‘Being a role model is a by product of trying to achieve your goals. Being a good person, making some mistakes. I want to humanise myself, we pour our hearts out on the mat.’’
‘It’s important to speak up. Things are allowed to go on because people don’t say anything.’
Sam’s journey started at the age of 20, because she fancied a guy who trained MMA. This strategy worked out, and they were together for 5 years. At this point, Sam wasn’t taking BJJ too seriously, and in fact seriously considered quitting when she and her partner broke up as it had always been ‘his thing’. Sam moved to Cheltenham in 2011 to work, and continued training in Bristol which is when she began to excel. She received her purple and began competing internationally.
In 2014 she won the Euros, and it was then that she made the decision to leave her job and take BJJ more seriously. After winning quadruple gold at the nationals, Sam was offered a deal from Shoyoroll to represent them in the UK. Sam moved to London in 2015, initially training with Fight Factory, but then moved to Fightzone, an affiliate.
Sam’s confidence to make this move partly lay in that she had a career in respiratory physio behind her (working in critical care with mechanically ventilated patients), something she could always pick up again.
In this interview we go through how she manages the ups and downs of competing, what major changes happened for her in her journey, weight, motivation, and a 1 hour warm up(!).
“I kind of just took a risk and just thought I will make it work.”
Sam has found the perfect BJJ - Work balance, working part time 2-3 days a week in the National Hospital for Neurosurgery and Neurology, enough to support herself and train as much as she needs.
Photo by @bradleyhillgb
‘Its funny you say that, how you associate the downside with the defeat...I have really bad down times when I win, rather than if I lose.’
I’ll give you an example:
Sam won the Worlds Nogi at Brown Belt. She had a severe weight cut to drop a division and won the tournament. But, Sam says
‘How do you cope with the fact that even though you have just become a World Champion, nothing actually changes? I still get beaten up by our juvenile blues here [at Fightzone]. I thought [winning] was going to solve my problems, but you wear your medal for 10 minutes and then you take it off and go to the next one.’
“I lost at the Abu Dahbi this year. [Before the fight] I was like ‘ok Sam, everybody is looking at you now, you have beaten these girls before. I put so much pressure on myself. As callus as it sounds, nobody cares win or lose.’
That’s the thing about taking a risk, what are you really putting on the line? What’s the worst case scenario? Sams attitude is to enjoy the moment, but she comments that it’s taken her until now to have this feeling.
For Sam’s mental health, she has discovered that she needs to have something else outside of jiu jitsu. It’s about the journey, not about killing yourself to realise your dream.
‘I don’t believe you have to be suffering and sacrificing everything to be a world champion. I find the male Cyborg really inspiring. [He believes] you have to take responsibility for your learning and what works for you, but it’s about being smart in Jiu Jitsu not about training hard every single day.’
Sam doesn’t train as hard as she used to, (although she did for the recent Polaris match up because she loves Nogi). She aims to take two days off a week, but generally goes with how she feels. If you are knackered, take a break!
‘Nothing changes in that time, you are not going to lose the stuff you know.’
Photo by @jitsart
Sam has the Hormonal Coil as a contraception and doesn’t keep track of her cycle. Her diet has fluctuated consistently for years, yoyo dieting between competitions. She tells us she knows how to diet for weight loss or eat everything! And in the long run this has affected her hormone balance and energy levels.
Sam says this is a really big issue for her, and lacked a lot of confidence at the start of her journey. She is known as the smiling Assassin, incredibly upbeat and cheerful, but she has had a lot of issues dealing with conflict and standing her ground.
‘If I felt like someone was taking the piss out of me, I wouldn’t have the guts to say anything about it’.
Sam told us about how she used to train in Denmark as a Purple Belt with Shanti, Yani, Edga and Camilla Hanson, amazing Black Belt women. The Danes are quite blunt, and Sam would take their criticism personally, breaking down at the end of every week. Sam also said she used to hide behind BJJ, using it as part of her identity, and an excuse not to do certain things like drinking. She tells us that other people hugely influence her choices. Sometimes she can go completely against the grain, and other times, ‘I lose my way.’
‘The happy girl who is probably too frightened to tell you you offended her. This is what I’ve been battling with recently.’
‘I feel like only just now, turning 30 last year, I’ve just started to love who I am, and accept myself and be confident with who I am.’
Photos by @helenacurtis
Motivation for training:
A big influence for Sam was Yani Larson because she embodied the fact that there is no difference between a black belt world champion and anyone else. The difference is that she went and did it. Larson had an amazing black belt year and then decided to go and study medicine.
The biggest change for Sam was in her Brown Belt year when she met Bradley. Nothing to do with the skill level he had, but rather the confidence he had in her.
‘He has beautiful jiu jitsu, everything I go for he changes into something else. It was so inspiring, it was jiu jitsu how I dreamed it to be like...He had an unshakeable confidence in me, unyielding. Don’t even question yourself.’
“I find it hard enough to be confident in myself. You need to take responsibility for it and be proud of the person that you are. That’s what makes me confident, the evidence, repetition, knowing something, believing in yourself and being proud of who you are.”
