Katia’s story represents one of my many failures in jiu-jitsu. As the old adage goes, “you either win or you learn,” but I can’t help but feel that we actually lost something in this case, and as a result, I feel like this loss was far more profound than the lesson learned.
When I started the BJJ program in Burlacu, Moldova in 2006, the only interest we were able to garner with any reliability was from pre-teens. Initially after hearing that my Peace Corps assignment would be Moldova, I’d had dreams of training sambo in some sort of post-Soviet, long-abandoned bunker with some of the best, yet long-forgotten legendary sambo and judo fighters in a long-forgotten part of the former Soviet Union. Much to my chagrin, I was stuck, once again, working with kids.
Traditionally, curiosity and interest in BJJ and other fighting arts has always come primarily from boys and from men. It was (and is) no different in Moldova. Even after I successfully jumped over all the necessary hurdles of getting mats to the gym and getting permission to run a free BJJ program, the only people who showed up were the kids, and more specifically, the boys.
A few months in, this all changed. Some of the older girls in some of my health education classes started to express interest in training BJJ, but they were reluctant to train with the boys. This was understandable, and I wanted to foster their interest in jiu-jitsu, so I decided to create a separate training session for the girls in the village: I had 3 days a week where I trained the boys, and 3 days a week where I trained the girls.
The girls’ classes were predictably sparse compared to the boys’ classes. Many of the boys wanted to train more often, but I really wanted a girls’ program (as is the case in many countries, Moldovan women tend to get the short end of the stick in life when compared to men, and if anybody really NEEDS to be training BJJ it’s women). My daydream visions of training with Igor Vovchanchyn (look him up, kids!) in a former iron factory were soon replaced with myself, matside at the IBJJF Worlds, coaching the first Moldovan blue belt champion of any gender in the finals.
On good days, I would have up to 12 girls on the mats at one time. On bad days, nobody showed up to train at all. The training itself was a little more talkative. A little more casual. And, inevitably, a little less jiu-jitsu was happening during training. But, whatever. Whatever gets people on the mats, right? I could have cared less if girls were showing up because their friends were there, or they just wanted to create a girls-only type space, or if they just wanted to listen to the dishy American guy with his awkward accent try and explain the efficacy of distance control. I think that in the end, it was just something new and different that was available to help break up their otherwise uninteresting day in the village. But, we were getting girls on the mats!
One day, the only girl who showed up to train was Katia. Katia was my (ca. 15-year-old) next-door neighbor in the village, so we had a good number of positive, informal interactions with each other. She was always a bubbly, positive, enthusiastic person to be around, and she was a welcomed presence in my BJJ classes. At this point, I had been working with kids for about 2.5 years, and under normal (American) circumstances, I would have known better than to find myself alone somehow with an underage girl, no matter how unremarkable the situation. But, I thought, “this is not America… and it’s just Katia anyway”. It was then that I made the fateful decision to continue with our session.
I don’t remember exactly what we were working on when the school groundskeeper/security guy walked into the gym, but everyone reading this post most likely knows that BJJ looks much different than karate. He didn’t say anything and we continued with the lesson and went home as usual.
The next day, the gossip mill was churning hard. Still to this day I have no idea what this guy said to whom, but all I know is that starting that day we had no more girls’ BJJ in Burlacu. I remember confronting the security guy about the alleged incident and he swore he didn’t say anything to anybody that would have been taken scandalously. This is what he says, of course. At the time I remember feeling a little relieved, as I would no longer have to hold these seemingly trivial classes that were taking time out of my afternoons of texting my girlfriend and playing solitaire on my computer. With hindsight being 20/20 though, I feel like I lost half of a generation of people who would have otherwise gone on to shape the path of their nation’s BJJ journey.
Even though jiu-jitsu effectively ended for the foreseeable future for all girls in Burlacu on that day, Katia, luckily, has gone from being a bright, bubbly high school student to being a bright, bubbly mom and librarian in her husband’s community, not far from where she grew up. We’ve continued to correspond to some degree over the years and as most teachers can tell you, it’s a very rewarding experience to see your former students doing well in life. I’m hoping to get the chance to go visit Katia while I’m on this trip and at least catch up.