Inverted Gear Blog / Hillary Witt
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu began as a male-dominated sport. In many ways it still is. But every year, more and more women are practicing and competing in BJJ. But why? How is this even possible? Similar to other sports, there was one woman (or maybe a few) to pave the way for the future, and honestly it’s frustrating when blue and purple belts today do not know their roots.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to learn from living legends and attend the Groundswell Grappling Concepts Women’s Camp with special guest instructor Leka Vieira. The GGC is a community and resource guide for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners on and off the mat. The principal members of the GGC are Emily Kwok, Hannette Staack, and Valerie Worthington. Without the accomplishments of these pioneers, the women’s bracket would not be what it is today.
Reflecting on when I first began BJJ, there were no women’s groups, open mats or camps. At the time, it did not matter that much (or so I thought). But then I went to my first GGC women’s camp in 2013. I was already a huge fan of Emily, Hannette, and Val from just watching and reading about them. To actually meet them, learn from them, and train with them was a whole other level of awesome! Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is funny in that way where we as students can actually share the mats with the superstars of our sport. Not many amateurs can say they played catch with an MLB pitcher or shot hoops with an NBA starter. But I managed to get choked out by the first ever Women’s BJJ World Champion.
GGC camps are not just training camps though. This last camp added educational sessions on nutrition, self-awareness, and a round table Q&A. The first day everyone is a little nervous and excited as we introduce ourselves to new friends and reconnect with those we know from past events. But there are ice-breakers and training techniques to calm the mood followed by a nice group welcome dinner. Saturday started with no-gi, followed by a group breakfast and nutrition session, then learning about being more self-aware with Val. In the afternoon we had gi and in the evening the round table Q&A. During the morning no-gi class, the floor opened for a brief discussion on the education and training of heel hooks. It was very interesting to hear each instructor’s take on the subject and how the sport is progressing.
The round table opened up with Leka sharing her BJJ journey and what it was like for her in Brazil during the mid to late 90’s. She did not have other women to look up to. She did not have another woman to set an example. She IS the example. As we all raised our hands with questions, a wealth of knowledge and new perspective came to light.
Sunday morning we met for our last session to review the techniques and gather our thoughts. There were lots of pictures and hard goodbyes. Women come from all over the world to participate in these camps and meet other women who train.
It’s a growing network and I am honored to be a part of the GGC community. These women are not only my heroes -- they are my mentors and friends. I can’t thank them enough for everything they have taught me and for opening the door to new relationships and opportunities.
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.
Our fearless Panda Nation leaders Hillary and Nelson finally completed their relocation to Allentown, PA, placing them just minutes from Zombie BJJ, the school where I teach and train. That means I now get to see them all the time (or at least when they aren't jet setting to another BJJ Globetrotters camp). This gave me the idea for a new series on the Inverted Gear blog.
Every week, the /R/BJJ subreddit runs a White Belt Wednesday thread where you can ask any question, no matter how basic or embarrassing, without fear of judgment or criticism. These are always popular and people are very supportive with their replies.
The three of us pandas are going to to film answers to WBW questions. Below I've embedded the Q&A from our first week of filming. We'll be doing another round this Wed too.
To get our attention with your WBW question, the next time you post in a WBW thread, tag /u/invertedgearnelson, /u/invertedgearwitty or /u/aesopian.
White Belt Wednesday Q&A (from 9/14/2016)
xlice says: Any tips for how to free your foot when in 3/4 mount without getting rolled over? I've been trying to get a strong crossface, walk his arm up so he can't push my knee, then bring my free foot on top to kick my foot free, but at the last second I keep getting rolled over to closed guard as I can't establish any base to stop the upa.
Hillary answers how to pass when the ankle is stuck in guard
jacksnullpointer says: Any good resources (or at least a short overview) on grips? Which grips should you go for, grip fighting basics, what grips are considered 'strong' (as in, your first priority is breaking them, otherwise you are not going to be able to do anything). I just started going to gi classes after a couple of months of no-gi and I'm lost all over again.
Nelson explains grip fighting
SnoopyJackson asks: When you are in closed guard on top. How do you manage to be stable enough in order to avoid the sweeps (especially against upper belts )?
Nelson explains how to not get swept in closed guard
arlmwl says: I'm terrible at getting on my side and getting an underhook in bottom 1/2. Usually someone passes my guard, I get bottom 1/2, but then they flatten me out before I can get to my side. What should I focus on; being faster during the transition to get to my side, or should I try to slow them down with framing, knee shield, etc and then get to my side? I just feel like I'm missing some key in getting to a better position in bottom 1/2.
Matt explains what to do when flattened out in half guard
bitmoji says: I am a 3 stripe white belt. I have been training for about a year and nine months. I still can't reliably arm bar from closed guard.
Nelson teaches the armbar from closed guard
godofdestruction asks: Any tips on how to finish the darce? I see a lot of videos explaining how to get there, but not how to finish.
Matt shows how to finish the d'arce choke (and Nelson adds an escape)
That's it so far! We'll try to do more of these every week.
Last year, on Friday March 13, 2015, I had my very first major injury. I originally wanted to write a small Facebook post to acknowledge the milestone and the people who helped me get through it all, but thinking back to that day there were so many more firsts to remember: my first match at black belt, my first submission only tournament, my first tournament representing a new team, my first time being carried off the mat because I couldn’t walk, my first loss due to injury, my first trip to the ER in an ambulance…
Wait—my first trip to the ER!
So this time last year, I still did not know what exactly was wrong with my leg except that it hurt. It didn’t work properly, and I just wanted to cut it off. The only thoughts going through my head were from my super fight only days earlier. I kept replaying the short 30 second time span: I opened with a takedown, creating a scramble that landed me in her closed guard. I immediately posted my hands in her armpits and jumped to my feet to break her guard, a jiu-jitsu 101 move that I can do with confidence on just about anyone.
