In Meet the Pandas, we shed some light to the many awesome people that make up Panda Nation. Previously, we spoke to Steve Pachon, the creator of the iconic Inverted Gear logo. This episode takes a closer look at Hillary Witt—Black belt instructor, competitor, traveller, and mastermind of the Inverted Gear designs and daily operations.
Hillary Witt used jiu-jitsu to overcome her anxiety and shyness. As a smaller-sized woman she started training in the art to learn effective self-defense, but she fell in love with the comradery and the challenges of competition. After winning the Worlds at purple belt and picking up a National title in judo, she met her partner-in-crime-and-life, Nelson Puentes. Now she co-owns Inverted Gear and travels the world teaching jiu-jitsu.
When did you discover the art?
Hillary Witt: I think it was around 2005. Back in college I was dating a guy who did MMA, and I just started asking a lot of questions about the UFC, and what the deal was with those Gracies. I think he just got tired of answering, and he put a gi on me. He said: “Just come to class and figure it out yourself.” And that was that. Along the way I’ve had very good instructors. The first instructor that opened my eyes was Sergio ‘Bolao’ Souza, an old school Carlson Gracie black belt. He was a bigger Brazilian guy, but he really explained the principles of leverage. How size doesn’t really matter if you use proper technique. I got addicted right away.
Had you done any other martial arts?
HW: Nope. Some of my friends did karate but that never interested me. Honestly I was more into mixed-dancing, ballet and tap – I did that pretty much all through my youth. And then a little bit of soccer and figure skating. I had no desire to do combat sports whatsoever. But once I tried it, and I realized that I could find a way to make it all work, I became fascinated. Jiu-jitsu also really played into my competitive side.
Did you have any inhibitions training with a bunch of crazy, sweaty dudes?
HW: Thankfully there was one woman already training there. She was my size, maybe twice my age, but very athletic and super patient. I think she was just happy to have someone her size to drill and train with. When I rolled with some of the men – who were obviously a lot bigger, stronger and sweatier – I came to understand myself a lot more. At first, I would really panic in those situations. But instead of it freaking me out permanently, it gave me more of a purpose: to get in there, get over it, and get better. In the safety of that training environment I was able to get over that initial sense of claustrophobia, like when I was being smothered in side control. I would get panic attacks at times, but I was able to realize that bad things can happen if you freeze in a real confrontation. I never want that to happen in the street.
Now, whenever I feel overwhelmed, I take a mental step back and I tell myself: “Just breathe. Don’t stop moving and find a way out, step-by-step.” And I get over it. That’s something I try to tell all the other women I meet and teach. Sometimes I see that same frustration in them. It’s mostly a mental thing. So yeah, I really got into the self-defense aspect before I got competitive. I first had to get over some of my fears. Luckily I was able to do that with the support of my training partners.
What attracted you to competition?
HW: Going to competitions was just a way for me to meet other women who loved the art as much as I did, and to see how I measured up. Some of them are actually my best friends now. We all got our black belts around the same time. In 2006/2007 we were the only girls in the bracket, and they would regularly put all the belts and weight divisions together. Competition also gave me a reason to get on a training schedule and get to the gym. From where I lived it was always a one or two hour drive to get anywhere to train. So it was a serious commitment.
You’ve trained with a lot of excellent instructors, can you give us a run-down?
HW: I got my blue belt at my first gym here in Pennsylvania – I think it’s currently Alliance West Chester. That’s where Bolao taught, and his black belt Alex Britto promoted me to blue. I always travelled around a lot. I would visit Balance Studios in Philly, or I went to New York to train with Fabio Clemente. Going to those other schools for seminars and open mats was a big part of my training. See, there were only a handful schools in the North-East, so there was still a good relationship between them. It wasn’t super competitive.
When I moved out to San Diego for work, the majority of my training was done at University of Jiu Jitsu under Saulo & Xande Riberio. I went from purple to brown belt there. Eventually I left their school, mainly because of the difficult commute. Then Andre Galvao moved to town and I became really good friends with this wife. So I trained at Atos for a bit. Sadly, at one point I got laid off from work and money was running low. I decided to move back to Pennsylvania to re-group. When I got settled, I linked up with Fabio Clemente again and I met Nelson, who kind of re-introduced me to the jiu-jitsu scene. Eventually I got my black belt from Fabio.
Was Nelson already experimenting with Inverted Gear? Did the Panda exist?
HW: I think he had the company for about a year, so yes, the Panda lived! I met Nelson at a tournament about one month after I got back. I was refereeing and he was competing and coaching. He asked me where I trained, and I told him I didn’t know yet. I was considering Fabio’s for my regular sessions, but I had to consider the long commute from Philly. As it turned out Nelson had a school in New Jersey and he was affiliated with Fabio. So I started to train there. The rest is history.
Did you come to the rescue?
HW: Well, I could tell he needed help with the business. It was holiday season when I met him and he was getting swamped with orders, while still working from his parents’ basement. He had all these friends over to help him out, so it was the perfect time for me to step in. When I came back I didn’t really have a steady job yet, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was helping out with the family business a bit, so I had the time and flexibility to put in extra work. Nelson asked me to make a patch, then I made a shirt, and it went on from there. I’d gone to college for graphic design and advertising, and in San Diego I worked for a major print company. It helped that I had a professional understanding on how those things worked.
