The Unwavering Spirit of a Fighter

I first met Rebecca Reuben in the early days of Spitfire when we were looking for our very first athletes to feature. She had a bright energy about her, a refreshingly positive attitude, and I could tell she was very dedicated to her jiu jitsu training even though she had only recently started. She was on top of her game. As I got to know her better over the past year, I have seen her get even better and better at jiu jitsu, next thing I knew she was winning tournaments left and right like it was nobody’s business! I was inspired. In one of our conversations, she casually mentioned that she used to smoke. And that she was once hospitalized for depression. I was shocked. She was one of the most cheerful people I knew, and she was so on top of her game. I came to find out that with her attitude and her spirit, a lot of it came to be during the time she discovered jiu jitsu and completely fell in love with the sport. This is her story. I hope it inspires you. – Erin Parker

Rebecca Reuben is an internationally ranked Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor. She is a Senior Visual and UX Designer at Jawbone and is the XIX US Open Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion. Train like Rebecca by following The Fighter weight lifting and bodyweight core strength training plans on Spitfire Athlete.

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I was standing on the beach, holding my jiu jitsu blue belt around my shoulders, looking straight ahead and proud. The air was cool, the sun was out, and it was a beautiful day. I never thought I would be the model of a photo shoot for a strength training app.

Most people don’t know this about me…but I used to be a smoker. I used to consume candy to such extent that I would fall asleep with candy wrappers around me in bed.  In the past, I was hospitalized for severe depression at age 15. At that time, I had contemplated ending my life. I had to realize that my life was worth something. And that being alive was something worth fighting for, and that we should always be finding something to live for.

When I was hospitalized, I started doing yoga. I think this is where it started. I went to yoga each morning and I liked it. Over the years, as I fought and overcame my depression, I found that regular exercise played a significant role in my emotional state and my ability to find something worth living for. But things really came together in a unique way when I discovered jiu jitsu. This is the story about how I discovered and fell in love with jiu jitsu.

I started learning jiu jitsu because I was inspired by my boyfriend’s passion for MMA. I saw how driven he was, and I really admired that about him, so I thought to try it out because I wanted to learn what that felt like.

White Belt
I accompanied him one morning to Saturday practice. I was too nervous to go alone because it’s a full contact sport, so most of the time you’re grappling on the ground. So my boyfriend was my training partner.

The next time I went, I noticed the other women training alongside me. One of them was a blue belt. Not only was she really cool, she was very skilled, the kind of skill that you could only develop after years of hard work. That made an impression on me.

One day, I decided to show up to practice alone. As I got into it, it didn’t really matter who my training partner was or that my boyfriend was there. I just wanted to train.

By the end of February, I decided to fully commit, so I signed up for one year of jiu jitsu training. I was committed and consistently training. By this point, I was on my own path. I didn’t need my boyfriend to be there. I didn’t need anyone. I would just go to practice.

It wasn’t until three months later when I realized that I could actually compete. A friend had posted pictures of her winning a tournament online…and I thought…wait is this jiu jitsu? You can compete? She looked super badass.
flyin

Five months after I had been introduced to jiu jitsu, I decided to try out my first competition. It was May 2013. I was motivated to train more because I realized it was actually hard to learn good technique. It works like this. Each week, we’d learn a different set of techniques. When I was only coming once a week, I was only practicing each technique once. But when I started going three days a week, I was able to practice the same technique three times a week, and by the end of the week, I had a better sense of mastery, if you will. Repetition really helps you grasp onto these things.

I had never even seen a competition and there was a lot I didn’t know. For example, I had no idea about the point system, but I knew that if you submitted someone, it stopped and you won right away.

I learned that there were weight classes. There were a lot of techniques I didn’t even know. I remember fighting the same girl twice. And I lost both times. I cried. Everyone kept telling me, “You did great!” but all I could think was, “but I lost!”

After that loss, I saw so many things that I wanted to work on. I could better visualize the place where I wanted to be. I got inspired by the many people that I watched and I thought, “I want to be there. I want to do that. I want to be that girl.”

