Finals. Just over a minute on the clock. The score is 0–0. The triangle choke I almost finished in the first minute gives me a 1–0 advantage that would call the match in my favor were the time to run out with the score as is. But this is not the way I want this match to end, with my opponent being able to say, “Oh, I lost, but only on an advantage.”

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Setting up the triangle choke I almost finished. Screenshot from Flograppling. I’m the one on the bottom.

Advantages are tie-breakers that are one step above a referee’s decision in determining the result of a match. Advantage points are awarded when one grappler has made a compelling attempt (in the eyes of the ref) at either scoring points or submitting. …

It’s easy to write about the wins. It’s hard to write about the losses. It almost becomes harder to write about the losses when the pain from them has dulled — any visceral, tear-jerking, fist-throwing, red-faced emotion loses its edge over the course of a day, a week, a month. The kind of fiery or tsunami-like gush of feeling that makes for good writing is something I’m afraid of when it’s at its hottest and most forceful. It easily overtakes me. I’m not sure if it’s pretty on paper — then again, I’m not sure if it has to be.

Anyway, for all the toughness that jiu-jitsu is supposed to imbue, the sport still leads to me crying a lot. …

Recounting what I actually did on the trip. Many pictures ahead.

I’ve come back to Boston, to work — and to winter, and the delightful 2-week Mex-Tex adventure is in the rear view mirror. There’s a dog to feed, a regular training schedule to observe, and my work station is no longer a clean, compact hotel desk but a cluttered artist’s corner of tchotchkes and pens and notebooks.

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Many papers, pens, notebooks, and tchotchkes

When most of the coworkers and training partners who knew about the trip ask me, “How was Mexico?” and “How was the competition?” I keep it short since I figure most are being polite and making small talk. I don’t assume that people want to know more unless specifically asked, and I don’t tend to write a ton about “here’s what I did” because that can be boring — it reads more like a ledger than a story. My boyfriend, who tends to give me some of the best writing feedback, often says I rely too much on exposition and not enough of feeling, so most of my writing avoids a pure recounting of events without shaping them into something a little more thoughtful. His feedback on this newsletter? …

Here’s a glimpse into the morning of my latest competition.

The burly Brazilians gather in the lobby, talking in hushed bellows in a huddle, eating just enough breakfast to make weight in the hours to come. They look at me in passing, likely not thinking that I, too, am fueling up for a long day of fights ahead.

I don’t look the part yet anyway. I’m still in the dress I’ve worn as a nightgown the entire trip and have yet to don my “armor” for the day: a quality Hyperfly or Lululemon sports bra, a tight-fitting tanktop and spandex shorts. These three articles of clothing suck and compress me in, keeping me from crumbling or exploding —they’re all that’s standing in the way to prevent the heavily-pumping blood and adrenaline from causing me to burst or ooze out at the seams. …

Stakeholders change their minds on what they want. A big project requirement is missing in the final deliverable. A vendor misunderstands the specs and builds something different from what was briefed. Something gets lost in translation with a team member overseas. The site goes down on the biggest sale date of the year.

After five years of working full-time in retail technology and being at the mercy of larger corporate dynamics as well as smaller team dynamics, you’d think I’d be more unfazed by sudden changes and comfortable with ambiguity. I’m not.

To use a less business-example: my whole Tex-Mex (Mex-Tex?) trip has been an exercise in confronting and managing through the unexpected in big ways and small ones. Gym hours changed on account of COVID curfews in Mexico, forcing a change in training schedules. The scale I’d been using to check if I’m on weight mysteriously disappeared from the fitness center of my hotel. The venue of the American Nationals tournament changed at the last minute to a more distant venue — forcing a total shift in Texas hotels and car rentals and overall weekend planning. I ordered a cappuccino but was misheard by the barista and ended up with a focaccia (and not a gluten-free one). One of the great, refreshing things of this trip is not being alone in having to solve the problems and navigate uncertainty — I’m in the company of fellow problem-solvers who are also expert improvisers. …

Tales of [Watching] the Tape

Often the thing we want to do the least is the thing we should be doing the most. For many people I know, it’s exercising more, eating better, drinking less caffeine or alcohol, and sleeping more. In my non-jiu-jitsu life, that list is pretty much the aforementioned one (with the form of exercise being rehab/mobility work/yoga, in particular). When it comes to jiu-jitsu, the list of things looks like this: core work, grip strength training, and, last but not least, watching my own tape.

