If You Build It, They Will Compete: The Incredible Story Of The Female Master Divisions At This Year’s Pans

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Photo Source: Karen Peters

About two months ago, brown belt Karen Peters set her mind to changing jiu-jitsu history. It all started when her coach, second-degree black belt Carlos Melo of Gilroy Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, started asking his students if they were planning on competing at this year’s IBJJF Pan championship. When Peters informed him that there was no division for her, Melo assumed that she meant that there were no other competitors in her bracket — a common predicament for Master division competitors. Instead, Peters shocked him by telling him that there was quite literally no division for her age and skill level that she could sign up for.

Up until a few weeks ago, the only female Master division in IBJJF competitions other than Master Worlds was Master 1. So while male competitors over the age of thirty could compete against other athletes in their own age bracket, a 62-year-old woman who wanted to compete at Pans would have to settle for potentially going up against a woman in her thirties. “It was unfair,” said Melo. “I’ve been competing a long time, and I wasn’t aware of this. And I think a lot of people, even a lot of younger women, weren’t aware of it either.”

Melo assumed that the reason behind the exclusion was that the IBJJF assumed that no one would sign up for female Master divisions, so he told Peters that if she could organize a few women around the same age and at the same belt level to compete at Pans this year, he’d write a letter to the organization requesting that they add her division. Peters delivered, getting five women to meet at the lightweight Master 5 brown belt category. It was at that time, Peters said, that energy started to build up. “[The women] were stoked. If our division was accepted, we’d make all the arrangements to go to Pans,” she said. “Just thinking about the possibility to get there was so exciting.”

Melo sent the request. It was rejected.

Although Peters, Melo, and the other women were disappointed, they decided to continue their efforts. One female black belt suggested an online petition to help spread awareness of the issue, and from there, the spark grew into a wildfire. The petition went viral, and the IBJJF opened up Master 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 divisions for women. And it all happened within 24 hours.

Peters and Melo were ecstatic, but their moment of joy was interrupted by the jarring realization that they had just 26 days left until Pans — 26 days to get the word out that these new divisions existed and gather enough interest to prove to the IBJJF that all this talk hadn’t just been talk. “We started to get fearful that the brackets would be pulled back,” says Peters. “That’s when I started to get the online community involved. When I was able to clarify what we were doing and why we were under the gun, this momentum and upswell of energy was amazing. Women started coming together to support one another and get each other [to Pans].”

Peters’ first goal was just to get masters women registered. “If they couldn’t make it this year, they could at least come next year. That’s when all the fundraising started. People offered sponsorship, some started donating air miles. A civil engineer put together a resource list. Girls in Gis stepped up. People were looking up nonprofits. There was no stopping the women coming together to make this happen.”

A list was compiled to keep track of all the women who’d signed up to compete, and Peters watched as it grew week by week. In the end, 160 women had put their names down.

The challenge wasn’t over yet, though. The concerned turned to whether or not everyone would even have matches, given the wide variety of weight classes and belt levels among each division. Peters had everyone put down their belt level, age, and weight, and then everyone agreed to communicate so that worthwhile divisions could be formed. Some women went up in weight, others came down in age. The results were not only seen in the sheer number of women competing in each division, but in the personal achievements of individual competitors as well. “A lot of women have never competed before — we have a Master 6 woman who’s never competed and went to Pans this year. One woman was in Master 4 in 2012 and had to compete in the Adult division, and she said it was so traumatizing that she hasn’t competed since, but she’s signed up this year,” says Peters.

The IBJJF never publicly acknowledged that the efforts of Peters, Melo, and everyone who signed the petition were the reason behind the addition of the new divisions, but Peters and Melo know that the organization and its competitors are ultimately on the same side. “I don’t think they’re against us,” said Melo. “We all have the same goal: to spread the love of jiu-jitsu. The issue [for the IBJJF] was that it may not be profitable.”

Still, Melo is firm on his stance that regardless of profitability, the added Master divisions should remain in future IBJJF competitions. “Everyone told me they weren’t going to listen, but I felt a moral obligation to at least try. The first level was that I wanted fairness for my students. I wanted Karen to have an equal playing field. Everyone should have the chance to compete in a fair division, especially if you’re offering that for the men.”

As Pans played out over the past few days, everyone involved in the massive campaign to bring Master women to the mats watched their efforts pay off. Competitors stood on the podium with the t-shirts that were made to celebrate and support the achievement, many of them personally thanking Peters and Melo for their work. “I don’t know how you could predict anything like this,” says Peters. “Politically, it seemed like the right time to do this. It’s been phenomenal to be on the inside and see everyone come together with such passion.”

Peters also competed over the weekend, and while she didn’t get the result that she wanted out of her personal performance, the collective victory that Master women won overshadowed her own losses. “My disappointment and frustration were greatly offset by the gratitude and awe expressed by so many of the Master 2-7 women for being there, for the work that Carlos and I did to spearhead the movement…There were many celebrations on the mats after fights, on the podium, and in the hallways. Watching it all unfold over the course of the tournament was one of the highlights of my BJJ career. And I know Carlos would agree this is true for him as well.

Watching the fights of these amazing women and hearing their stories was sweet victory in and of itself. So we choose to focus on that, and what is next in bringing more awareness to this issue of the Master 2-7 women and equal opportunity to compete. Meanwhile, I take the lessons I learned on the mat and will start to get ready for the Master Worlds.”

After the whirlwind of emotions that took place over the past two months, Peters and Melo are reflecting not only on what they helped build at Pans, but also what it means for the jiu-jitsu scene as a whole. “A lot of people had this idea that this was strictly a women’s movement, but then I clarified that it was [the efforts of] a female student and a male instructor. This is a win for everyone, not just women,” says Melo. “It’s about unity, being equal and being fair. Nowadays we’re always trying to look at our differences. We’re looking for reasons to not be unified. But this is a situation where you come together to work for a common cause, and it’s showing what can happen when you put those differences aside.”

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