Bodyweight Cover 640x390

Before long, I started training every day. I picked my next competition in August and for that I undertook a strict diet and got down to the featherweight division, which is 129lbs with my gi (which weighs 3-4lbs). I learned a really great lesson that day. I was so pumped about making weight that immediately after weighing in, I decided I would eat a donut. I said: “Oh my gosh I made weight! I can eat a donut!” So I ate a donut. But then…in one of my matches…I could feel it getting squished around inside me, in my stomach. It was not a good feeling. And that’s when I learned…just because you can…doesn’t mean you should.

By this tournament, I knew about points, and my goal was to score at least one point. That was my focus. With this focus, I ended up beating my opponent 18-0. And it felt so good! It was my first arm raise. It was such a happy moment.
rebeccareuben

At my next tournament, I met Gina. There are so many inspiring women in jiu jitsu, but I was so inspired by Gina, because I watched her completely dominate her fights. I remember thinking, “Gina is awesome. She is badass…she won the whole thing…I want to be this girl one day.”

Choke

In January 2014, a year after starting jiu jitsu, I decided to start working with a trainer. I started strength training because I had noticed that even though jiu jitsu is not about strength, that it really gives you an edge.

When I started with my trainer I could barely do a push-up (I was also slightly injured). But then February came around, I came back stronger, and at my next tournament got my first silver medal! I was stoked! I started feeling really strong.

TGU Barbell-2

I kept going. In the tournament after that, I made it to the finals…but I lost. At this point my coach said, “Rebecca, you need to take a break from competing. You need to focus on technique. There are a lot of things you need to work on. And then you’re going to come back…and you’re going to start sweeping your division.”

At first I was upset. Was I doing something wrong? Was I not good enough? But it ended up being the best advice I’ve ever gotten. I spent the next two and a half months really focusing on technique and strength training. I know two and a half months doesn’t sound like a very long time, but for me it was a very long time without competition!

I also started training twice a day. I would go to jiu jitsu practice in the morning at 7am, and then I would go again in the evening. I started going in the morning because of my job, but eventually I worked things out and was able to train twice a day.

I really had to build up to it, though. I just want to say…I am not a morning person. If you told me that I was going to wake up at 6:30 to go to work out, I would think…you’re ridiculous! But I was already hooked at this point. I had found something in me to get me there. I figured, if this is the only way I can train, I have to find a way.  My schedule has been the same ever since – I was strength training once a week, conditioning twice a week, and jiu jitsu twice a day, twice a week.

TGU Medball

Then, I decided on my next competition – Worlds. People were saying, “THE worlds? You mean…the World Championships?” Yes. I decided I was going to do it and see what would happen.

I went to Worlds in May of 2014. I won my first match at Worlds with a submission. But I didn’t podium. But I won a match, at Worlds, by submission! Even though I didn’t win anything, I felt like I won inside. My coach said, “Rebecca, you had your hand on the gold medal and you didn’t even know it. That’s how close you were.”

Rebecca Worlds-2

It had now been a year of me training every single day except some Sundays. All the strength training that I was doing turned out to be really valuable. I didn’t get injured at all in 2014. I was eating better, I was stretching more.

I may have lost at Worlds, but…this was an inflection point. I got my second gold medal at the next tournament, Jiu Jitsu By The Bay, but then I got shaken after going to another tournament and losing my first match. I was devastated. See, when you lose your first match, it’s over. You get to be on the mat for five minutes, and then you’re done. That’s it.

I realized that I needed to adjust my mental attitude. At that tournament, I wasn’t mentally ready. I remember that morning I just didn’t really feel like competing. And that was my first mistake. I was almost hoping something would come up and I wouldn’t have to compete. I was just not all there mentally. I also used to make the mistake of intensely researching my competition beforehand and getting psyched out. I learned that it’s better not to do that.

At my next competition, The Gracie Regionals, I brought my best mental and physical game. I went into this tournament not expecting to win…but I kept thinking, “I will not get submitted.” The Gracie Regionals is a submission only tournament, so, not getting submitted was my biggest goal.

Sumo Squat Rope Pulls

This time, I didn’t know who I was going to be up against. I focused on not getting submitted, and on having fun. And that’s when I learned that when I focus on having fun, that’s when I do the best.

