future from Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag.





Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag is hosting The 12 Days of Giveaways

*-*Starting December 14, 2017 Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag will be giving away 12 gifts for 12 days.

To enter to win follow these 3 steps.

  1. Subscribe at

  2. Post a picture via Instagram & Facebook that shows us what you do to Elevate your Jiu Jitsu to the next level. 

  3. Tag #ElevateMyJiuJitsu @ElevateJiuJitsuMag to enter your photo in the drawing. 

Post your pictures now and stay tuned on

Instagram & Facebook

each day for the gift announcements!

Top 12 jiu jitsu related gifts that any Jujitera uses. 

Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag - Stocking Stuffers

Any Jujitera needs gear to train in. 

Our gear was sponsored by Tatami.


You can’t go wrong with gifting water bottles, mouth guards, gift cards, heating wraps/creams and supporting women’s jiu jitsu brands, charities & organizations. 


We are thankful to our sponsors.

@TatamiFightwear @GirlsinGis @MightyDames @MyBruisesareFrom @RollWithItBJJ

Five days of Euphoria, Jiu Jitsu, Empowerment & the Sea

Written by: Jodi Schwartz

Sophia McDermott Lifestyle Camp Oct 2017 (67)


Sophia McDermott’s Lifestyle and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Camp took place in small but quaint town of Siesta Key this past October. A small patch of paradise in Florida where the ice cream comes in rainbow colors and the karaoke game is strong;  Siesta Key was not ready for the twenty five personalities coming. There was plenty of  bonding with the other Jiu Jitsu girls, lounging by the pool and playing at the beach; the only thing missing was a cabana boy and bottomless Mimosas.

Morning person or not,  all the ladies of the camp awoke early each morning to be greeted by a stunning array of fresh fruit before taking a short walk to the beach for sunrise yoga led by the brilliant and beautiful Jiu Jitsu Yogi, Jasmine Bienvenue . Each day, Jasmine explored different flows where she encouraged a connection to the body and breath before laying and meditating in a sweet Shavasana as the sun came up.




The practice was followed by a hearty,  nutritious breakfast which offered a choice of fruit, eggs, yogurt, gluten free or rye toast  with coffee and tea. All meals were prepared by a woman of many talents, Tina West, with help from sous chef Jodi Schwartz. 

At 10.30 a.m. Sophia McDermott taught the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sessions. Sophia who is an  IBJJF Worlds, IBJJF No Gi Worlds and IBJJF Pan Am Champion as well as the 1st female black belt from Australia shared her knowledge of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with a particular focus on techniques that were better suited to women. The smiles in the pictures from a couple hours of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu techniques and rolling don’t do the happiness and joy felt throughout justice.




After a good training session, the ladies worked up a serious appetite for lunch. For lunch we were greeted with a nourishing variety of protein, vegetables and  complex carbs before relaxing in the afternoon.The next three to four hours were open for whatever suited us.  Many of the girls went to the beach, some to the pool, some to shop, others to a movie, or many took a much needed nap. 




Evening activities varied day to day, but all included workshops that alternated between a focus on the body, mind and spirit. Sophia taught a toning & sculpting workout, a nutrition workshop, partner stretching and a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Q&A session. Tina West took charge of the Warrior Within empowerment – workshops, sound therapy and guided meditations.

Dinner was always ready after the workshops to make sure that ladies were refueled and recharged from all the activities of the day. Although the focus of the camp was about health and good nutrition,  if needed the ice cream shop and convenient store were just a quick walk away for those with sweet cravings. It was a busy five days indeed, but what cannot be captured in words is the atmosphere. Here’s our best attempt in quotes from attendees:

“The camp consists of:  intense training,  brutal honesty,  massive growth, vulnerability, love and the unshakable sisterhood. Not one bad vibe for five days. These camps are really on another level. Worth every sacrifice and every last penny we have. I strongly encourage you to experience the next one in February.

“Attending the Sophia lifestyle camp and experiencing all of the components of sound, yoga, meditation, and BJJ training was like reaching inside of yourself and telling that Queen that it’s okay to start her reign. The power that is unlocked at the camp will change the world.”

“This camp could only be said in a few words, passion and purpose inspires others to become the best version of themselves.”

“Best things about camp: the absence of egos,  the welcoming feeling and the togetherness and learning a sense of real team after knowing each other for just minutes! Great group of women!”

“Being less than a year into my BJJ journey,  I was very nervous attending Sophia’s camp. I felt very welcomed, made amazing connections, and new friendships.  So happy I did this for myself.”

“This camp was exactly what I needed. It helped me connect my mind and body, and helped me learn how to help my whole self! I truly feel like a new person after one week at lifestyles camp. Words can’t express how life changing it was for me!”

“I love everything in the camp ! But the Best thing was meeting everyone and getting  to roll.”

And here is what Sophia had to say “The focus of my camps is for the ladies to get a glimpse into the lifestyle that promotes optimal health on all levels, body, mind and soul. Good nutrition is a major focus of mine, as well as working out to stay fit and strong. Mental health is just as important as physical health which is why I offer meditations and empowerment workshops and yoga as well as the opportunity to connect with nature.  It is so wonderful that I am able to offer this experience all because of  Jiu Jitsu – the sport that has connected us all. I think the best part about the camps are the lifelong friendships that are created. My aim is to connect the ladies regardless of age, country, belt rank or affiliation and to build up this sisterhood of empowered women so that collectively we can thrive.”

There is not much else I can add as I write this description of the camp. It is a euphoric feeling for five days where women from all over the US and World come together to meet, learn, experience, share and make lifelong connections. The sisterhood developed is on a different level than most have ever experienced. Each day and session seemed to light more of a fire within each woman, inspiring each one of us to be the wonderful person that we are, listening to our hearts and choosing our own paths.








Denise Houle shows the Arm Triangle from Top Half Guard.

Elevate Jiu Jitsu Mag presents Denise Houle,  Head Coach at the UFC GYM Perimeter in Atlanta, GA.  Denise has a philosophy from the Top Half Guard position, why not take the opportunity to try to submit from top half guard?,  If we can not finish from here then most of the time it forces an opening to pass.   Check out our video below and see if you can add this to your top half game.


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