Interview with Jen Flannery

Jen FlanneryAs I discover more about women who participate and promote women’s martial arts, I thought it would be interesting to interview Jen Flannery. Jen is like many women who have an interest in competing in martial arts. She is very athletic, holds down a fulltime job and competes in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments. In addition, she trains women at the Fifty/50 gym in Northern Virginia and promotes the East Coast Women’s Open Mat Series. Her philosophy and thoughts on bjj are very int eresting, especially the women’s open mat series. It would be a great thing if regional women’s open mat series would begin thoughout the U.S.

Aside from the above, I found Jen to be a very nice person. I think Jen has a bigger story to tell than the interview below so I would direct you to her blog, http://bjjcailin.blogspot.com/. Jen comes across as a person who would only take credit for the gold she has won in tournaments. But only for a moment. She would then deflect all credit to her trainers. I wish Jen all the luck in the world, at the World’ s and beyond…

Jen, Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Lets start with where you are from originally and how you ended up inVirginia?

Actually I’m native to the greater DC metro area. I grew up in Rockville, Maryland and moved to Northern Virginia after college to live closer to my new job. If you asked my mom though, you’d think I lived halfway around the world instead of halfway around the beltway, lol!

What martial arts have you/or are you studying? What made you decide on BJJ?

I took TKD as my elective gym credit in high school then joined the evening program. I trained off and on through high school and college around the other sports I played (soccer, field hockey, swimming, cross country, etc). I also tried Hsing Yi and Shorin Ryu (sp?) in college. I even took almost 2 months of BJJ at my TKD academy at one point before the BJJ instructor left. Later when I graduated from college and moved to Northern Virginia my TKD instructor (a b lue belt in BJJ) suggested that I try the BJJ school of a friend of his. So I did!

I understand you studied BJJ under and received your blue belt from Royce Gracie. How was that experience?

I studied at a Royce Gracie affiliate, yes. But he didn’t actually teach at the academy. He visited twice during the time I was there. I received my blue belt from him 6 months after I started training at the academy. It was an interesting experience because I didn’t feel like I knew anything at all (and I still think I didn’t, haha). Maybe he saw something in me that I had yet to find, but I would’ve preferred to remain a white belt a little while longer.

You then left Royce Gracie. When did you do that, what school did you join and why?

I was very unhappy with the way my training was progressing and didn’t quite know why. For a long time I felt like there was something missing in my training but I just wasn’t sure what it was. I met Ryan Hall at a tournament and he invited me to train at Lloyd Irvin’s Academy, I took him up on the offer and immediately knew I had found the type of training environ ment that I was looking for. To anyone who has never trained or competed in a sport at a high level, you can’t explain the difference in the level of training. But it is instantly obvious to those of us who have. Training at Lloyd’s was always tough and I grew a lot as a grappler.

I have read where you commented that in order to get serious about training, you had to focus on eating right. What changes did you make?

I had put on weight when I started working full-time (college 15…more like first desk job 15!). When I had to enter my first Advanced division, I decided that I wanted to do it at a lower weight class. I actually didn’t diet that harshly, because I started it months before the tournament. I cut out soda completely and cut back on my coffee intake. I started making small healthy snacks to eat throughout the day instead of stopping at the vending machine, I increased my fruit and vegetable intake and only ate lean meats. Stop eating takeout and it’s surprisingly easy!

A year later, I ended up having to cut more weight in preparation for the Mundial and was down to less than 1,000 calories a day and training 3 hours per day. Not something I would advise because I was hungry and cranky all the time, but I made weight. And since then I haven’t put any back on. I think the healthier diet actually hurt me more than helped…in my bank account. I had to buy all new pants because I went from a size 4 to size 0 in the course of a year!

Along with diet, I would assume you were working fulltime. What was your occupation and how did you manage your time of work and training?

I moved to VA for a DoD (Department of Defense) contractor job and ended up working 10-12 hours a day (but only being paid for 8, ugh). At first, I just trained BJJ for fun and only twice a week. That’s all I had time for because I also played co-ed touch football once a week and coached swimming 2-3 times per week. When I had to move out of the beginner division, I quit my part-time job as a swim coach and started training BJJ 3-4 times a week. A year later I quit football so that I could train 5-6 days a week and now I’m training 6-7. I firmly believe that when something is important to you, you will find the time for it, just like I did.

On your blog, you mentioned how much wrestling helps in training BJJ. Can you e xplain further?

Well, I only just started my wrestling lessons a few weeks ago so I would say that I really have no idea how much it will help me in the long run, haha. My coach is a D-I college wrestling coach and he makes a concerted effort to teach me things that will be useful in BJJ. Although the high school girls I’m training with are WAY better than me and could easily kick my butt, I think I’m already becoming more comfortable on my feet and look to use wrestling to begin securing takedown points immediately. At the higher levels of BJJ, matches can be very close, so the ability to win those first two points can be extremely important.

Tell me about your competitions. It looks to me like you finished in first place in every tournament but one? Even including past Judo tournaments!

If only that were the case, then I’d be awesome! I have actually lost almost as many tournaments as I’ve won. I’ve just been lucky recently to win the ones that count (CBJJ Pan Ams and CBJJ NY Open). The first Judo tournament win was mostly luck since I don’t really train Judo and had absolutely NO clue what the rules were. I just tried it because I thought it would help my BJJ. Really, I think I just won because I was used to competing and the other ladies weren’t. The second time I competed, I actually took a few Judo classes first and went with an awesome coach from one of the Lloyd affiliates (Shin Kim – alternate for the Korean Olympic team). He definitely helped me to that win and even a win over a Judo brown belt in an exhibition match!

Are there hopes of competing in the Worlds soon?

Absolutely! I can’t wait! I placed third two years ago but I missed last year because I tore my shoulder at the 2008 Pan Ams and had surgery only two weeks before the Worlds. I highly recommend tapping, lol! However, I am training hard now and hope to do well this year.

Any interest in competing MMA, either amateur or professional?

I’m not sure. I was training Muay Thai under Jose Villarisco at Lloyd’s and was just about to move up to the sparring class when I had my surgery. I’ve taken a couple classes here and there since my recovery but still haven’t tried sparring yet and I can honestly say that I have no idea whether or not I can take a punch. I’ll tear my own shoulder rolling out of an arm-bar, but hit me in the face…and I’m not exactly sure what would happen.

< strong>Who would you consider the best woman bjj practicioner today?

Hmmm, that’s a really difficult question. There are a lot of very tough women out there at this point (which makes me super happy!), but I’ve been a big fan of Michelle Nicolini’s (Drysdale) since watching her win both the super feather AND the absolute division at the Mundials in 2007. Someone that small winning the absolute division at black belt gives other tiny people like me hope!

Ok, time to get this out of the way, I understand you are dating Rya n Hall, one of the best male grapplers in the world. How did you meet?

On Myspace. Just kidding…but seriously. Myspace. Haha. We were actually “friends” through a mutual acquaintance, but we hadn’t interacted much until I met him in person at a Grappler’s Quest in Oct 2006. He was coaching my opponent in my first Advanced Division (Amie Turton – talk about a tough draw). He introduced himself to me and invited me to come train with the girls at Lloyd Irvin’s place, and about a month later I took him up on his offer.

The two of you opened the Fifty/50 BJJ gym in Virginia along with one of Ryan’s friends, Seph Smith, where you are head coach for the Women’s program. Tell us mo re about the school and the schools philosophy?

Well to be fair, Ryan opened up the gym, I just tagged along because he was holding the secret of the triangle out to me like a carrot on stick. And I just HAD to know…

In all seriousness though, we wanted a school with a friendly, positive atmosphere that was also conducive to very hard, competition-oriented training. In addition, Ryan wanted to be able to train with anyone he wanted to and have a school where people from other academies would feel welcome when they stopped by to roll and visit. Anyway, Ryan was out of training and competition for about 8 months last year due to injury, so it was the perfect time to get things going on the new school.

Training at Fifty/50 (www.Fifty50bjj.com) is focused around the principles of movement and centers on the most basic BJJ techniques. A lot of our training involves positional sparring, allowing the students to hone skills such as maintaining the mount to a really high degree of proficiency. No tricks here. You just have to learn how to sit on someone!

How is Fifty50 doing in its first few months?

I wish I could just work at the gym full-time! Although the schoo l is doing very well (over 60 students in less than 5 months), it is not quite ready to support three full-time instructors. Hopefully in a year or so… We started out with 3 women and now have 6 (plus me). They are all white belts but are learning much more quickly than I did. They have the luxury of learning BJJ correctly from the beginning (I’m so jealous of them!).

Can you tell me more about the womens program?

We wanted to have a women’s program taught by a woman, not by men. This was an important aspect to both Ryan and myself. Even thoug h all the women have opted to join the regular classes so far and like to work with the guys, they also enjoy the slower pace and extra attention they receive in the women-only class. We go over the basics of movement (shrimping, bridging, break falls, rolls, or riding the mount) almost every day. Then we move into techniques. All the techniques are designed to build off each other and flow together to create a complete game that will end up being slightly different for everyone based on their own personal physical attributes.

Is it a unique idea for a school to have a womens program? Is it your idea?

I am proud to admit that I shamelessly stole the idea from Cristina Rodriguez, (a.k.a. Midget Twister) a brown belt under Rob Kahn in Tampa, Florida. She had so much success with her program that it inspired me! I wanted to participate in one at Lloyd’s but unfortunately it didn’t get off the ground until after I left his academy, but I understand it’s very successful as well and is taught by a female brown belt, Nyjah Easton. The more schools that encourage female participation in this way, the better off we all will be.

Fifty/50 also holds an event called the East Coast BJJ Women’s Open Mat Series. Can you describe how the idea started and about the Open Mat Series?

Well I kind of (totally) made up that title for an article I wrote…maybe it’ll stick. J I worked with Julius Park when I was at Lloyd’s to set one up at his academy two years ago. He had Amie Turton come down and teach a little bit then all the women sparred for a while. We had such a great time that the visiting ladies from the other schools wanted to host one too. So few of us get to train with women our skill and weight, so we only come across each other in competition. The open mats are great opportunities for us to get in some extra practice and hang out with women just like ourselves. I am proud to consider many of these women my friends.

The events themselves are actually more informal in their design than th e title makes it seem. After each event, the next location is worked out on a “secret” online women’s BJJ forum. The confirmation of a “hoohoo” must be made in person by a current member of the forum in order to gain admittance. No boys allowed. Lol!

Why don’t you take this time to let everyone know about your blog. I think it is very insightful.

Thanks! My blog can be found at http://bjjcailin.blogspot.c om/. I have gone through some interesting, some difficult, and some fun times in BJJ and I thought there might be other women out there going through similar experiences. Especially when going through the tougher times early on, I would have loved to read about someone else going through similar issues with their training that I had. It helps you feel less alone when surrounded mostly by big burly men. Women deal with some different issues during training that I don’t think most men truly understand. Since starting my blog, I have found a lot more BJJ women’s blogs and I love reading about their daily trials and tribulations. I can only hope that when other women read about my journey, that it encourages them to continue with theirs. Another great blog by a female BJJ player is http:/ /bjjvisionquest2006.blogspot.com/ by Valerie Worthington. She was a world champion at purple belt (is a brown belt now) and always has something interesting to say.

In closing, I would just like to thank you again for this opportunity. It’s definitely been an exciting path for me and I hope my experience will inspire other women to continue following their dream as well. The journey is never over and (at least for me) has been both challenging and rewarding with almost every step so far and I’m sure this will continue as I learn and grow towards the upper levels of BJJ. I’ve had fantastic and painful times that I wouldn’t trade for anything (well, maybe just the painful ones…). Without BJJ I wouldn’t have an extremely interesting and fulfilling extracurricular activity, I’d be fifteen pounds heavier, I’d have missed out on so many people whom I consider friends, and I wouldn’t have met my amazing and supportive boyfriend. You couldn’t pay me to go back to my old life!

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