For as large as the jiu-jitsu community is, the closeness we all share means that when tragedy strikes one of our own, we all feel the pain. So when white belt Olivia Gonzalez was murdered at age 18 just a few weeks ago, it didn’t just shake her hometown of Hermitage, Pennsylvania — it affected everyone who had ever known what she was capable of on the mat.
By all accounts, Olivia was full of surprises. Her mom used to call her “Snow White” because of her knack for attracting woodland creatures (She once brought a baby deer right into the house), but when it came to martial arts, she was nothing short of a savage. Her role model was Ronda Rousey, and she put in lots of tough hours at the gym in the hopes of one day being just like her. “We were looking for her to have something to satisfy her soul — something she could embrace and love,” said Olivia’s mother, Maikki Gonzalez, about how the teen got her start at Monarch Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. “She fell in love with it. She found her inner peace there, and it gave her discipline.”
In fact, the discipline that Olivia carried with her was nothing short of remarkable for a young woman her age — during the summer, when most teenagers were hanging out with their friends or getting into trouble, Olivia would pack her bag in the morning, walk up to Monarch, and then spend the whole day there. When it was time to leave, she’d walk back home and then prepare herself to do it again the next day. For many people her age, such dedication would wear off after a while, but Olivia had always lived her life with that kind of passion. “As an athlete, she never turned down a challenge; there was no such thing as an obstacle. She pushed through mountain — she didn’t just climb them,” said Maikki.
For Olivia’s coach, Robert Henricksen, that drive made her a standout student at his academy. “She was a natural at BJJ,” he said. “She was tough and fearless. Her time was brief to have made many accomplishments, but she was always supportive of her teammates and attended tournaments in that capacity with the intention of competing in the future. In training she was extremely tenacious. Her potential was without limit.”
Olivia’s daily training helped her earn her first stripe very quickly, but even though she was extremely focused on her own goals, she also made the time for her friends and teammates. “Any time I needed a friend she was always there. She never put up with any BS and was never afraid to speak her mind, but she also had a very gentle and honest side as well,” said Zane Henricksen, who was Olivia’s friend and the son of her coach. He describes her as being “one of the most talented girls” he’s ever met, not only in jiu-jitsu, but also in just about everything she tried. Zane praised her musical talents, saying that she had a serious knack for singing, rapping, and writing her own music. Olivia’s mother recounted how her daughter was an enthusiastic artist as well, and of course, the fact that Olivia flew her first plane at age fifteen is worth a raised eyebrow, to say the least.
Even though Olivia’s training schedule relaxed a bit towards the end of her life as she prepared for what would’ve undoubtedly been a successful future (potentially as a marine biologist), the impact she made on those who trained with her isn’t going anywhere. Her teammates didn’t just lose a training partner — they lost a friend, a family member, and a serious inspiration. To honor her memory, they’ll be hosting a grapplethon called “Roll for Olivia” on Saturday, February 25. If the trip to Monarch is a bit too long for you to make, you can help support the cause by contributing to the GoFundMe that’s been set up to help Olivia’s family pay for memorial costs. And of course, anyone willing to roll in Olivia’s honor at their own gym is encouraged to do so.
As Olivia’s loved ones do their best to recover from her tragic and untimely passing, the BJJ community is going to do what it does best in times like these: come together. We’re going to ensure that Olivia’s spirit lives on when we help our teammates through tough times or when we manage to drag ourselves to class even when we really would rather stay home. We’re going to destroy obstacles in our path just as she did, and we’re going to do it while helping our teammates do the same. A loss in our tight-knit, but worldwide family is always hard whether or not you know the person who left us too soon, but by living (and rolling) as Olivia did, we’ll be able to help both her biological family and her BJJ family see that this remarkable young woman will never be forgotten.