In my first match I was almost submitted by arm bar within the first minute or two and in my head I screamed, “NO Rebecca! This is the ONE thing you didn’t want, DON’T lose by submission! NOT NOW! You’re not losing the first match like this!” And I came back…and I won. And I won the last match. I stayed focused, and my mind was in the right place. It felt fantastic.

And then after that…it was belt promotion time.

And guess what?

I didn’t get promoted to blue belt.

At that point I had my three golds. I was so bummed. I was convinced I was getting promoted, and when I didn’t, it really hit me. Even though my coach gave me a great speech…about how I was a great competitor and that he wanted to see me through to black belt, but how I have only just begun, all I heard was, “Rebecca, you’re not good enough.”
Distance

But this helped build my fire.

To mix things up, I flew out to Chicago the week after belt promotion just for fun. I  competed with my boyfriend and I got my first IBJJF gold. This got me ranked internationally! Although I was still a white belt, this was a definite confidence boost.

Up next was American Nationals. I was in a really weird place. I didn’t compete until 5pm and I reverted back to smoking earlier that day because I was super anxious. I just wasn’t focused again. My first match…I was looking up at the clock too much…I was worried about all the wrong things, my head just wasn’t in the game. And that was the first time I had gotten submitted all year, was in the finals for American Nationals.

Russian Twist with Decline Bench

Sometimes when you’re down on points, it gets into your head that you’re not going to win. Some people will just sit there and barely try. But you have to realize…every second counts! There was a UFC fighter who I recently watched. Her whole face was bloody, she was losing, there were 10 seconds left in the first round and instead of giving up, she got her opponent in a choke hold and just kept holding and holding and holding until the buzzer rang. When the buzzer rang, she let go, and she won. Who would have thought that in the last 10 seconds, that it could turn around? You just need to keep fighting.

One thing I’m getting better at is learning how to lose. The first time I lost in May, I cried. I went to the car…and I cried. Another time I lost, I just got really mad and made a lot of excuses. But now…when I lose… I have a better attitude about acknowledging my opponents more and say things like, “Yeah…she definitely got that.” Or, “Yup…I messed up.”

But this gave me the fire to totally dominate at the US Open. I won all four matches! And I almost won with four submissions that were all chokes. 2014 was the year of competing and learning how to lose, learning how to win, learning what to eat (what not to eat), what to do mentally, what music to listen to. Now, I’m glad that I lost the matches that I lost because they gave me the fire to come back.

US Open-2

I hung up my competition white belt at the end of the US Open. Although I kept with my regular training schedule, to compete just didn’t seem fair. Towards the end of competing as a white belt you find yourself matched against some girls only a couple months in. You are fighting against the “Rebeccas” who are only 5 months in and who don’t know what an underhook is. And even though it feels good to crush it, it feels even better to be able to let those girls know that you were in their shoes not so long ago.

US Open cert-2

I got promoted to blue belt in January! And I’m still going. My goals now are to keep working on my technique. Continue building and working on my strength. And be ready to give it my all. Be more patient.

Blue Belt-2

Yes, my story is about physical and behavioral transformation. But at the heart of it is the beginning of the transformation of my fighting spirit. Right now I have 20 wins by submission, and that makes me really happy. To see the variety makes me really proud of myself. 27 wins, 12 losses, 1 draw, just for my white belt.

After all of my 2014 tournaments, I happened to see Gina. We were at a tournament together. I went up and told her, “You are my idol. Gina, one day I want to be you…I want to be this girl.” And then she responded, “Rebecca…you are that girl.” That made my day. I continue to see her at all my tournaments now, and she continues to inspire me.
Rebecca Profile-2

Jiu jitsu really is a sport based on technique over strength. It was designed so that a small person could defend themselves in the streets against someone bigger attacking you. Of course, I still have a lot to learn! Yes, I need to sharpen up my game. But I have found something I truly love, and that I am truly passionate about. I have found something worth fighting for. And now, any opportunity you give me, I’ll take it. I’m a fighter and I’m a finisher. And you bet I will try my hardest to finish strong.

Rebecca Reuben is an internationally ranked Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor. She is a Senior Visual and UX Designer at Jawbone and is the XIX US Open Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion. Train like Rebecca by following The Fighter weight lifting and bodyweight core strength training plans on Spitfire Athlete.


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