An article from BJJ black belt Lily Pagle

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Martial Arts and Me

I was born in Japan to a Chinese immigrant family. My father was a progressive. Against the grain of Japanese society, he believed in equality for women and encouraged me to explore outside of the narrow scope of traditional gender roles. Growing up with two brothers, I took a liking to “boy” activities – especially combat sports. Watching kickboxing, boxing, and wrestling matches on TV was a family activity that we enjoyed weekly. And when the TV was off, my brothers and I would toss each other around, imitating our heroes on the screen.

When we hit our teen years, both of my brothers began taking Karate and Kung Fu lessons. Girls, however, were not allowed in any of the martial arts schools in my hometown. So, instead, I focused my sights on other sports, like skiing and scuba diving.

I came to the U.S. in my mid 20’s. I got married, had kids, led a busy life as a working mother. I didn’t even think about doing martial arts for a long time.

Then, one day, my husband, Alan, expressed interest in doing Judo. He thought that it would be a good activity for our three kids, as well. We decided to check out a school in our area called East Bay Judo Institute (EBJI). I walked in without any idea of what to expect. But watching the kids in the Judo class, I began to reminisce about my own childhood and how I would wrestle with my brothers. So without hesitation, I enrolled my entire family – my husband, my three kids, and myself, to take Judo lessons. At the ripe old age of 40, I was excited to take on this new adventure.

Doing Judo at EBJI was like nothing I had ever done before. The school produced Olympians and World Champions; training was rough. But it made me feel like I was in the best shape of the 40 years of my life. I enjoyed challenging myself and I dedicated myself to it. At 44 years old, I competed at the national level. A few years later, I earned my 2nd degree black belt.

It was around that time that UFC came out and I first heard about Mixed Martial Arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I was curious about these sports, but there were no places to train in our area. Without a school, Alan and I just decided to gather some friends and train on our own, wherever we could find space. Soon after, we found the organization Straight Blast Gym International (SBGi), which helped us build our casual training into a school. By 2002, we had formed Modern Combatives or ModCom MMA, the first Mixed Martial Arts gym in the East Bay.

Joining SBGi has been the best thing to happen to our gym. Being an affiliate of a larger organization lets us be a part of a community of gyms all over the world. SBGi has provided us with a great support system and has helped us so much over the years. The greatest support has been from SBGi president, Matt Thornton. He has been a relentless advocate for people, regardless of gender, age, size, color, creed, profession. I am only one of a very small number of female members and quite possibly the oldest member of SBGi, yet Matt has always made me feel included. In such a competitive and male-dominated sport, Matt’s support has helped me be strong and carry on.

My greatest supporter has been my partner in training and in life, my husband, Alan. The only reason I’ve come as far as I could in martial arts is because of Alan’s love, support, and encouragement. While I travel all over the world for seminars and training camps, Alan stays behind and takes care of our gym. When I’m too sick to teach a class, he’ll cover for me. It’s nice to have someone to trust and rely on. In business and in marriage, we help each other out and work as a team.

Being able to do Martial Arts at an older age helped me challenge myself in other areas of my life. I went back to school at age 48 and earned a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology (specializing in Child and Adolescent Psychology). And I’ve been able to use my expertise in counseling in combination with Martial Arts to help many children and adolescents with their self-esteem, behavioral problems, and anger. Together with Alan, I also taught Judo and self-defense classes for the Berkeley PAL (Police Athletic League) Program, a non-profit organization that promotes positive activities for at-risk youth.

For the past 9 years, I have also been working as a Sports Psychology Consultant and have worked with college athletes and amateur competitors. More recently, I have been helping coaches of various sports through coaching workshops and seminars. I have been the ModCom Competition Team Captain since 2009 and helped competitors achieve their goals, both physically and mentally, even coaching one of our members to become 2010 World Jiu Jitsu Champion.

Last year, at age 60, I was awarded my black belt in BJJ by SBGi president Matt Thornton. To earn a black belt, one must be evaluated as a coach and exhibit a full understanding of the concept of BJJ and the SBGi training/teaching method. And on top of that, as a SBGi tradition at belt testing, one has to endure what is called the “Ironman”, in which the tested has to go against everyone in the room with a higher ranking belt. It was a grueling experience, a little old lady up against 12 big, burly, young men, but I survived and can be proud of my accomplishment. I may very well be the oldest female BJJ black belt.

People ask me how I’m able to do combat sports at such an old age. Determination? No. Super human nature? No. The simple answer is that I’m having fun. Just like I used to with my brothers.

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