Kyra Gracie recalls battling sexism for the right to train jiu-jitsu and ‘have a voice’ in the family

RIO DE JANEIRO — Kyra Gracie won three ADCC gold medals and five IBJJF World Championship titles between 2004 and 2011, but being victorious on the mat was only possible because she had the guts to fight for her right to enter a gym in the first place.

The granddaughter of Robson Gracie, she grew up alongside her uncles Ralph, Ryan, and Renzo Gracie in a conservative family in Rio de Janeiro, and witnessed plenty of uncles and cousins try to convince her that martial arts were just for men.

“The best spot on the couch back home was for the champion. Who chose the food? The champion. If there was any debate in the family about anything, the champion had the final word,” Gracie said during a recent talk at WebSummit in Rio de Janeiro. “I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to become a champion to have a voice here too. I’ll follow these footsteps.’”

The young Gracie started training at young age and decided to start an “amateur career” at 11 years old. She enjoyed the taste of victory.

“Winning made me really happy,” Gracie said. “I was a very shy girl, and that was when this feeling flourished inside of me. ‘I can do it too,’ you know? I discovered myself as the woman I am today, evolving in areas I needed to evolve, my weaknesses.”

Carlos and Helio Gracie, the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, had a master plan to turn the martial arts into a global business, and that included raising 30 children. They flew all around the world winning challenges against members of other martial arts, and later helped to found the UFC, but women had no role in their martial arts empire.

“I had to fight to be able to fight, because when I decided to become a fighter, my family said, ‘Kyra, forget about it, women aren’t supposed to do this, go do something else. We’ll protect you,’” Gracie said. “It was always like that. ‘You have many uncles and cousins, we’ll protect you.’ When you live in a place where they repeat that over and over again, you end up believing in it. I was that person that believed that only men could go somewhere in fighting.

“There was a point where my mother had to quit doing jiu-jitsu. She got to blue belt and then had to stop. She was prohibited from training by my uncles because that wasn’t the ideal path for a woman. And when I saw my mom quitting, I thought, ‘Damn, do I have to stop too? But I like it so much. What do I do now?’ But I was so young, 12, 13 years of age, and they thought I would eventually quit along the way.”

Gracie didn’t quit. Instead, she began collecting gold medals in the CBJJ Brazilian Nationals and IBJJF Pans in colored belts from ages 13 to 18 before making history as a black belt.

“To look back at this entire process ever since I started as an athlete, it was always very hard,” Gracie said. “Women weren’t valued within the family. First they are prohibited [from training], and then if you win, it’s like, ‘Cool.’ But if a man wins, ‘Wow, that’s awesome, he should represent the family. The great champion.’ There wasn’t much incentive. And then you go to competitions. While men made $50,000 as champions back then, women made $2,000. That didn’t even pay for my supplements.

“[While it] demotivates you, I started using it as fuel. ‘I’ll prove them wrong.’ You train so much and have no recognition, no money. When I was going to teach seminars, I would hear, ‘But you’re a woman, we’ll charge less [for fees]. You’re a woman, not many people want to attend it.’ The environment still is very sexist and you have to break so many barriers.”

The first woman in the Gracie family to become a jiu-jitsu black belt and the first woman ever inducted to the ADCC Hall of Fame, Kyra retired as a grappler in 2004, and flirted with the idea of transitioning to MMA, but never did. Instead, she became a successful gym owner, with nearly 1,000 students in two branches of Gracie Kore in Rio de Janeiro.

“I’m the only woman to run a jiu-jitsu school in Brazil,” Gracie said. “I’m glad I continued, because when you have a woman in a place of power, regardless of the area, you inspire other women. I see a many women train jiu-jitsu now, I see their daughters train jiu-jitsu. Girls that are self-confident, that look you in the eye and know how to speak. That’s more important than jiu-jitsu, because that gives you self-confidence.”

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