*This post contains affiliate links.
The Empowered Female Athlete
Ladies who live life empowered and are setting wonderful examples for females to follow in health, wellness and fierceness.
Welcome to Decisive. Empowered. Resilient. A place to embrace decisiveness, self-empowerment and resiliency in life. As a Mom, wife, athlete, and leader in my community for health and fitness, I often seek out women who live what it means to be an Empowered Woman.
As athletes, we share similar beliefs that the strength, characteristics built and life lessons learned enable us (female athletes) to move about life with extra reserves of internal strength, drive, passion and ease.
The creation of this Empowered Female Athlete series is designed to inspire women from all walks of life. I hope readers will be able to see what sets us apart and learn how to utilize these same techniques for better health, fitness and resiliency.
The women participating in this series participate in sports that are less popular, sports where women are just beginning to emerge as fierce athletes and make it known that we (ladies) can rock these sports too! In sharing their sport and training tips with you, we hope you will go about your day and week feeling motivated, encouraged, capable and perhaps bold enough to try something new.
We hope younger female athletes will read these stories, look up to these women as role models and find fuel to feed their ambitions, confidence and build even bigger dreams.
If you know a female athlete that you believe fits the Empowered Female Athlete qualities click here for information on how to submit and become part of the series.
Jen Allen Russell
An 11 year veteran of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Jen Allen Russell exhibits athleticism with honor and grace. The 2014 Masters World Champion (black belt division) has traveled the world five times for World Championship competitions.
Training 5-6 days a week, she puts extra time into weight training and cardio conditioning but always keeps one full day a week just for rest. This means some days she doubles up on her training but the rewards of hard work far outweigh the challenges. At 41, she’s still in prime physical shape, and her love of the sport only fuels her commitment and motivation.
A specialty veterinary technician by day, Jen often also travels by train into the city for extra competition practice. Even with the time commitments, travel and crazy schedule, Jen is backed 100% by her husband in support.
I asked her what it means to have a spouse who enjoys training in the same sport and how it impacts her. While Jen teaches and trains competitively, her husband trains for the love of BJJ and his support plays a huge role in her ability to train and compete well.
The duo doesn’t train together often and her husband has roughly 75lbs on her in size. Still, it can be fun roll to with your man, and there are advantages to being a champion when you do.
“We were training and he kept muscling me around. I admit I got mad at him and he tried to out muscle me for a sweep and I ripped my leg free so hard I ended up kneeing him in the eye. Luckily he keeps his cool.”
How does he handle your success?
“He’s luckily a very secure man as I am higher ranked than him.”
In approaching her about participating in the Empowered Female Athlete series, I asked for her personal story. Often the story behind high level athletes is incredibly powerful and it begins with humble and challenging childhoods. Hers, a reality that many other girls and women of all ages face. I asked her for permission to share it, in which she openly agreed. Her strength to endure and overcome might enable another in a similar situation to find the strength to continue and rise up to become something incredible.
What is your story Jen?
“I’ve never really told my whole story but if it helps a young lady I’m okay with it. My parents were divorced when I was very young. I remember yelling and my father hitting my mother. After they were divorced my mother repeated a cycle of violence and beat me. One of my earliest memories when I was about 6 was being hit in the face so hard my nose bled on my favorite outfit and I was more upset about that.
This went on for years but I realize I was always mentally stronger than her. When I was 11 or 12 I remember she went to hit me and I blocked her and looked her right in the eyes and told her that she would never hit me again. After that it stopped but I was constantly told I was selfish and worthless. I know this if far from true. But it kills your confidence.
Finding martial arts and finally jiu-jitsu replaced a self-confidence that should’ve been there from the start. Being a positive role model for the women and girls means the world to me. I know what it’s like to not have that, and if I’ve helped just one, that’s a good thing.”
Just how did Jen get into Jiu-Jitsu? She began her martial arts journey training Muay Thai kickboxing and when someone began teaching BJJ at her gym, Jen and two friends decided to give it a try. Except her friends didn’t show. And the guys saw her enter the class before she could escape. She rolled live her very first class.
“I remember being in good kickboxing shape and felt like I might die. It felt like wrestling in a blanket. Each class it felt like they were trying to make me quit. No wonder most women back then didn’t stick around. It was a rough crowd. I’m very stubborn and most of them quit. Luckily so much has changed since then. It’s not like fight club anymore.”
She’s right. The world of martial arts, not just jiu-jitsu, is growing tremendously in the last decade for adult women. More gyms are popping up and welcoming women into training, some even creating women’s only classes.
As an instructor and World Champion, Jen plays a vital role in developing the women’s program for her area and helping other women enjoy the benefits of martial arts. It is a role she values greatly and takes real pride in.
What does being a leader and BJJ instructor mean to you?
“It’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly. I feel I need to set an example by working hard and never asking them (her students) to do anything that I won’t or haven’t done.”
What is one thing you hope they will learn from you?
“To never give up when setbacks happen. I went to worlds 6 times before I won.”
Do you face any challenges or criticism because you are a female BJJ instructor? If so, how did you handle it?
“I’ve had one guy that was not as respectful as he would have been to a male coach. I handled it right away and he apologized to me.”
Do your male students treat you with the same respect they would under a male instructor?
“Yes they do. The smaller guys ask me lots of technical questions because as much as I would love to muscle around the big guys, I have to use technique.”
From one female martial arts instructor to another, what advice can you give me and other women aspiring to instruct?
“When you start a women’s program you may have classes with only two people. It takes a while to build it up (the women’s program) but it will happen. Be approachable to your students. Be open to work on areas they may be having problems with. I like having an open forum and asking them if they would like to go over certain techniques. Also, as the female instructor – the guys will make you deal with anything female – like wardrobe issues or feminine products clogging toilets!”
