A longtime Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor, Shama Ko loved her sport, but she saw too much division and exclusion when it came to gender. After discovering Girls In Gis, however, a training and support community for women and girls practicing Jiu Jitsu, a whole new world opened up to the fighter. She is now the program director for Girls in Gis and is bringing the Texas-based organization to Denver for the first time this Sunday, February 24 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Easton Training Center, 1304 South Santa Fe Drive. In advance of the gathering and training session, Ko spoke to Westword about why a group like Girls In Gis is imperative to women's success in the male-dominated sport.
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Westword: What is Girls In Gis?
Shama Ko: Girls In Gis is based out of Texas - and we've been hosting events here for about three years. These events are designed to be by women, for women and girls. It's for beginners on up to expert and advanced participants that train in Jiu Jitsu. Through our events, we are not only trying to foster the community of women in the sport, but also to encourage other women and girls to join. We don't have any age restrictions or prior experience needed.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is rapidly growing as a community, and while more and more women are joining, but we're still the minority. The purpose of Girls in Gis is to foster that community of women, because a lot of times you find, even now, Academies may only have one or two females in their school. So, they are used to having to train with guys - and they are bigger, stronger and built differently than women. Our events are a way to give women and girls more of an opportunity to train with partners their size and their skill level.
What can participants expect at this Girls In Gis event happening in Denver?
The event we're doing in Colorado is the first of its kind for us; our hope is to bring it the program to Colorado on an ongoing basis, like we do in Texas. This is a trial for us to see how it works within the Jiu Jitsu community in Colorado -- we already have more than eighty girls registered in Denver, and it's still growing.
For this event, we'll have three groups: advanced, beginner and kids, lead by four different women. Most of the women teaching will typically have been training for at least three years. In Jiu Jitsu, there's belts: white, blue, brown and black, and we have a brown belt from Easton Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and she'll be leading the advanced group.
We start with games to get everyone comfortable and allow for introductions - sharing how long they've trained, what brought them to Jiu Jitsu and why they started training. From there we go into warm-up -- it's an extension of the introduction, in terms of getting the girls comfortable. A lot of them have never met each other, or if they have, it's because they're competing against each other - which is a completely different dynamic than we're trying to create here.
With Girls in Gis, it's non-competitive; we're friends, we love Jiu Jitsu and we're just sharing the experience. Then we begin the instruction - the instructors will show a few moves and we'll go into what's called an "open mat" where they roll, drill, talk and hang out. Here in Texas, (this method) has really brought strength to the community. We had realized that we were only seeing each other when we were competing - we weren't friends, we weren't supportive of each other.
But through Girls and Gis events, it created a completely different dynamic; now we're networking and sharing and talking about our bad days on the mat. It brought unity to our community, even though we still compete against each other. But we go out there and we both want to win - but in the end, we support each other. And that's what we want to do in the Denver area.
We really try to reinforce that you should really be proud of the academy you come from and the school that you belong to. But it's our love for Jiu Jitsu that unites us. So that's what Girls In Gis is about.
Continue reading for more on the event. What brought you to Jiu Jitsu?
Well, I was not really into martial arts and I was awkward in sports - though I played all through my childhood. My sister was the jock, and I was the goofy, dorky kid that was uncoordinated. But I started Jiu Jitsu because a good friend of mine, her boyfriend was an instructor. She started teaching women's classes and asked me to come support her. But I just wasn't sure.
I've been around Jiu Jitsu for over half of my life but I just kind of filed it away as sort of a "guy's thing." I didn't want to go roll around on the floor with a bunch of guys, you know? So when my friend started teaching women's classes and I began supporting her and really being in the environment where it was just the girls, it changed. I didn't have to be embarrassed because I didn't know what I was doing and I got comfortable. I thought, who cares? It's just a bunch of girls.
From there, I fell in love with it. Before long, I was in coed classes and then I got really competitive with it. I think it's important to compete because it pushes you and gives you a goal and purpose for your training. You can accomplish things you wouldn't think you could and I did. I went out there and started winning big championships and I never, in a million years thought I would be athletic. It's given me a purpose in life.
(In the beginning) I was so much geared toward being a competitor and I really wasn't friends with these girls - and there weren't that many of us to begin with. Sometimes I would show up at a tournament and I'd be lucky if a girl showed up for me to compete against. But it's grown so much now; there are actual divisions. You can actually fight someone who's your belt and your size now.
When I started competing eight years ago, that wasn't the case. So I realized how important it was for women to be a part of this sport. You need to have something that drives you, something you're passionate about. Like I said, Jiu Jitsu is a male-dominated sport, so we're still the underdogs.
How did Girls In Gis get started?
Girls In Gis was started by Ashley Nguyen - she's our founder, though she's kind of stepped back a bit. I pretty much run the show with her blessing. But Ashley is the one who designed the program, and it was created as a leadership opportunity for women; I started going to Girls In Gis and I started noticing that it had so much potential.
Coincidentally, I injured my knee and was unable to compete and train anymore. So, my focus went from my own personal goals of being a champion competitor to really pushing women into the sport and being a support system. When they are really frustrated and they want to quit because these guys are smashing them, they need to know they're not alone.
Even though they might be the only girl on the mat at their academy, they're not alone in all of this. That's really what Girls In Gis is about.
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Girls In Gis' first-ever event in Colorado goes down at the Easton Training Center, 1304 South Santa Fe Drive this Sunday, February 24, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free, with donations being accepted on behalf of SafeHouse Denver. Girls and women of all ages and skill levels are invited. For more information, visit the Girls In Gis website.