One of the most important things that has entered my jiu-jitsu learning experience over the last week has been the looking at the video of a given round of sparring and sharing of feedback after the roll. …

Let me give you an idea of my usual routine and training schedule, which has led to me coming home consistently frustrated, often angry, and sometimes in tears over the thing that is supposed to be my “hobby” that is pursued with the intensity of a part-time job:

Monday through Friday, I train between one and two hours of jiu-jitsu in the evening. Wednesday, add in one hour for judo. Friday, I sneak in a jiu-jitsu class at noon for another hour. Saturday, I essentially camp out at the gym from 9AM-1:45PM for the women’s jiu-jitsu class, a 90-minute break followed by and hour-long judo class, and finally a no-gi jiu-jitsu class for another hour and a half. …

There’s a judo instructor at my home gym who is a large Italian man named Victor. A few people on this newsletter have probably seen him, but for those who haven’t, Vic is around 5'10'’, 200 lbs, with a shining bald head, and can usually be seen wearing a black tanktop and white or blue gi pants as he waits on the side of the mat for the two judo classes a week to begin on Wednesday night or Saturday morning.

If you saw Vic on the street, you might not mistake his build for an athletic one. You might think of him more as a Bostonian take on a Sopranos cast member. But don’t be fooled. The man nearly competed in the Olympics. As anyone asked to be his uke for a technique will tell you, you don’t want to get thrown by Vic, even at his gentlest. Perhaps much like a Soprano, if you’re not in his class but you walk across his section of the mat while he’s teaching — forget it. If he had his way with you to punish the indiscretion, you’d have been thrown onto the ground faster than the blink of an eye — and you better know how to break your fall. …

If you’re seeing this, that means you’ve opted into my accounting of potentially-ill-advised travel adventures within North America.

The TL;DR of the blog to come is this: less than two weeks ago, I took a leap of faith off an Instagram conversation with a world-class jiu-jitsu competitor and teacher. What started as an inquiry into her webinars and services led to an invitation to camp out and train with her and her partner in Mexico City and — assuming no burnout — compete together in the American Nationals tournament in Dallas, Texas.

As a Type-A person and creature of habit who rarely does anything outside a borderline-OCD routine, this was a big deal for me. Making a trip outside the US materialize in the middle of a global pandemic? Traveling and spending money to meet and train with someone I only know through blog posts, articles, jiu-jitsu videos, and DMs? Living in a different country on a different routine instead of having my usual lifestyle habits and places ahead of a major competition? Living like a ‘digital nomad’ after a reliance on a conventional 9 to 5 with office or apartment space? Being alone and away from home for 2 weeks away from my boyfriend and new dog and even farther away from my family? …

Adoption anxieties abated, dog ownership ends up being “as good as it gets.”

As I begin to write this, there’s a footlong(-ish) dog holding her rawhide chew innocently as a child would hold the stick of a lollipop. With a toothsome grin, she chomps happily at the stick of dried cow’s skin like a kid who’s only a few final licks away from the center of a Tootsie Pop. I feel like a parent worrying about whether her child would crack a tooth on the lollipop or have the Tootsie center get stuck in her teeth, begging an enormous dental bill for cavities down the line. …


Erica Zendell

Writes about tech, business, jiu-jitsu, and personal stories worth sharing. MIT MBA+Princeton alumna. Former baker and podcaster working in product management

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