I was warned about training in Russia.
Rumours trickled down to me about how rough the teams would be and how I was safer just watching.
But the opposite was true.
For a city with a lot of square, uniformed buildings, Moscow is a lot harder to navigate than it sounds.
Before my first session with Team Strela in Moscow I arrived 20 minutes early and waited patiently outside a large block of apartments.
After a few minutes three nearby teenage boys began sniggering at me and I realised there was no club behind the locked door.
Once I realised I was lost someone from the club called me numerous times to give directions and even walked around the neighbourhood looking for me.
Eventually I was within a block but still couldn’t quite find the door. I turned to see a shop with Venum shorts and a blue gi on display.
I walked in as a man was switching off the lights. He didn’t speak a work of English, not even hello, and I only spoke hello in Russian.
I brought up the team’s logo on my phone and he pointed me towards the door.
Inside was a converted basketball hall with padded wrestling mats on the floors and lower walls.
It was a huge open space with pair drilling spider guide guard in every gap.
There must have been over 45 people there – the only time I’ve been part of a crew that size was the New Zealand women’s camp last year.
This was also the first time I had been part of a lesson in another language.
At home I’m a notorious mat chatter. But I also laugh, cheer, daydream, ask questions and crack jokes.
Being in a class where I couldn’t understand verbal instructions meant I had to really focus and watch carefully to understand the movement.
A few people offered to translate during the demonstration and helped me later on, but just watching meant I learnt more than normal.
Classes began with a warm up, running then rolling and hip work. An hour of drilling, based around the spider guard, then shark tank type rolling the first night and open mat on the second.
The gym had a similar feel to my own back home, pretty informal, plenty of laughs and a place people really enjoyed being.
When it came to rolling, everyone was firm but fair, a rare find as a woman on the mat.
They also have a team in Saint Petersburg which I dropped in on the following week.
This crew was set up very similar to my first club, East Coast BJJ in New Zealand, with a caged mat area in a larger crossfit complex.
It was smaller with 12 to 15 people at the class. I had the best time here. The techniques taught during this class really challenged me – it used the de la Riva guard for different sweeps.
I had the most patient partner who talked me through each piece and the small crew worked together to correct and support each other.
I talked to one guy after class in Moscow and asked about his BJJ journey.
He said “I’ve been doing it for five years … and I’ll probably keep doing it forever.”
“Forever” – that has got to be one of the best endorsements a club can receive.