Sport

Jess Fraser’s countercultural approach to the male-dominated sport of Brazilian jiu jitsu rejects the reverence of lineage. By Jenny Valentish.

Jiu jitsu coach Jess Fraser

Jess Fraser (in blue) coaching at her annual Australian Girls in Gi camp.
Credit: Fiona Walsh

When I tell Jess Fraser I’m making up a T-shirt for the gym that says “I’ve got a trainer, thanks”, she laughs. Jess is the founder of Australian Girls in Gi, a group that focuses on keeping girls and women involved in Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ), and she and her sister Anna Brown – who competes in strongman – have talked about making their own T-shirts that say “Unsolicited Advice”. “Then you can just point to it when a man comes up,” Jess says.

Fraser has rolled with more female athletes than any other Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt in the world, but she waited until she had that belt before offering advice outside her client base. She’s head coach of the women’s team at Burak Sarman Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Campbellfield, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, coach at Vanguard BJJ in Richmond and beginners’ coach at Nexus Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Coburg North. She founded Australian Girls in Gi 10 years ago, and the group now has about 2500 members.

When Fraser started out, there were few women to roll with, and if you knew of a woman at a different club, you might be actively discouraged from practising with her out of loyalty to your own club’s lineage. So Fraser bought $1000 worth of mats and stashed them on a roof in Little Bourke Street in the heart of Melbourne’s central business district, dragging them down at lunchtime to the yoga studio she coached at, to practise. She gradually built up a community of women through a whisper network.

“Those women are now the black belts across Australia,” she says, “because the kind of person who will persist in seeking out training is a stayer. We upskilled each other. You only need to formalise your training structure if you want to move forward with belt ranking.”

Fraser credits her countercultural approach to growing up in Canberra in the 1980s and 1990s, which fashioned her with a DIY ethos.

“Mum was a single parent and she gave us all the freedom in the world but she didn’t give us money, because she didn’t have any,” Fraser says. “At the beginning of summer she would give us a season pass to the local pool, so we’d ride our bikes three kays there and then just jump off the tower all day because we didn’t have the money for lessons. That vibe transferred to skateboarding – you’d just work it out. Then you’d want music so you’d find a friend that had a car and they’d bring a stereo system, and then that formalised into having bands there, which became punk gigs at the park. There wasn’t a lot to do in Canberra, so if you wanted a scene, you had to create it.”

Fraser founded Australian Girls in Gi in part because women are a minority within BJJ, but also because she wanted to bring a spirit of independence to the sport. Most clubs will fastidiously trace their training lineage back to the Gracie family in Brazil that adapted the martial art from Japan, through quite shaggy family trees. It’s kept the system resolutely patriarchal.

Fraser’s own experiences rising through the ranks include being publicly derided by a renowned BJJ master she’d flown to the United States to train with. He labelled her a “gypsy” because she had received the patches on her gi from a variety of teams she’d admired and trained with. “He pulled me out in front of the whole team and said, ‘I can tell by the way you roll you will never let anyone be your master,’ ” she says, laughing. “I’d bought his books and had him on a pedestal, but this was designed to humiliate me. There’s a word in jiu jitsu – ‘creonte’. It’s the surname of a character that was on a South American soap opera and he was a traitor. If you go against this idea that lineage must be adhered to, you’re labelled as disloyal, as ‘creonte’.”

Another time, the married head of a lineage system hit on Fraser. “You’re meant to have these dudes’ photos on your walls and then if you turn them down, they’re foul to you,” she says. “There are all these memes like, ‘You don’t start jiu jitsu – you inherit a family.’ If you’re going to talk about jiu jitsu family, well then some of us have broken homes. You don’t have to be loyal to family if your dad is sleazy! Get adopted! You switch lanes, not because you’re a creonte, but because you can’t be loyal to the system for ethical reasons.”

Fraser doesn’t get involved in the decisions of her Australian Girls in Gi members if they’re considering changing clubs. “I encourage them to talk to other women, but it isn’t my place to say whether I find those teams problematic,” she says. “My business is keeping them in the sport.”

Frustrated that at mixed-gender championships in Australia, such as those held by the Australian Federation of Brasilian Jiu Jitsu (AFBJJ), the women’s category seemed to her to be seen as a “bolt-on” to the main competition, Fraser now runs 16 annual competitions for women across the country, for ages “five to 105”. Whereas at the AFBJJ championships a woman might get one or two matches, at Fraser’s events they are guaranteed six to eight matches, and as there are more women signing up, they can be better matched by belt and weight. As a result, dozens of Australian women have gone on to compete internationally, and have won multiple world titles.

Every January there’s also a women-only camp, held on private beaches and islands on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. And while Fraser has been criticised, often on social media, for discriminating against men, she did once try creating a mixed-gender event, but neither men nor women were interested in buying tickets. The women-only camp, now in its 10th year, attracts about 100 female fighters, making it the largest women-only camp in the world. This year, 13 female black belts turned up to mentor.

When a friend suggested to Fraser that Australian Girls in Gi is a feminist organisation, the thought had never occurred to her. For Fraser, her women-only group and events are about practicality. Women and girls need other women and girls to roll with but, also, having these spaces allows vulnerable women who cannot reveal they are training – for religious, cultural or personal safety reasons – to do so. She’s particularly proud of her training group of Muslim women.

Fraser has noticed that when gyms market their jiu jitsu classes towards women, they tend to emphasise the sport as self-defence rather than a fulfilling mission of personal excellence. Indeed, after having a PT session with Fraser, I check out my nearest women-only class and am shown a variety of ways to evade someone trying to drag me into a van.

“I’m not doing it for self-defence,” Fraser clarifies. “Sure, it’s a bonus in that it gives me confidence, but it’s about wanting to achieve excellence at something that’s really challenging.”

She thinks CrossFit got its marketing right by focusing on athletes regardless of gender. Market research from 2014 found CrossFit attracts similar numbers of men and women, and countless fitness articles have been published on that phenomenon.

“We need to replicate everything CrossFit did,” says Fraser, “with the focus being on reaching personal bests, working towards a competition, and being part of a community that’s hardcore but not beyond you.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2020 as "Women on a roll".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jenny Valentish
is the author of Woman of Substances: A Journey into Addiction and Treatment.

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe