Karen's boyfriend was doing some sort of exercise on the floor (a hip escape as it turned out) and she'd remembered him talking about going to a martial art class.
That's how it started. Five years on, Karen is a top-level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athlete who recently won a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships. She was unlucky not to get the gold.
It's something she never would have imagined in her wildest dreams.
Born to a Fijian father and an American mother, Karen spent the first few years of her life in rural Fiji before the family moved to Arizona where she remained until she finished her university education.
That family dynamic and upbringing has produced one of the nicest people anyone is likely to meet. Karen is always smiling, friendly and is genuinely happy to see you. Even for the most cynical, it's impossible not to like her.
It's hardly the image of an elite fighter.
When someone thinks of a competitive martial artist, they probably envisage something out of the UFC. A musclebound, tattooed person with a permanently aggressive look on their face. Someone to be feared.
That's not Karen.
Far from it, in fact. She comes across as more of a mother hen. The kids at jiu-jitsu love her and you know she'll be a great mum herself someday. She'd be a UFC promoter's nightmare.
So how does someone so nice develop the fighter's instinct required to succeed.
Before taking up jiu-jitsu, Karen didn't consider herself an active person. She didn't go to the gym or keep playing sport after high-school. She'd hang out with friends, spend time with her boyfriend, watch TV, maybe some reading... you know, the usual stuff.
Every so often Karen would take up a hobby, like knitting, but it wouldn't last long. She'd read the instructions, practice for a while, but after finishing her first scarf or whatever, she felt the skill was complete and move on.
At one such juncture, Karen's boyfriend suggested she come down to the jiu-jitsu school and try it out. She did, and all-of-a-sudden, found something she wasn't immediately good at.
Professor Marcelo Rezende, owner of Gracie Barra Sydney where Karen trains, remembers a tall, strong girl with a puffy face. Karen laughs about the puffy face bit, preferring to think of herself as unfit, but not overweight.
Like most white belt students in their first 12 months, Karen had no idea what she was doing, and unfamiliar with the feeling, found herself struggling with self-belief. Despite encouragement from the Professor, her boyfriend and fellow students, Karen lacked confidence in her ability, feeling she'd never develop the required skills. She battled the motivation to quit.
In time, the skills became more natural and Karen started to see the improvements in herself. After receiving her blue belt, she started competing and success came quickly. Karen was winning a lot of fights, but she still had a hard time giving herself credit. She put the wins down to factors other than her own competence. She told herself she was bigger than the other girls or she might've just been lucky to win.
Everyone was telling Karen she was good enough, so to satisfy her supporters, on the surface she projected confidence, but deep down continued to doubt herself. She didn't feel deserving, despite becoming one of Australia's highest-ranked fighters.
Coming into 2017, something changed. Karen's competition success meant she was invited to become an inaugural GB Oceania Ambassador, which included an all-expenses paid trip to the IBJJF World Championships. With such an honour bestowed upon her, Karen knew she had to work hard to maintain the expected standards. She decided to get fit to give herself the best chance of success. That's not to say she wasn' tin good shape already, but the fighters at the world-level are athletes and Karen didn't feel she was athlete standard.
Karen registered for an 8 week intensive BarraFIT program and trained 4 days a week at 6am. She did extras, both for jiu-jitsu and her fitness. She maintained a healthy diet. She did the stretching. She got enough sleep.
The transformation was amazing.
Karen become strong. Really strong. Her shape became lithe, lean and muscled. She was more flexible, more agile, faster. Her jiu-jitsu improved as a result.
Karen was good enough to compete and win. The difference now was that she knew it. She believed in herself.
Karen travelled to Abu Dhabi for the UAE World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship. She lost her first fight, coming up against a very strong, heavier and experienced opponent. Professor Marcelo put it this way, "Karen did very well against her. If she hadn't done all that extra training, she would have been destroyed." After the fight, Karen's opponent, a world champion, told her that nobody had challenged her like that before. An awesome compliment!
Although she didn't get the result she wanted, Karen was pleased with her efforts and had learned she belonged in elite company. It gave her an extra shot of confidence going into the next big tournament, the IBJJF World Championships in Los Angeles.
Karen told herself, "There is no way I'm leaving without a medal." There was no doubt in her mind. She had done the work and truly believed she could win.
She did. At the tournament with the strongest assembled field of competitors in jiu-jitsu, Karen won her first two fights by submission and the next - the semi-final - on points. She had made the final and was guaranteed a medal. The only hypothetical to be determined was the colour.
Karen and her last opponent were evenly matched. In the final seconds of her fight, they were even on points and grappling fiercely. They fell off the edge of the mat and Karen's opponent was awarded two points for a sweep.
Depending on who you ask, Karen was either robbed or desperately unlucky. The woman herself is philosophical about it, knowing she did the best she could and that the result turned on a subjective call. Such is the nature of sport. She'll be back.
Any way you look at it however, a world championship silver medal in a grappling martial art - for someone who five years earlier was fairly inactive and lacked belief in themselves is amazing.
There must be something to this doo-ditsu...
“Sorry for being dull.” said Cory.
He had just finished his interview for Gracie Barra Stories and was being sincerely apologetic.
Cory had just been talking, amongst other things, about his time in the Australian airborne infantry, and one particular situation where he was positioned in an armoured vehicle turret, raking the Afghan hills with his machine gun, in response to Taliban RPG and machine gun attacks.
Cory’s a pretty modest guy. Dull?
Far from it.
Cory Neill was born, grew up, and still lives, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. It’s on the coast, about 15km from the central business district, and isn’t a thoroughfare to the city, so it’s fairly quiet and relaxed. Think beaches, cafes, restaurants, bars and sport. Especially surfing.
The Northern Beaches’ personality is reflected in Cory. He’s quietly spoken and chilled-out. He looks a bit like a surfer, except for his blonde hair being short and the fact he’s built like a tank. But not in a gym-junkie kind of way. He’s very athletic.
Cory can surf. His father used to make surfboards for a living and family tradition dictates Neill kids receive their first board when they turn one. Surfing’s not his passion, though. He loves Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It keeps him sane.
After finishing high school, Cory wanted to join the army, but his mother wanted him to learn a trade first. Being as he describes himself, “such a Mummy’s boy,” Cory acceded to her wishes and spent six years working as a carpenter. Yes, of course on the Northern Beaches.
In 2010, Mum was happy that Cory would have something to come back to, so he enlisted in the army and began his training.
Private Cory Neill was a very good soldier. Discipline. Fitness. Weapon craft. You name it. With his carpentry skills, he could even build fitness equipment for his mates in camp.
After six months of training, Cory wanted to become a paratrooper with the 3RAR. The 3rd Royal Australian Regiment light infantry unit. Of all army recruits, less than five per cent get posted to the 3RAR. Cory was one of them. In his unit, Cory was a machine gunner, lugging around an 11kg gun, compared to his fellow soldiers’ 4kg rifles. He loved the military life and everything that came with it.
In 2012, the 3RAR was posted to Afghanistan for six months, to help train the Afghan army in its fight against the Taliban. But on the night of 29 August, Cory became involved in deadliest attack on Australian forces during the campaign.
A rogue Afghan soldier opened fire on the Australians, in a so-called, “green-on-blue,” or insider attack. Three were killed and two injured. Cory had been given some field medic training, and spent 20 minutes working on his friend, Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, but was unable to save his life. Such an experience, no doubt, leaves its mark, and so it did with Cory. He had also witnessed the deaths of Afghan civilians, including children, and was having dark, violent dreams, which conflicted with his gentle nature. Even on his unit’s return to Australia, the nightmares continued, and it started to affect his work..
In what was completely out-of-character for him, Cory began to display moments of insubordination towards commanding officers. As a result, the army kept a close eye on him and eventually Cory was diagnosed with PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The symptoms of PTSD include recurring nightmares, irritability and emotional numbness. Unfortunately, it had an impact on his private life too, causing the break-up of his marriage. The army sent him to therapy and offered medication, but Cory didn’t want either option, so he was permitted an honourable discharge in 2014 to focus on his health.
Cory re-entered civilian life and started a carpentry business to keep him occupied (thanks Mum). However, it wasn’t the answer and his symptoms persisted. He was having dangerous thoughts. Not at all suicidal, but reckless. Like going skydiving and doing, as Cory puts it, “something silly.”
He found himself training at an MMA gym for a few months, but as a former soldier, the lack of a proper training curriculum led him to look elsewhere. Cory liked the grappling elements of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so in late 2015, he decided to try the Gracie Barra Sydney school, run by Professor Marcelo Rezende.
Straight away, Corry knew he’d found what he was looking for. When asked what he likes about Gracie Barra, Cory says, “The people are amazing, the training is quality, it’s systematic…,
“…and they have the best gis.”
On his first promotion, Professor Marcelo gave Cory three stripes as there was no doubt he knew how to roll. Cory trained multiple times each day and immediately caused all manner of trouble for the higher belts.
With Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s physicality, its wealth of techniques, and regular tournament competition, Cory had found a lifestyle which challenged him, kept him calm and allowed him to focus on the important relationships in his life. Like that with his three year old son, Kye.
“My little mate.” Cory calls him.
Kye is often at the school when Cory is training, either watching Peppa Pig, helping to (loudly) count to 10 during the warm ups, or telling everyone how tough his daddy is. The two of them sometimes sleep in the backyard together. Under the stars in a swag (an Australian portable bedroll), just like Cory did in the army.
As soon as he could, Cory began entering jiu-jitsu tournaments in Australia. He feels the competition gets him out of his comfort zone. That uncertainty is an emotion he embraces, as it reminds him of his happier military days doing training exercises with his mates.
Success was immediate. Cory won every tournament except one, and usually every fight by submission. So with Professor Marcelo’s encouragement, Cory flew himself to Abu Dhabi for the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
After four fights and four arm-bar submissions. He flew back a world champion.
Cory also self-funded a trip to the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, hosted by the IBJJF. Another three fights later, he was a double world champion.
Jiu-jitsu has renewed Cory, both physically and mentally. He can’t remember the last time he had a nightmare, and off the mats, he’s back to being his former, calm self.
Sadly, many of Cory’s army mates are still struggling with the mental demons of PTSD, so he Professor Marcelo are hoping to share his story with the military. Using Cory as an example, they hope to demonstrate that Brazilian jiu-jitsu can bring health and positivity into people’s lives.
What a fantastic idea.
Sean Fong is a normal guy.
He has a job, a girlfriend, mates to have barbeques with, he’s into UFC and trains at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school to keep fit.
All pretty normal.
You start to get a sense that Sean is a bit different when you get to know him better and you learn about his outlook on life.
Sean is truly happy.
That’s something not many people can honestly say about themselves.
Sean loves his job, loves his girlfriend, loves his mates (and barbeques), loves his UFC and loves his jiu-jitsu training. He sometimes trains three times a day, and thanks to his hard work, Sean recently travelled to Abu Dhabi in the UAE and won a world title gold medal. He is also a double-amputee.
Sean was accidentally dragged under a cane train, in his native Fiji, when he was seven years old.
Professor Marcelo Rezende, the owner of Gracie Barra Sydney, and founder of Gracie Barra Oceania, remembers the first time Sean came to the school.
“This guy rang up and asked all the usual questions, so we invited him down for a trial, and he said, ‘Oh by the way, I’m missing an arm and a leg.’ My instructors said to me, ‘What do we do?’ and I said, ‘Just get him in and see what he can do!’” Sean went in and immediately knew that jiu-jitsu was for him. Forever.
Gracie Barra, which originated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has a, “Jiu-Jitsu for Everyone” philosophy, that Professor Marcelo believes is epitomised in Sean. The Professor’s enthusiasm is almost palpable when he talks about it.
“If this guy can come in and make his life better through jiu-jitsu, then jiu-jitsu really is for everyone to improve their lives. It’s the most inspirational story I’ve ever heard!”
Sean shakes his head when he hears this and reminds the Professor that he’s just a regular guy who doesn’t feel any different to anyone else.
“Everyone’s got problems.” says Sean, matter-of-factly, “Mine are just visible on the outside.”
The implication that he’s in a good place, mentally, rings true, as everyone knows someone - with two arms and two legs - who isn’t content with their life in some way.Sean used to be a well-paid office manager at a legal firm in the city, but the work lacked the fulfilment he wanted, so he made what he calls a, “lifestyle” decision and asked Professor Marcelo if he had any jobs going at Gracie Barra. He had been training for six months and knew he had found his calling. The salary was lower, but having worked there for five years now, Sean hasn’t regretted the decision once. Sean exited the rat race and now lives five minutes from work. Instead of working late, he gets to spend much more time with his girlfriend, Karen, and the worst queue he has to deal with is at Wood Fired Coffee, the cafe close to the school.
Sean is now the Program Director at “GB Sydney,” and is far more satisfied. He loves his job because, like the Professor, he enjoys the reward he gets from seeing people become better versions of themselves through jiu-jitsu. That has far greater personal value than any extra income he might earn elsewhere. New students to the school can be a bit taken-aback when they see Sean for the first time. Although they try to hide it, meeting victims of horrific accidents - with the injuries to show for it - doesn’t happen every day. Sean is used to it and within the comfortable confines of the school, which is like a second home, he is happy to tell people the story of his accident. If they ask. Sometimes questions about his accident aren’t quite so welcome. Every so often, people will approach Sean in public and by way of introduction will say something like, “Hey! What happened to you?”
Obviously, this is a gross invasion of privacy and Sean has to fight the urge to retort with a query about the asker’s own personal life. Back at the school, however, Sean is just a normal guy, and people don’t even notice there’s anything different about him.
As it should be.
So yes, Sean’s road to a jiu-jitsu world title might be less travelled than someone possessed of all four limbs, but that’s only because of the difference in his physical capabilities. For Sean, his achievement is no greater than anyone else’s, no matter how often Professor Marcelo repeats, “It’s the most inspirational story I’ve ever heard!”
The World Championship gold medal was earned through simple hard work and Sean is justifiably proud of it. He can’t wait to return to Abu Dhabi next year to defend his title.
We can observe the benefits of hard work from anyone with a desire to succeed, but the thing that makes Sean truly inspirational is his contentment with life.
Resigning from a job for lifestyle reasons is the dream of many, and Sean demonstrates how foregoing the “benefits” of a higher salary can result in social, mental and physical rewards.
Sean moved on from his accident long ago. It doesn’t define him. He’s just a normal guy who has chosen to enrich himself by living the jiu-jitsu lifestyle.