When did you realize you’d be doing something with jiu-jitsu in a professional manner?
HW: I guess when I designed my first BJJ-logo ever, for Marcelo Garcia. At the time I was still in college, and his wife posted on a forum that they needed a logo for Marcelo’s DVDs and brand. They didn’t have any money, but they wanted to see what the jiu-jitsu community could offer. They promised to do their best to make a fair trade out of it. I had met Marcelo before when he gave a seminar at Fabio’s, so I was really excited to help out. Winning that contest opened up more opportunities for other projects. At first it was just for fun. Then I got a full-time job at a printing agency, and I did my BJJ design work in my free time. After Marcelo’s logo I also did the designs for the University of Jiu Jitsu, Rafael Lovato Jr. and Leticia Ribeiro. It wasn’t until I met Nelson that it all just finally clicked. There I could focus 100% on a brand I actually believed in. And I really liked their gi’s, and I liked working with Nelson… And yeah, I kind of liked Nelson too.
Where did the judo come in?
HW: When I landed in San Diego I thought that maybe it was time to learn something else besides jiu-jitsu. So I joined the San Diego Judo School. I had picked up some wresting from the guys at my first academy, some of them were D1 wrestlers from Lehigh. I only did judo for two years but with my wrestling I got along pretty well. This was at a time in judo when leg attacks were still legal, and my coach really encouraged those. I competed in judo a little while I was figuring out where to train jiu-jitsu.
A little? Didn’t you win the Nationals?
HW: I did. I won some small tournaments, and yes, the biggest one was the nationals. But this was all still at white belt. I got a green belt shortly after that. When Saulo and Xande opened up the University of Jiu Jitsu it became a requirement for purple belts to at least earn a green belt in judo. After winning the nationals I started training BJJ with them. So the green belt in judo came right on time.
Over the years, what is the biggest transition you’ve made in your game?
HW: Meeting Reilly Bodycomb and learning his leglock system was definitely a big eye-opener. At the University of Jiu Jitsu, almost all the injuries that occurred in sparring and tournaments were the result of footlocks gone wrong. Saulo and Xande both had surgery on their knees and ankles. When my friend and I got promoted to brown belt and people started attacking the legs more, we didn’t know how to respond. We felt that we were really behind at tournaments. So it was Reilly’s system that helped me a lot. Especially the way he taught how to apply and defend the leg attacks safely. Then I realized it was no big deal. It’s a valid attack and there’s no reason for the taboo. I hope to get better at actually catching those footlocks, but at least I’m aware they’re there. I’m trying to attack them more.
You guys travel all over the world. How did that happen?
HW: We had signed up just to be campers at the first BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp in New Hampshire. As the event approached, a couple of instructors started falling off. So Nelson offered to teach a class and I helped him. We had the time and flexibility to do more of those camps, so now we’ve done seven, all over the world. It’s been really special to visit all those places I’d never would have gone to on my own. Teaching at those camps has been very good for my confidence. It’s helped me to come out of my shell. Putting myself out there to meet other people and to be a sort of leader at these events, that’s been a big step for me.
Was it a hurdle for you to start teaching?
HW: Yeah, I guess. But I started slowly, Nelson would have me teach a class here and there. I’m quite shy and at times I struggle to find the right words. I’m just much more visually orientated. For instance, if someone asks me a question I have to be put in the position myself to feel how I would respond. Doing all those camps has definitely helped me to grow as an instructor.
You have a very precise, clear teaching style. Are there any instructors you try to emulate?
HW: I noticed that I learn the best when moves are broken down a little bit more. So I always looked up to Marcelo Garcia and his teaching method. You try plan A, when that doesn’t work there’s plans B, C and D. You’re always playing off the action-reaction of your opponent. That was a big contrast with Saulo’s style, which is a lot more philosophical. He works in larger concepts and it seems like he deals less with the reactions of the opponent. You just do the move correctly, and that’s it. His method didn’t always make sense to me. I prefer the step by step planning that Marcelo uses. His black belt Emily Kwok is someone that teaches that way perfectly, I love her style. She’s similar to Valerie Worthington and Hannette Staack. And then or course there’s Leticia Ribeiro, whom I look up to tremendously. She’s my first jiu-jitsu hero and mentor. They are all extremely detail-oriented teachers and communicate very clearly. They make good eye-contact, and it’s easy to follow whatever they’re teaching. So I try to emulate all of them.
Why do you think this art is so valuable?
HW: I can’t imagine life without it anymore. You meet so many awesome people and make great connections. You learn how to be a better person, physically and mentally. You’re learning self-defense moves that you can actually apply in real life, under stress. Now I can walk around with a lot more confidence, knowing that I can handle myself in a confrontation. You won’t get that by just carrying pepper-spray. And or course BJJ has given me my marriage, it’s given me my job, my health. It’s funny. I didn’t start doing this until I became an adult, and it’s changed my life in all the good ways. Nowadays you see whole families training together. It’s a beautiful thing.
Hillary Witt is on Instagram at @invertedgearwitty.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist and writer based in the Netherlands. He holds a black belt in BJJ under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.