Meet the Pandas – Civilize The Mind, Make Savage The Body - Abi Pacinelli

Panda Nation has many faces. In the previous installment of Meet the Pandas we spoke to Kevin Sheridan, the Master Yoda to many Inverted Gear Pandas. Now, we’d like to introduce Abi Pacinelli: full-time business owner, mother, lean mean killing machine, and purple belt medal chaser.

In her previous life, Abi Pacinelli (38) couldn’t care less about martial arts. But after building up the confidence to make a few radical life changes, and losing a whopping 50-something pounds, she finally got the courage to take her first BJJ self-defense class. She developed into a fanatic competitor in the best mental and physical shape of her life. Also, the art gave her the strength to start her own company: Big Dogs Pet Sitting.

So you just competed at the Masters Worlds?

Abi Pacinelli: I did, for the third time in a row. I won bronze in both my division and the open weight. Obviously one day winning the gold medal in the black belt division is my ultimate goal, so my runs at purple belt are a test-case for that. It’s always fun to go out there, because I don’t know most of the girls in the division. I’m quite happy with my performance. There aren’t many things I could have done differently. The girl I lost to in both divisions is also a very highly rated judo athlete. She pretty much pinned me for four minutes.

When a good judo black belt gets you in a pin, you’re screwed.

AP: Yeah, I was just happy that she didn’t get some sort of crazy throw on me. I pulled guard pretty quickly. Usually, I love doing takedowns myself, but once you realize your opponent has been perfecting that part of the game for over 25 years, you have to change your strategy.

Is BJJ your first martial art?

AP: It is. I got involved with the art around four years ago. What attracted me initially was the self-defense aspect. At the time, I was living alone and going out by myself – as a smaller sized woman, I wanted to learn a way to stay safe. It’s kind of funny. My first idea was just to do it for six months to get a bit of the self-defense techniques down, but I quickly realized that the moves actually work, and that you can really defend yourself against a larger opponent using leverage, not relying on size or strength. Once that idea clicks, you’re hooked.

How did find out about the art?

AP: When I first met my current husband. He’d been training for about four years, and jiu-jitsu was his ‘thing.’ He didn’t even want me to get into it because it was his therapy away from his previous life, so his new girlfriend of three months joining the gym did feel a bit weird (laughs). If our relationship hadn’t worked out, there would have definitely been some tension there. I guess he was pretty hesitant to have me join the school. I was 34 when I started, and previously I had no interest in martial arts whatsoever. My main things were sports that involved the mind, such as rock climbing. I also hated regular fitness gyms, so I needed something else to keep my mind focused, as well as my body.

As a smaller sized woman, was it intimidating to go on the mat with a bunch of dudes?

AP: Yeah, I was a bit nervous. When I started there weren’t a lot of women training consistently
– that’s changed for the better. My first training partner was my husband, who’s a foot taller and 80 pounds heavier. I got used to fighting larger people right away, and that took some of my anxiety away. Also, I was pretty fit when I began. Right before I started jiu-jitsu I lost a considerable amount of weight, like 50-something pounds. I had set a goal for myself that year, and I started going to the gym regularly. Now at 38, I’m in the best physical and mental shape of my life.

What inspired that transformation?

AP: It had a lot to do with the relationship I was in previously. I finally realized it wasn’t right for me, and I needed to get my body and mind in a better place. But I had to build up the confidence to leave the person I was with. He wasn’t a bad guy, nor was he abusive or anything. It had become more of a roommate-type of relationship. My son was 11 years old at the time, and I didn’t want him to think that’s the way a relationship should be. I needed to move on.

Is your son training too?

AP: I’ve been trying to get him to join the fun, but he’s more interested in the stand-up game. Also, he’s a highly competitive baseball player and his dad doesn’t want him to get hurt. So he does his own thing, but he still knows mom can kick his butt (laughs).

What’s your home base?

AP: Paramount Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, under master Brad Court. I’m on the mat around five days a week, and I take one day a week to visit either a sister school or to do a women’s class elsewhere. The female jiu-jitsu community around here is quite open. We all train with men most of the time, so we try to organize classes where we can train with other women. I’m also trying to build a women’s programme at my school, and I run a women-only class twice a month.

Tell us about your first time competing.

AP: It was an IBJJF tournament, and I had registered for two of those back to back. I figured the first one was a kind of trial run, and I would go all out for the second. But I did surprisingly well. I think I won bronze in the first one and silver in the second. It was very strange to fight women of my size. One of my matches was with a girl I still call Crazy Braids because she had braided hair and went absolutely crazy and spastic – I’d never had to deal with someone that small and fast. But it was great fun. That really sparked my competitive fire. Right after those two tournaments I did around five other competitions in a few weeks’ time. I had a really good white belt year, and I was promoted to blue belt in December.

What was your most memorable performance?

