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On the Mats: The women of Reno’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu


Photo credit: Adelita “Ady” Grate.

By Miriam W. Hodgman

View photo gallery below.


This article focuses on Reno’s Charles Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy because of my personal experience training at the school. There are additional, and excellent, Jiu-Jitsu schools in the Reno area with female students and instructors including Freestyle Martial Arts Academy and Conviction Martial Arts and Fitness.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s popularity has exploded thanks to its proven effectiveness in mixed martial arts competitions. Alongside the many schools that cater to young men “rolling hard” training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), are schools that give equal weight to the training needs of women, of all ages, and children.

In the not too distant past, the only option to train Jiu-Jitsu was likely the local “knuckle-dragger” academy, a place where the sole uni-sex bathroom/changing room was half-an-inch deep in sweat and water, the toilet was unsavory and, if there was another lady training, chances were good that she’d refuse to speak to you.

For the many women interested in trying Jiu-Jitsu times have fortunately changed. Charles Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Reno is a good example, a school where women’s curiosity about (and passion for) the art is supported by professional instruction and the camaraderie of teammates.

Women first try BJJ for a variety of reasons: self-defense, it’s an incredible sport, superior fitness and fun. New female students stay on when they have a good experience training.

This can be fostered, as demonstrated by Reno’s Charles Gracie Academy, by a clean and friendly facility, and initial “women’s classes” where students can increase their comfort level by working with, and being mentored by, other women.

When Charles Gracie Black Belt Kelly Hassell-Cramer, who started training in 2005, first watched BJJ practitioners sparring she says, “I was fascinated by the endless mind-candy, the artful self-defense that was never boring.”

What really hooked her, Kelly said, was that, “Unlike wrestling using force, in Jiu-Jitsu you move yourself, using leverage and technique.” This is what makes BJJ a practical martial art for women and smaller people, and why Kelly’s entire family trains.

Kelly explains, “Learning self-defense is as important as learning how to swim for children.” Kelly’s 16-year-old daughter has attained the rank of Blue Belt. For more about the BJJ belt ranking system click here.

Training BJJ provides skills that positively impacts all areas of a person’s life, from staying calm and dealing with adrenaline dumps in stressful situations, to always looking for options and opportunities to get through and out of tough situations.

Kelly describes BJJ as a “moving meditation.”

For Blue Belt Heather Gessner, self-defense was also an important factor. She says, “I wanted to be able to protect myself and my children.” Like Kelly, Heather’s family (including husband, son and soon daughter), also train.

Heather also recommends BJJ for a full body work-out. When asked why other women should try BJJ she said, “You meet amazing people, and everyone is in good health, training puts you in a better frame of mind.”

The methodical way instructor/owner Gary Grate breaks down the technique for students is something else Heather enjoys about training. Her proudest achievement in class is rolling with big guys and not getting “tapped-out.”

Blue Belt Lena Van Asdale, who began training in 2007, says that not only is the self-defense important to her, but also the fantastic whole body conditioning, which builds core strength and complements her running and tennis. Both of Lena’s children, now ages 11 and 7, also study BJJ.

“Jiu-Jitsu is great for the mind and body,” says purple belt Adelita “Ady” Grate, whose favorite techniques include arm bars and lapel chokes. She adds, “The academy [Charles Gracie Academy] is more than a business. It’s a family, a safe place to get out of your comfort level and test technique with bigger and stronger training partners.”

All four of the women agreed that it’s never too late to start training BJJ. Kelly expressed it this way, “The only person who doesn’t win is the one who doesn’t try.” This philosophy introduces a deeper underlying current in Jiu-Jitsu.

In a world where much of society’s focus is on material success, BJJ mats are one of the few places where a person is given credit for trying and not giving up.

One of the hardest things for both men and women when they start training BJJ, particularly those with no background in grappling, can be the physical closeness of the art.

It’s one of the leading reasons women give for not wanting to try it. With the guidance of supportive teammates, like those found at Reno’s Charles Gracie Academy, that apprehension goes away, and the fun can begin.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a non-striking, performance based martial art, specifically designed to control and subdue an opponent of greater size and strength by using principles of leverage and technique.

Charles Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy owner and head instructor Gary Grate graduated from Wooster High School (Reno) class of 1987, where he became their first Northern Nevada Wrestling Champion in 10 years. He then later returned to become the assistant coach before going on to win the Nevada State Freestyle Wrestling Championships. He has also competed in the U.S. National Wrestling Championships three times, twice for the Olympic Trials. Gary is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, joining the U.S. AIR FORCE in 1988, then the famed Nevada Air National Guard ‘High Rollers’ serving during ‘Desert Storm’. His natural progression from wrestling and the military led him to the world-renowned Gracie family where he fell in love with the art of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Continuing to compete in both MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitions, he has won numerous titles and tournaments, eventually becoming a Certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy owner and Instructor. Gary received his Blue Belt from Rickson Gracie, then went on to receive his Purple, Brown, and finally Black Belt from Charles Gracie. He continues to train with and under Charles Gracie as an official Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy.

Miriam Hodgman
Miriam Hodgman
Miriam Hodgman is originally from San Francisco. She previously was the communications coordinator for the largest hunger-relief organization in Sonoma County, California. She has a bachelor’s degree in American history, with a minor in American Indian studies, from San Francisco State University, and has a master’s degree in public administration from Sonoma State University. She enjoys training a variety of martial arts.




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