We all joke from time to time that we “feel like a grandma/grandpa” the morning after a tough jiu-jitsu class, but if you ask actual grandma Elaine Beiersdoerfer, she may argue that jiu-jitsu keeps you young.
Beiersdoerfer, 70, is a BJJ blue belt and grandmother of six. She embraces both roles and how they intertwine, and she’s affectionately known as the “Jiu-Jitsu Grandma” within the BJJ community. While it would’ve been plenty impressive to see Beiersdoerfer still rolling after decades of training jiu-jitsu, her dedication to the sport is even more notable when you consider the fact that she started training less than two years ago. Beiersdoerfer started her martial arts journey back when her husband was in grad school and she took a six-week judo class. Unable to find a judo academy near her after she moved back to Birmingham, AL, her time on the mats took a pause until February 2018, when she was 69 years old.
After learning that an academy near her, Xtreme Sports/Gracie Barra Alabama, taught judo, Beiersdoerfer called the gym and asked if they allowed “old people” in class. Once she got the go-ahead, she began taking judo classes, and upon following her professor’s suggestion, tried jiu-jitsu a month later. “I did both for a few months until I hurt my shoulder and lost some mobility,” said Beiersdoerfer. “At that point, I started concentrating on jiu-jitsu.”
Beiersdoerfer’s dedication has paid off, and in July of this year, she earned her blue belt: a moment she describes as her proudest accomplishment “besides finally learning how to tie my belt so it wouldn’t come undone.” About a month later, she would then test herself at the IBJJF World Master Championship, where she’d earn two silver medals.
The experienced challenged Beiersdoerfer in a whole new way, giving her four matches in seventy minutes. Even though simply competing at her age would be a noteworthy accomplishment in itself and earning two silver medals is far beyond what anyone would expect of a grandmother at that level of competition, she’s set the bar so high for herself that she isn’t even satisfied with that. “I lost my first match, I think 7-0. I made several mistakes, which I won’t repeat, which probably cost me the match,” she said before outlining the moves she made that gave her opponent the upper hand. Although Beiersdoerfer also lost her second and fourth matches (by ref decision), she won her third match 9-0. “I spent the next few nights doing a post-mortem: Why didn’t I do this? Why did I do that? What was I thinking?”
Don’t worry, though — she’ll have another opportunity to test herself in competition. She’s already signed up for the Birmingham International Open in November.
Beiersdoerfer takes extra measures to ensure her improvement in jiu-jitsu (“I have CRS — ‘Can’t Remember Stuff — so I video all the demonstrations in class so I can watch them again later.”), but her age does provide added challenges that younger practitioners don’t usually have to deal with. “As expected, I have a bit of arthritis in my shoulders and neck,” she says. “My doctor said to tap out early if I get armbarred… I’ve also developed a bit of vertigo, so I get dizzy doing forward rolls. My biggest challenge, I think, is recoup time. I can only manage three to four hours a week of class and then I need the weekend to rest.”
Despite the extra obstacles she faces as an upper-division competitor in the Masters category, Beiersdoerfer also acknowledges the many positive effects that training jiu-jitsu has had on her. “The most important benefit, besides overall muscle strength and balance, is being around all the young people,” she says. “I roll with eleven-year-olds and thirty/forty-year-olds. I forget how old I am when I step onto that mat. My club is truly wonderful and they have been very welcoming.”
For Beiersdoerfer, the perks of training jiu-jitsu at age 70 (including being stronger, healthier, and improved self-defense skills, which she says are a “big plus” for a 5-foot, 109lb woman her age) greatly outweigh the struggles. Now, she’s using her platform to encourage other people to chase their goals. When it comes to other senior citizens who want to start their jiu-jitsu journey, she recommends starting off by looking for a great environment to train in. “First, I would tell them to find a great gym like mine,” she says. “You start jiu-jitsu to get in shape, not the other way around, so they shouldn’t worry about where they are, but where they will be.”
Best of all, even after decades of living, you may discover a new and unexpected passion. “I really believe you are never too old to learn something new and to learn something new about yourself!” says Beiersdoerfer. “I didn’t know I was so competitive or that I would enjoy wrestling around on the floor with sweaty guys (The girls aren’t sweaty).”