AP: I guess that would be my first competition as a blue belt. I had already registered at white, but then I was suddenly promoted. I had to start from scratch. At that point, I’d only trained for about 15 months. Because I had no expectations of winning, it turned out to be the first tournament I was actually relaxed going in. Nowadays, I’m overly relaxed going into tournaments. Sometimes I think: I need a bit of that panic and anxiety back.

Do you remember the first time submitting a bigger guy?

AP: I can’t think of a specific case, but one of my larger training partners brought up a story recently. He said, “Remember that first time we rolled together, and you told me that you were going to choke me with your lapel? Well, I kind of blew it off. But I was tapping two minutes later.” I’d totally forgotten about that, but I guess that made an impression. A grown-ass man of 220 pounds tends to remember the first time getting submitted by a woman half his size. I would do that to people sometimes: point out how I would tap them.

When did you realize the art might be worth sticking to?

AP: Hard to say. I guess I’m just not the kind of person that gives up easy on anything. Whatever I do, I like to perfect it. Having my husband do it was obviously also a big motivation to keep at it. If it had been just me out there, potentially I might have stopped going after a while. That’s why it’s so important to get more women involved with the sport, so that we can motivate each other to get better. Nowadays, I’m the person taking others under her wing. It’s funny how the roles you play on the mat can change, over time.

So I hear you’re super busy. What’s your schedule?

AP: I have to thank jiu-jitsu for what I do. Just over one year and a half ago I started my own pet-sitting business: Big Dogs Pet Sitting. I don’t think that I would have had the confidence to start or even to be that social. See, I wasn’t that chatty with people before jiu-jitsu. The art really helped me open up, and now we’ve been up and running for eighteen months. The last three summer months were absolutely insane. Sometimes I was up at 4:30, out the door at 5:00, and then I wasn’t getting home until midnight, with maybe an hour break here and there. Usually I’m putting 200 miles on my car every day, and doing 13 hours of work (not including the driving). I guess 15/16 hour days, seven days a week, are not uncommon. Somewhere in there I manage to fit in at least four days of training.

What was the hardest thing to learn?

AP: To slow down and learn to flow roll. And I’m still working on that. See, I don’t know how to go 80 percent. I tend to go full blast and fight to the death. My husband would agree to that (laughs). I guess it’s because I’m usually going against much larger opponents. And I feel like it’s kill or be killed. So, to tone it down is really difficult.

Do you have any role models in the art?

AP: I don’t really idolize people, but still to this day I’m a Ronda Rousey fan. Of course she’s got a serious attitude problem. She’s a total nutcase and a sore loser. But I think MMA and even jiu-jitsu wouldn’t be where it’s at right now if it weren’t for pioneers like her. What’s she’s accomplished for female fighting was unthinkable ten years ago.

Speaking of MMA, do you train under that ruleset too?

AP: I dabbled in a bit of Muay Thai around a year ago. I had trouble cutting weight, and I wanted to change up the exercises. Thought the stand-up game would help. But man, I just can’t punch (laughs). So it wasn’t for me. Also I’ve had two concussions from doing jiu-jitsu, and after that my mind doesn’t work as fast as it used to. When I went through physical therapy for my concussions, the hand-eye coordination stuff was what really frustrated me. I was in tears a couple of times.

What happened?

AP: I was doing takedown drills with a couple of huge fellas, and I collided heads with a 220-pound guy. It sucked. And I think I probably came back too soon. About a year later, I had two more minor hits, one to the back and one to the front of the head, all within one weeks’ time of the Pan-Ams. Well, I made the mistake of blowing those off. On the plane to the competition, the cabin pressure kind of re-sparked all those concussions. It felt I got hit with a baseball bat. Somehow I still managed to fight one match, but I lost the second. That was the only time I melted down after a match. I had to take two months off to get myself back together.

Did that freak you out?

AP: It was just sheer frustration. At that point, jiu-jitsu was my therapy. To not be able to burn my energy – mentally and physically – was really tough. I was working at the gym too, so I would see my friends and training partners come into class every day. It made everything worse.

Does the art help you deal with the stress of daily life?

AP: I would say so. For that hour and a half a day, you’re only thinking about the other person on the mat who’s trying to choke you unconscious. You don’t have time to think about what’s going on in the real world. You forget the bills that need to be paid, you forget who’s president of the United States. You’re just dealing with this dude in front of you. It’s like being back on the playground.

Tell us about your goals?

AP: A while ago I started teaching the kids classes together with my teammate Phil Mento, and I truly enjoy that side of things. Now, I want to really spread the word about jiu-jitsu in our local female community. Recently I had twenty girls in my class, and the majority were brand new to the art. They were quite nervous, but at the end they had really opened up. Seeing that transformation in people is very powerful and inspiring. I went through it myself.

Abi Pacinelli runs, and trains and teaches at Follow her on Instagram: @armbarabs

Daniël Bertina is a writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami

Daniel Bertina

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