But even with the basics, shit happens.
As soon as I straightened my legs to open her guard, this horrible cramping sensation hit me, followed by muscle spasms from my lower back all up and down my right leg. The spasms wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t control my leg let alone bear weight on it. But I didn’t want to quit.
Jared (owner and leader at BJJ United) and Nelson were in my corner. It was the first time I was representing BJJ United. The whole team was there, and it was the first match of the sub only event. I didn’t want to let myself down. I didn’t want to let the team down. And I couldn’t move my stupid leg.
My first thought was to be embarrassed: My coaches had seen me do this break to a pass over and over again. They must think I’m hesitating or going crazy. We trained for this, Hillary!
I finally yell back to my corner, at the risk of a verbal DQ, “I can’t move my leg!”
My opponent even respectfully asked, “Are you OK?”
Right there. I probably could have and should have stopped. But all I saw was red. I couldn’t shake the cramp away. “It’s just a cramp. You can do this. You can win this,” I said to myself. So I pushed forward somehow. I passed her guard and took her back. I should have finished the match right then. But no, I couldn’t control the right side of my body from the waist down. Somehow the match went on for six minutes. She mounted me and I had to tap. It was embarrassing. I let everyone down. I wanted to run away and I couldn’t even crawl.
Nelson carried me off the mat. I couldn’t sit, and I couldn’t stand unless I held my leg up. It wouldn’t straighten or bend on its own. I needed his help to support the leg, so he couldn’t drive me to the hospital.
None of the responders could say what the problem was. They could only speculate I pulled my hamstring. There wasn’t much swelling or bruising to be seen yet. When we arrived at the ER, there was no orthopedic on duty so after a few hours that seemed eternal, I left with some scripts for muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, a phone number to call on Monday, and no rhyme or reason as to what actually just happened to me.
Can I shake this in a few weeks? Just some RICE, right? Wrong.
After asking around we got the name of a good sports medicine guy. The sports doctor scheduled an ultrasound and MRI. My hamstring was torn. Almost, but not completely off the hip bone. The muscles had retracted about 2 inches, so surgery looked like the only answer. He sent me to an awesome orthopedic doctor who was not eager to slice-and-dice our way back to health, however. Instead, I was referred to an amazing PT, named Meredith, who really cared and worked hard to get me back. She really took the time to understand what I did before the injury and even looked into the weaknesses that could have caused it. She was just as determined as I was to get back to normal and train again.
For instance, Nelson and I had already signed up for the first US BJJ Globetrotters Camp in September and I did not want to miss it. So I set a goal to be back on the mat at least drilling by May and rolling by August so I could be ready for camp.
The biggest part of my healing process at PT was the ART (Active Release Technique) she would use on my leg first thing, every session, two to three times a week. A lot of friends and those whom were familiar with soft tissue injuries asked “why not electrotherapy?”
The hell if I knew, but it made me curious, so I asked Meredith, and she replied that it wasn’t necessary. The movements of the ART really hit the injury at the core. My tear was located right where the hamstring meets the bottom of the hip bone and therefore went really really deep and was hard to feel and find from the outside. The ART treatment renewed my flexibility, strength, and range of motion in accordance with stretching and strengthening exercises.
I had a lot of homework to do on my own too. At least a half an hour morning and evening of specific movements and stretches were necessary to meet our goals. Then Meredith would take measurements and record my progress every few weeks. Homework was equally as important as making every appointment. And although my hamstring may or may not have re-attached itself, all the scar tissue that developed during therapy stayed flexible because I kept it moving every few hours every single day.
Eventually I graduated to dynamic stretching. The first time I tried to jog I nearly fell flat on my face. But eventually I got there. She started applying resistance and weight training and the difference from only a few weeks prior was astounding! My left leg (the healthy leg) was stronger than ever and my right leg could barely curl 5 lbs on a leg curl machine.
Nelson and I had plans to visit San Francisco and Las Vegas during this time, and finding a gym was tough, but Big Panda was very good at reminding me to do my homework as well as creating resistance when we didn’t have weights.
That brings me to another huge and final component to my physical healing process: Having the right attitude. I walked in there day one and told Meredith I’m here to get better. I couldn’t train, so I saw it as my exercise. The endgame was just being able to train again. So on days where I couldn’t go to PT, or I didn’t have gym access, or maybe I did make it to PT and I was just tired, sore, etc, I didn’t make excuses. I did what I could and always tried my best. I still ate right, and made sure to get a good night’s rest because I was still in training. It was a different kind of training, but it was no less important.
As my body was healing, mentally I was still very hesitant. I had so many doubts but my coach Jared really taught me about the mental game. He kept me in the gym and on the mat, constantly reinforcing that I could do it. I could beat the injury if I wanted to. Along with some awesome teammates and jiu-jitsu buddies, I was able to adapt and overcome - the motto at BJJU.
My husband now fondly calls me a “triple threat.” I started to slowly drill last summer and can actually now roll and train jiu-jitsu again with confidence. In January, I learned to snowboard in Austria at the Winter Globetrotters Camp. Then I learned to surf at the inaugural Rollin’ in Costa Rica Camp earlier this month. Nelson, if you would have told me a year ago, injury or not, all this was going to be accomplished, there certainly would have been some reservations. But you believed in me, and I am so thankful we did it together. I am especially thankful for all these firsts and the new found strength and determination that has blossomed from it all.
If you’re out there recovering from an injury: chin-up. You can get through this and come back stronger than before.