Roll Model: How Black Belt, F2W Competitor, Mother, & Model Vanessa Wexler Has Forged Her Own Unique Path

Image Source: Fight 2 Win/Vanessa Wexler

When Vanessa Wexler started jiu-jitsu, she didn’t like it.

The year was 2003. The UFC was just a decade old, and jiu-jitsu was even further from a mainstream sport than it is today. Wexler didn’t even know what jiu-jitsu was, and she found it “rough” and “hard to understand.” But she didn’t stop. “The fact that it was so challenging is why I kept going,” she says. “A few short months later, I had to use what I learned to save my own life. After that night, I knew I would never stop.”

Over a decade later, in July 2018, Wexler finally achieved the coveted rank of black belt. It was a tough decade, filled with obstacles that included injuries and pregnancy. But Wexler knew that she needed to find a reason to keep moving forward, and she found that through competition. “When I started, it was rare to fight a woman and rarer still anyone remotely close to my size,” she says. “The challenge again motivated me.”

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Her persistence paid off, and along the way, she won Pans as a brown belt, Master Worlds, a Fight 2 Win title, No-Gi Worlds (three times), and then Pans again, this time as a black belt with an “intense injury.” Still, Wexler emphasizes that the victories she’s achieved don’t show the battles she’s been through to get there.

“The five-dollar medal is just the tip of the iceberg of sacrifice. Through wanting to quit, injuries, fighting [in] men’s divisions, all of it… I’m proudest of those moments when my decision was made: to never ever give up. I knew how special this art was, how it’s helped me in too many ways to count, and how it could help so many others. To this day I am on top of the world when I’m on the mats with my students and friends and continue to focus on finding more ways to help people through jiu-jitsu,” she says.

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In the competitive world, Wexler has become a very familiar face on the Fight 2 Win stage. Tonight, she’ll again be putting all her hard work and sacrifice to the test on the same stage where she won her brown belt title, this time against fellow Colorado black belt Rossie Snow at Fight 2 Win 130. Wexler has long been a passionate supporter of the promotion, largely due to CEO Seth Daniels’ determination to include women on his cards.

“I could tell from the very first card that Seth was doing something that no one else would. He would make sure to have a minimum of one match (most of the time many more) that was female. I remember him saying that [women] were not given enough media through other organizations and wanted to make a change. He had the first-ever female BJJ main event in the history of sub-only competitions! Team No Sleep works tirelessly to put on a better show than the last every single time! I keep returning because it is an honor to be there, they treat competitors like rockstars, they work their asses off, and I get to do what I love in a way that had never been done before them. I have loved watching the F2W journey from show 1 to now show 130. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the future of BJJ.”

Wexler doesn’t just have a super intense jiu-jitsu schedule, though. In addition to her training, coaching, and competing, she’s also a mom. She doesn’t hide that the lifestyle conflict between being a mother and pursuing her goals in jiu-jitsu has been a challenge to her since she became pregnant as a purple belt. At the time, Wexler was just beginning to succeed at local competitions, and she had no intentions of stopping. Even as she received her brown belt over halfway through her pregnancy, she continued to train and train and train up to eight times a week, even up until two days before she gave birth.

“In retrospect, I would not do as much as I did,” says Wexler. “It felt like I was at battle with myself. My desire to ‘not lose ground’ fought my desire to enjoy the process of creating life. I really hated being pregnant. I puked all day every day, even through labor! After my son was born, I hit the mats one week later. Also don’t recommend this. Understand that I LOVE being a mom but I was in a hurry to feel like myself again, not knowing that would never actually happen. I went back to competition less than three months later and was invited to compete at the first-ever F2W ten months later.”

Wexler wants to drive home to other moms on the mats that everyone’s journey is different, and her own path, however unconventional and unique it was, helped her grow as a person, competitor, and mother. “As a mom and a mat savage, I have found deep friendships, opened my heart, let go of fear, and been given the beautiful gift of peace and happiness,” she says. “I continue to compete because I deeply enjoy the challenge although now it’s not so much the challenge of making weight/cardio/drilling/sacrifice. Now the challenge is getting a babysitter, making sure teeth are brushed, up all night with a sick kid, etc.”

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As if being a competitive BJJ black belt and a mom weren’t enough, Wexler has somehow found room for yet another passion in life: modeling. She’s darn good at it too, having made it into a successful career. It’s more than just a source of income, though — in fact, it’s almost been like therapy. “The reason I modeled so much right after having a baby was to break through some personal barriers of social anxiety, fear of people, fear of being looked at (PTSD) and judged. Once I started, I found that I really enjoyed how creative and accepting the culture was. I started to enjoy the different styles and personalities of these people and it really helped me get over a lot of fears,” she says.

Wexler seems to effortlessly ride the line between constantly training in a very rough-and-tumble sport and portraying elegance and beauty in front of a camera and on the runway. For those women who have found themselves mourning the sacrifice of traditionally “feminine” traits — such as long nails or hair that doesn’t look like it’s being pulled out of your head five days a week — Wexler sends a reminder that there’s no “right” way to express femininity, whether or not you train.

“Being feminine is being you… You just have to know yourself. If you’re a tomboy, be a tomboy! If you’re glam, rock that waterproof makeup! Be YOU! Being feminine is simply feeling love for yourself and other women openly, honestly, and celebrating individuality… There is no definition or real standard; advertising is constantly telling you you’re not good enough so you will buy. I was very careful not to model for beauty brands for this reason. Being older, I was in control of who I worked with and why. I truly feel that all women have beauty, are unique, and should celebrate what sets us apart!”

Interestingly, the lessons learned through modeling and on the mats have worked hand-in-hand for Wexler’s personal growth. “Facing those fears [in modeling] helped me become comfortable teaching BJJ and competing on a big stage while being streamed to thousands,” she says. “Jiu-jitsu granted me the patience for runway shows that required sitting around for 10-12 hours in a stressful environment with people I did not know. I tend to seek what scares me in an effort to grow and be a better leader, mother, and person for my community.”

As Wexler embraces her ever-growing status as a role model in the sport, she particularly hopes to inspire the women who, thankfully, now have a less complicated path to success in BJJ. “Jiu-jitsu has been very masculine for the past 30 years, but times are changing! History is being made all the time now for women in this martial art. It used to be you had to be ‘macho’ to be accepted or respected. Women developed very competitive attitudes and constantly had something to prove. This still occurs in smaller schools in an area without options to train. Now I know more and more women are training, competing, leading and showing that we can, in fact, celebrate our femininity while we get rough! With large networks of women from all over the globe, we are communicating more than ever and learning that we should be proud to be who we are.”

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Watch Wexler vs. Snow, plus many other exciting matches when Fight 2 Win 130 streams live on FloGrappling tonight!

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