Wait. You mean even though we ladies enjoy being strong, powerful and capable the guys won’t still be our heroes and fix the clogged toilets?
What advice would you tell someone who is new to Jiu-Jitsu and wanting to maybe try it out?
“Go to the school and watch a class. See how the vibe is there. Are there other women there? If not you may want to ask yourself why not? Maybe there aren’t any women who train there yet or they just aren’t there that night. But you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. Ask if you can have a trial period before you sign a contract (membership). Go for it!!! You’ll probably love it! It does take a long time to know what you’re doing but don’t get discouraged.”
As an instructor and a role model for other women who attend Ocean County Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Jen works hard to build and improve their programs in leading by example. She helps prep her teammates for tournaments during her off season. The women in her gym maintain a solid bond packed with comfort and encouragement.
Jen also helps support other female instructors by attending seminars and open mats along with speaking out against sexist training environments in other schools.
As a woman Jen, how have you been impacted by the sport of BJJ?
“The self-confidence jiu-jitsu has given me is immeasurable. I know I can defend myself against a much larger attacker if necessary. You hope you never need to, but I can if I have to.”
What does it mean to you, for women to be doing what you are doing? For women’s jiu-jitsu to be growing exponentially?
“It just gives me a great feeling that while we are still a minority, we are strongly growing. Sometimes in my school the advanced class will be half women! It’s incredible!”
We know your husband loves jiu-jitsu and is very supportive.
What do the rest of your family and friends think of you doing jiu-jitsu and competing in it? Do they understand what it is you do and why it is important to you?
“Most of them do.”
Is there anything they’ve said or done that’s added challenges to being a competitive athlete?
“Sometimes they make me feel guilty for not going out with friends when tournaments are close or they question why I’m training late and daily. Just not understanding the drive that an athlete can feel.”
Do you remember your first day of jiu-jitsu? What did you learn that day?
“Yes. Don’t panic! Lol”
With women in Jiu-Jitsu on the rise, I asked Jen about her traveling adventures and if she experienced any differences in regards to how other athletes and coaches treated her (a competitive jiu-jitsu female).
Were you equally accepted as a female competitive BJJ athlete?
“Yes. Now we are treated equally with weight divisions and belt rankings, but this wasn’t always the case. Other pioneers before me fought for that.”
What is it you hope for other women in BJJ that they will learn about themselves and walk away with?
“Just pure self-confidence. Whether it’s to pursue a particular job or to maybe not settle for a relationship where they aren’t treated how they should be.”
If you could give a younger you advice or encouragement about the woman you’ve become today, what you say?
“Don’t doubt yourself. This is the right path for you.”
What is a lesson you have learned about being an athlete in Jiu-Jitsu?
“I work hard for something that money can’t buy. Personal pride in a male dominated sport.”
When it comes to Jiu-Jitsu, what is one of the most difficult skills to work on?
“Learning to embrace being uncomfortable. The other skills come with time. But if you can’t love the pressure of being uncomfortable you will never stick with it.”
Jiu-Jitsu is not an easy or quick sport to master. In fact it seems to take people a long time to reach higher belt rankings.
At what point do you think most people in BJJ cross over from beginner to intermediate to advanced?
“Skill and dedication determine this. It depends on the athlete. It takes about 1-2 years to reach intermediate levels and another 3-4 years to become advanced.”
How many women participate and train jiu-jitsu at your gym?
“I am very lucky. I have about 20 other women at my school.”
Is the women’s program treated equally in terms of respect, opportunities, challenges and growth as the men’s program?
“100% at my school. I started the women’s program almost 4 years ago. It was my baby from the start. I was given full control on how and what I taught.”
As a female, are there extra challenges to overcome?
“When you first start training you don’t know the techniques and can be muscled around by larger teammates and it can be frustrating. Also personal space, guys you don’t know are sweating all over you and breathing heavy. At first it’s unsettling…Lol.”
That sounds fun Jen. (I will stick with kickboxing and avoid the rolling around with sweaty guys on the mats).
As a female athlete what do you expect from your coaches and trainers?
“I expect them to be tough on me and not sugar coat anything. I’m tough on myself and I want honesty if I’m not doing something right.”
Best advice ever received from a coach or training partner?
“Be in the moment when competing. The minute will pass but just stay focused on what is happening.”
What is your favorite aspect of training and instructing?
“Seeing my teammates reach their goals. Whatever they may be. For some girls it’s developing self-confidence in daily life. Some it’s a gold medal. For me competition was always a personal challenge. It started with just putting myself in an uncomfortable situation. Then it became fun for me and I began setting goals.”
What do you look for in your training partners, teammates and competitors and expect from them?
“I expect my teammates to be honest with me and support me. I expect my competitor to be fair and to bring their best. I expect my teammates to be tough on me and push me to the next level. I return the favor to my girls that compete. I would rather feel the toughness and aggression level in training. It can be shocking for a person who doesn’t train this way before competitions. Tough training doesn’t mean careless. I expect them to be technical as well.”
What do you hope for – for the women you train with and compete against?
With women like Jen Russell leading the way for women in BJJ, that is a likely possibility sooner than later.
To think of what her life would be like now, if she had chickened out of that first BJJ class. If she had given up, walked away or given up hope of the belief that she could. For the 19 women who train with her, and the ladies she’s competed against, they know what it is to be and experience courage, respect, confidence, grace and the power of what it means to be an Empowered Female Athlete.
For more information on the Empowered Female Athlete series click here.
If you would like to submit your story or recommend a female athlete who is wonderful role model and participates in a non traditional sport, email me here.
The women in this series are raising the bar for what it means to be a high level athlete.
You can learn how to raise the bar personally and professionally by reading
Thank you for sharing this article with others! 😉