I have written about my whirlwind trip to Brazil to compete at Copa Podio for FloGrappling, which you can read here.
I thought I would elaborate on the behind the scenes stuff as well as my emotions and all the mental prep in the lead up to the fight.
When I got the call up for Copa Podio, it came as a big surprise. In fact a few months ago some ladies from Australia were meant to have a competition to select the ‘Kangaroos’ female representative. The competition was supposed to be between myself, 2 of my teammates, 1 training partner and a purple belt, with us all ranging in weight between 50 and 85kgs. None of this made sense, so I’m glad it never went ahead!
In the end my Absolute MMA teammate Maryanne Mullahy was selected to fight Ida Floisvik, but for some reason their fight got moved to January 2017, so in came Emilia Tuukkanen of Finland and I. I was given 4 weeks notice and really wasn’t looking forward to asking my work for more time off for BJJ, especially when I have already planned to go to No Gi Worlds in November and have just come back from Asian Open in Japan. Fortunately my work is wonderful and cleared my schedule straight away.
As exciting as it felt to be selected to compete on such a big stage, it felt heavy with responsibility and no amount of reassurance from anyone else helped me feel any different. It’s one thing competing at the Worlds at the same time as 7 other matches, but another to fight in front of audience, live broadcast on Brazilian TV and a live stream across the world. I wanted to put on a show and make sure I did a good job representing myself, my club and my country. To ease the burden I jumped deep into preparations where I left no stone unturned. I needed to be aware of Emilia’s game, so Lachie and I studied it together. We then shifted focus to my BJJ including my strengths and weaknesses.
Just when I started to feel confident, I tore my ACL during competition rounds. It hurt as it popped, but I was mainly crying from realising what I have just done to myself. ACL reconstruction means surgery, 12 months of rehab, a hamstring graft, time off work and added expense. In an instant I thought my dreams of competing at Copa Podio and No Gi Worlds were shattered. I had a goal of winning two brown belt World Titles in one year and I was fairly certain that wasn’t going to happen.
I was in denial for a little while because after 3-4 days my knee felt pretty good. Even when I was getting my knee examined at the sports doctor’s surgery, I still hoped that the MRI wasn’t correct and my ACL was intact, which of course was not the case. When my physician advised me that if I could jump, squat and change directions without a problem I could possibly go to Brazil, I was shocked. However I needed to give myself a week to make a decision based on how my knee would handle drilling and heavier weights. I also had an Australian competitor as a replacement ready to take my place if needed be, which was a very tough conversation for me to have.
With two weeks to go I drilled and specific trained and my knee was ok. It didn’t feel right, but with changing my game I had a feeling I would be just fine. In my final week at home, I had a few panic attacks. First one happened when Lachie called me out to do our usual Wednesday night competition rounds. I started shaking, was pretty close to tears and literally wanted to run out of the gym. However, the deal was that if I couldn’t get through that at training, I wouldn’t go to Brazil. So I took a deep breath and tapped hands. I survived, felt good and my knee didn’t combust. My knee only ‘gave way’ during my one and only team competition training before I left. It made me feel sick to the bone, but at least I knew which positions I needed to avoid when fighting. During the final few days, I still wanted nothing to do with leg locks, so of course Lachie and the boys specific trained with me all scenarios imaginable where I could get knee barred, ankle locked or toe holded. There were many panic taps and a lot of fear but by the time I boarded the plane I was very confident in my defences.
I will be forever thankful for the help from my teammates who pushed me to my limit without injuring me further, the constant encouragement from Lachie and my sports psych Anthony, who always tells me like it is and provides me with the tools to get my mental well-being just right.
I had a lot of time to think on my 40 hour journey to Brazil and came to the realization that the enormous pressure I was feeling is a total privilege of an emotion. I felt grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I was doing, with so many people behind me. It took an incredible amount of courage to get myself ready mentally and physically.
During media day when I was giving an interview, it occurred to me that I perform best under pressure. I have been on big stages before, not only in BJJ, but also when I raced bikes on the velodrome in front of thousands of people and as a rhythmic gymnast as I learnt to perform around the world from the age of 7. I have competed with serious injuries and fought in 4 World Championships finals. This was my playground.
The day before Copa Podio, I went to visit my second family at Alliance Sao Paulo whom I have missed so much. Michael Langhi, who is my BJJ idol, would be coaching in my corner and even volunteered to study my opponent’s game. Together we formulated a game plan for my fight. I was there when Michael tore his ACL 2 months before Mundials, so his words of advice and encouragement were comforting and meant the world to me.
During the weigh-ins I looked around me and realised what an honour it was to be there. I was surrounded with world’s best heavy weights and people I have looked up to since I was a white belt. Now I was going to be fighting amongst them, on the same show. Right there and then I made a decision to do this for myself and forget everyone else watching me.
I woke up early due to jet lag, but I didn’t really care how I was feeling. I had no doubt in my mind that my fatigue and knee pain would be forgotten as soon as stepped on the stage. We got to the venue 7 hours before I was due to compete and I even managed a nap an hour before my fight. However as soon as I put my headphones on, it was game on. If I wanted to win, I needed to keep my focus for the entire 8 minutes.
Walking out on the mat holding Australian flag was a feeling I won’t forget in a hurry. I enjoyed every second. We tapped hands and it was finally time. I pulled guard quickly and as per Michael’s instructions played spider guard. I desperately wanted a sub, but couldn’t quite get there. I had many opportunities to come up for a sweep which I didn’t take because my knee wouldn’t handle more than a couple of minutes on top and there was no way I could risk it giving way on me during the fight. I eventually managed to sweep, but just when I tried to settle into my passing rhythm, I found myself in an arm bar. It was never really on, but as soon as I managed to get out of it, Emilia was attacking my leg. I quietly thanked Lachie for trying to rip my legs off every day from that exact position. I was able to get into a smash pass position and nearly get the pass, but Emilia turtled. I am not quite sure why I let go of the harness and went back to guard, but I think I freaked out because of possible leg attacks. I still cringe when I watch all the mistakes I make in the final 2 minutes of the fight. Although I wasn’t the most happy with my jiu jitsu that night, I was very proud of myself for doing what I had to to win, for changing my game and for not losing the plot entirely with stress.
When I finally heard the bell to signify the end of the match, I was flooded with relief. I stayed safe. My knee was a little sore, but it was ok. I was ridiculously happy that I won.
Straight after walking off the mat, Emilia and I high-fived and congratulated each other on leaving it all on the mats and putting on a good show. Emilia is a lovely human with beautiful BJJ and I was so glad to be sharing those moments with her.
We finished the night off with some well deserved drinks and it was a pleasure having a laugh with our competitors. Emilia, Ben, Tommy and I caught a few rays of sunshine the next day lazing by the pool and eating acai. It was the perfect ending to my short time in Sao Paulo!
I made the heart breaking decision to sit out of No Gi Worlds and get my knee well enough to handle the 2017 season. My year of competition comes to an end now and I am back at the gym learning new skills, developing a new game and getting bloody strong. My knee is holding up sometimes, but also gives me a lot of trouble if I get ahead of myself and revert back to playing my normal style of passing. It’s scary and upsetting, but I am really looking forward to turning it into a positive and expanding my BJJ like never before.
Bring on 2017!