Meet Helen Litovsky and Miyo Strong, two Utah women who won gold and silver this year in the Women's Blue Belt division at the IBJJF World Masters tournament in Las Vegas.
I am so inspired by these rad jiujiteiras. Not only do I have the absolute pleasure of knowing them in real life and have the opportunity to roll with them, but I've gotten to watch them prepare for this tournament. Helen is my teammate and Miyo is from another local gym. These women are both hard-working mothers of two, and an incredible example of what you can achieve if you believe you can and put the hard work in to get there.
First of all, Tell us a little about yourselves outside of the gym. What do you do besides jiu jitsu? and what brought you in the doors to train for the first time?
Helen: I was never considered an athletic kid, teenager or adult. My husband thought BJJ was the best sport for a young girl, so when our first daughter turned 4, I started taking her to classes. A month later I wanted to try. I was 35 when I first stepped on the mat.
Miyo: There are so many things outside of the gym that fill my life. I have 2 amazing daughters that are continually keeping me on my toes. My husband Bryan and I are constantly searching for better ways to parent and balance family, work and raise strong, independent, loving children. I also train at Gym Jones, trail run, practice yoga, travel, volunteer in schools, teach self defense and eat. Yup, eat. Our family is made up of very adventurous eaters and we are constantly experimenting with new recipes, new restaurants and new food experiences. I have an amazing core group of friends from all walks of life that support me through thick and thin. I have my Master’s in Photography and have been in the field for over 20 years. I left a very toxic work environment about 2 years ago and have been running a small business ever since. My career is actually what brought me back to the mats after decades of being gone. I partnered with my Professor, Rob Handley, on some photography projects for his gym and obviously had to come back to train! I missed it so much. And I missed having/making time for myself.
How long have you been training?
Helen: I guess I started my jiu jitsu jorney as a master 2. It has been 3 years total. But I truly progressed after started training under First Bjj Carlson Gracie in July 2014.
Miyo: My training story is a little strange. I started jiu jitsu back in the late 90’s at Pedro Sauer’s gym but quit shortly after receiving my blue belt. I got married, finished school and had 3 children with a busy career so finding time to come back and make jits a priority didn’t happen until my youngest was preschool age. I had reconnected with Rob Handley (the owner of Absolute MMA) whom I knew from my early days on the mat. I started training at Absolute off and on a few years ago but didn’t commit to making it a priority until 2014.
Tell me about your first competition.
Helen: My first competition experience was not pleasant. There was too much stress, no mental preparation, poor performance, and no team support. I got hip thrown and submitted by kimura and arm bar by a younger female blue belt. I was still a white belt at the time. I felt terrible, unsure of what I was doing and found myself questioning all of my decisions. My husband has always been my biggest supporter and fan. We always travel together, discussing my mistakes, my weaknesses and strengths. On our way home, he pointed out how important it was for me to master takedowns. I was re-energized to compete again and decided to switch schools.
Miyo: I decided to compete in the IBJJF Spring Open 2014 and nothing narrows your focus like setting a big scary goal. I was terrified and that really helped motivate me. 2 years later and MANY competitions later, I am still terrified but my motivation mainly comes from other sources, thank goodness.
Since then, what has your competition history been like? Did you love it right away, or was competing something you had to learn to love?
Helen: Since I started training under Carlos Santos and Suyan Queiroz, I focused on basics and drilled a lot. My first NAGA competition was less than 2 months since I had joined the school. When I informed them about my intention to compete, I remember asking them to coach me and Suyan said, "you have not been training long enough under us to rely on what we teach but go and try, we will be there coaching you." It meant a lot to me. I still remember the voice of professor Suyan, "Helen, release your head, calm down, just release your head." I won 3 matches out of 4. I made lots of mistakes even in the matches I won. My strongest competitor was and still is Amy Campo. She outscored me and her Jiu jitsu was so much better then mine. She still remains a challenge for me.
Since then, I've competed at NAGA three times. I started IBJJF competitions in March 2015. Pan American was my first huge tournament and I lost my first match, but learned from my mistakes. I did much better at American Nationals in Las Vegas, where I won gold in Gi, No Gi, and Absolute No Gi.
My first Worlds Masters tournament was my easiest tournament, I felt prepared and got my victory fast. I had so much energy left over, that we drove home in time for me to compete in NAGA the next day in Utah. I won Absolute in No Gi to an opponent 40 pounds heavier than me, and lost my Gi match to Amy Campo.
I have learned important lessons, like how to control my anxiety and developing certain routines that give me the proper sleep, food and rest time. Sometimes matches are scheduled later in the day and you want to be able to keep your physical and mental energy up for a good performance. Conserving energy is crucial. Competing really helps me to learn where I am weak and get confidence in my technique.