For girls there is much less difference in an age gap than men. Sam said that 30 has been one of her best years, and she will keep going until her body can’t keep up with 10 minute rounds.
Photos by @bradleyhillgb
Sam’s walking weight is around 70kgs, but this has only recently settled. Sam is notorious for weight cutting, and in the past has shifted from 75 kgs down to 64 in 6 weeks in order to make weight. She had to do this for Polaris, and although she won the fight, the following two weeks were ‘a horrendous emotional rollercoaster’ and she rebounded back to 75kgs in 2 weeks. Her fingers would swell up and now had stomache problems where she can only eat certain things.
‘I wish I had had a role model to tell me to change my lifestyle, not just to diet for competition’.
In the past Sam attributed a lot of her unhappiness to her weight, believing that if she was skinnier her problems would go away.
‘I don’t agree on cutting weight for a division. I think you should fight where you are at.’
Sam drinks a lot of water, easily getting through 5 litres a day, losing 2-3 kilos in sweat in training. Because of this she has manipulated water in her weight loss, but she would never recommend water loading as it is so bad for your kidneys. You can’t rely on this method as your body can’t sustain this much stress regularly. Also, each division fights differently, the lighter girls are a lot faster and the heavier girls have their pressure game. Cutting weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as overall you are just running at a deficit, and therefore not fighting your best.
Photos by @maggieleftphoto
Sam tore her hamstring in February this year (2018) at the British Nationals.
‘It was absolutely soul destroying, because I was on such a roll.’
Sam says she didn’t do a proper warm up, and fought a few hours later than she was meant to, had a lassoo inverted and stretched her out and felt the whole hamstring go. She had to crawl off the mat. She hasn’t been injured since 2014 when she tore her MCL and had to take 6 months off. Sam tell us that it wasn’t the pain that was so awful, it was the heartbreak. Luckily it wasn’t the belly of the muscle that tore, but the tendon between the two hamstrings, so no surgery, but she had to take 2 months off training. She tore it again in training as she started too soon.
Lesson: A l w a y s warm up!
Warm up: 1 hour
Sam likes to spar before she competes. Even if there is no space in the warm up area, she’s going to roll into you if you don’t move.
1. Really good stretch and mobility dynamic warm up
2. Drill what you want to work on
3. Specific sparing - main thing is to get out of breath and being ok with it.
To feel the weight on you and feel somebody strong. It’s training the body to relax and deal with the adrenaline.
4. Then Brad and Sam will roll - great to have a partner to train with before because they know how much to give, somebody with experience.
5. Then self belief, headphones and GO. Likes to listen to song that makes her want to dance, important to be completely relaxed.
Future Plans: Sam’s Plan!
She wants to compete for the rest of the year and next year until Worlds. She is also on a little crusade of her own...Black belt women signing up for competitions and collecting default medals. Sam wants to start signing up for these competitions so that there is someone to fight, not wanting to be a ‘keyboard warrior’, she wants to act. There was a woman who came 2nd in the world in IBJJF and was given eight grand because she collected default medals. Sam wants to take these people out!
She also believes that there shouldn’t be 10 minute rounds in the IBJJF tournaments for black belts, instead it should be 6 minutes like Abu Dhabi, and you shouldn’t be able to close with your teammates, and instead fight them early on.
Photo by @helenacurtis
Photo by @jiujitsukyouzin
Photo by @adwjjt
Photo by @maggieleftphoto
Training with girls and guys:
Before coming to Fightzone, Sam had only ever had male training partners, finding girls take it personally when she destroys them.
‘How can we have an exchange without her thinking I’m smashing her? In competition training I don’t like to fight the girls because I roll really hard and I don’t worry about hurting the guys. But when we train together it’s about getting something mutually beneficial, I can be working on a more technical level and trying new stuff. Girls can be so clicky.’
Sam has experienced some guys going too rough, i.e. someone cross faced her from the back and cracked her jaw, he apologised but then did it again. So she yelled at him. Sam is a role model for many people, and feels like she should be leading to way for a lot of people, and so wants to be a good ambassador.
‘If it’s a question of safety, it comes down to having a good relationship with your coach. If there is someone who goes a bit crazy, choose not to go with them, say no. If you have to fight, then you defend yourself. It doesn’t matter what colour belt you have around your waist, you are still part of the community, and in a position to say ‘look, I don’t appreciate you going a bit rough with me. You need to understand how to roll with women.’
‘It shows a lot when you have a lot of girls in your academy because it shows that they feel safe. Women won’t go if they don’t like it. Harassment of women is a whole other topic.’
‘There is nothing special about me. I learn so much from competing, how my body handles pressure and adrenaline and the nerves and having the self belief. Nobody thinks they are ready.’
‘Let go, our mind is the worst, it doesn’t make any sense to me. We have a human body and a brain and we have a mind that tells us we can’t do anything. I have a little voice in my head knocking my confidence all the time. When you go to compete you learn to manage these thoughts.’
Photo by @tcje_photography
Photo by @polaris_professional
Video by @thegrappleclub