Miyo: I am by nature a very competitive person. I played every sport imaginable in high school and passed up a partial college scholarship for soccer. But they were all team sports essentially, even in track my event was the relay. There is something about competing in jiu jitsu that feels more vulnerable than team sports. It’s a love/hate relationship. For myself, competing is a great way to measure personal progress and nothing exposes your weaknesses like competing… I compete several times a year at all different levels from the biggest stages like Pan Am’s and Masters Worlds to local tourneys. Competing has taken on new meaning and pressure for 2016-17 as I have been sponsored for all tournaments. Companies help pay for my training, travel, coaching and nutrition and that adds a pressure that has turned out to be helpful and motivating. Knowing that strangers(all of them I consider friends now) believe in me, my message and my goals is still a tad unbelievable and my gratitude for them is HUGE.
How did you adapt your training for World Masters?
Helen: This year I set a goal to win worlds again. I trained 5-6 times every week. It was a challenge since I had broken nose and shoulder injury that took a long time to heal up. But determination and vision of the end goal kept me on track. I even gave up hiking on some weekends to train more. Professor Carlos told me, "Go get your gold!!!" And I did. I had been mentally preparing myself, it is mine, I just have some obstacles and I can overcome them.
Miyo: I competed at Pan Ams in the Feather weight class and realized that most of the girls were dropping to that class, not walking around at that weight as I did. I felt much shorter/smaller (and way older) than those competitors and that showed in our matches. So, when I decided to do another huge tournament dropping a weight class became a priority. My coaches all believed and encouraged me to fight at Light Feather for Worlds. We adapted my training to include a lot of running, no more lifting and I was in Ketosis (fat adapted) for my nutrition. Keto is a high fat, extremely low carb way of eating. Earlier in the year I had damaged my PCL (supportive ligament in the knee) so we had to change my jiu jitsu routine as well. Things like spider guard were much more painful than running due to where my injury was. I didn’t actually get to roll hard until my first match at Worlds. I didn’t feel comfortable training full out due to the pain and also the risk of injuring it further so Professor Rob and I drilled a lot and rolled lightly. I also chose my partners very carefully while doing open mat. No big, strong, male, white belts for me, HA!
What aspect of your training helped you the most in your fights?
Helen: I train with guys every day, some of them much stronger and heavier then me. So I have to be faster and have better technique to be able to dominate. I learned how to pace myself, and save energy until I am ready to make a move.
Miyo: Dropping a weight class was huge. I felt strong and quick and equal to the other women in my division. Also, the tournament is so big there were age divisions in 5 year increments which I had never been exposed to. But overall, the training that helped me the most was the private lessons Professor Rob and I had. His knowledge of jiu jitsu is seemingly endless and he specifically worked with me on my weaknesses and designed drills and rolling rounds based on what I would likely see on the competition mat.
I think it is so cool to have more local women tearing up the scene and making Utah Jiu Jitsu a girls club as well as a boys club. How do you envision the future of the sport for women in the Valley?
Helen: I enjoy meeting and rolling with other ladies. I love the concept of empowered women. I always want to help women shake the mentality of being victims. Society makes it easy to feel safe being a victim. I encourage all females regardless of their age to try and learn BJJ as self-defense. It's a great tool to maintain and build strength and confidence, plus you get an amazing circle of support and motivation to move forward and discover and explore.
Miyo: It has definitely become a more popular sport for females! We have a Women’s Only Open Mat that happens monthly where all females from all schools can get together and support each other and train together. I have loved getting to know the ladies from all over the state and getting to roll at all the different gyms. My hope is that the group continues to grow and evolve. I am working on details for hosting seminars for ladies only and bringing in some of the top female black belts in the country such as Leticia Rieberio, MacKensie Dern, Angelica Galvao, Karen Attunes, Kristina Barlaan, Pati Fontes etc… Being exposed to the top women in our sport would be amazing. How do they do it all?
And finally, what's next for you?
Helen: I am ready to challenge myself more. I find myself always wanting to challenge my biggest fears. But in everyday life, I take it one step at a time. Train, eat, sleep, repeat!
Miyo: Carpool and work and back to the mats! My husband is training for a StrongMan competition and I can’t wait to help support him in that. He did a lot to help make my preparation for World’s possible and I am excited to repay the favor. My sights are set on Pan Am’s in March 2017. Can’t wait!
Helen Litovsky trains at First BJJ Carlson Gracie Academy in Murray, UT and owns Zen Massage just a few doors down.
Miyo Strong can be found at Absolute MMA and Gym Jones in Salt Lake City UT, or on instagram @utahjitsmama.