By Evelyn Sutton
Photos By Cathryn Ivy
She is the contrast of two very different life paths and yet, Cathryn finds perfect balance in the juxtaposition. We sat down with the registered nurse from Pennsylvania and high-level Jiujiteira to talk about life, love and Jiu-Jitsu, her hopes and dreams for 2021, her views on women in BJJ, the driving force that keeps her so relentlessly motivated to train and compete plus her unique choice of pets.
Meet Cathryn Ivy. She’s a nurturing nurse by day and a submission expert Jiujiteira by night. She lives in Downingtown, Chester County, Pennsylvania, a historic borough about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia and trains at Paramount Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu where she earned her purple belt last year under Professor Brad Court.
The 29 years old full-time nurse has always been an athlete who loves sports and martial arts. When Cathryn was younger, her mother enrolled her in Chinese martial arts. Back then she didn’t know about MMA or Jiu-Jitsu. That changed six years ago when she met her boyfriend AJ Discianni. He was a new white belt absolutely obsessed with BJJ. “We would be hanging out and next thing you know, AJ would put me in triangle to see if I could get out. He would say: ‘you should really try this’ and he begged me for months to come to class. I was hesitant to get started. I was worried it was going to be expensive and I didn’t think I would have time to train. But he insisted and insisted, so finally I gave in, went to class and loved it. That first class changed my life. That was almost 5 years ago.”
Cathryn was hooked and from the start she knew that Jiu-Jitsu wasn’t going to be just a casual exercise regiment for her, much like AJ, she became obsessed with it and wanted to take her practice to the next level.
An avid competitor by nature, Cathryn didn’t exactly start out winning competitions. She shares how she lost four times to the same girl, by the same submission. The loses motivated her to train harder, get better and return to the competition circuit when she was ready to win. “I love to compete. I was one month in as a newbie white belt and decided I was going to put myself out there. Now I look back and think that was probably premature on my part (laughs). At the time I thought, ‘I’m not really ready, but in a way I am ready.’ I lost four times to the same girl by the same submission, arm bar. It inspired me to train harder and learn how strong I was.”
This year, Ivy was part of the historic Fight2Win 162 all-women card in Miami, Florida. “That was a one-of-a-kind experience. When the opportunity to participate came about, I was like: ‘I’m getting on this card.”
“I can’t tell you how surreal the experience was, it was unparalleled because Fight2Win puts on an amazing show. They have great lights and music, and the environment just makes everyone excited. They really do a great job elevating women in the sport.”
“Being surrounded by that super high level of kick-ass female athletes was insane. Everywhere you looked, there were savages, talented women so confident in themselves, in their bodies and their Jiu-Jitsu. It was inspirational. To be part of that event, to feel that energy and share the stage with such big names in women’s Jiu-Jitsu… I was beside myself. And then to win on top of that felt so great. I had my boyfriend and my best friend with me and that was the icing on the cake.”
When asked about the future of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and what can we expect to see happening with the ladies, she had this to share:
“I think women are going to do something really big for the sport. I don’t think that we are going anywhere anytime soon, and that’s how it should be. Women deserve equal pay in Jiu-Jitsu and there should be equal opportunities for female athletes. In my opinion, women put on some of the most exciting fights that this sport can offer. Women are more scrappy, creative and display a different kind of athletic intelligence. We’re smaller most of the time, so we have to be very technical. I’m excited to see what this is going to bring to BJJ as more women come into their own as athletes. Even in the last five years that I have been at my gym I have seen major evolution. When I started, there was maybe two or three of us, and now there’s at least 20. It’s only going to get better for us as women in BJJ continues to grow.”
Even if you are not the most athletic type and have no ambitions to compete, Cathryn believes that all women should at least give Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a try. She goes on to explain how Jiu-Jitsu is the most practical martial art when it comes to self-defense, as well as being a great physical workout and effective stress release outlet.
“It’s important to know at least some basic Jiu-Jitsu for self-defense. Personally, I feel a lot better about traveling on my own or being out late at night and it’s a great workout. My body is in the best shape it has ever been. It’s also wonderful for the mind. Training puts you in a good place and you feel a sense of community,
a sense of belonging.”
At Paramount, Cathryn enjoys the friendly atmosphere and does her best to make newcomers feel welcome. “I have been working at my gym, Paramount Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for a few years now. And the biggest thing that happens when new women come in to try a class is that they say how scary it is to go into a male-dominated sport. It makes them feel unsure of themselves. Often, they worry that is just not going to work out.”
“I do my best to let them know I understand and sympathize with them. It can be scary to try something new and embrace such a different environment. But it’s a tremendous opportunity for personal growth. When you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you learn you’re actually a lot stronger mentally, physically and emotionally than you ever thought you were. That happens to me at competitions but whether you’re in the gym strictly as a hobbyist or a mom who is looking to learn self-defense and workout, your greatest competition and your biggest fear is yourself. Once you are able to put that aside, there’s nothing to stop you.”
“I hope more men and women who currently train at a gym, reach out and take the newcomers under their wings for those first few weeks, make them feel part of the gym family. Jiu-Jitsu is not just a sport or a skill it’s also an art form. There’s a lot to be said about the human component and the discipline of it. Part of the lifestyle is embracing people that feel uncomfortable and helping them feel included.”
Outside of training, she follows a happy hectic work schedule where she is out the door by 5:30am, three days a week for her job as a nurse. On a typical shift, Cathryn is at the hospital for over 13 hours, yet somehow, she still finds the energy to drive straight from the hospital to the gym to catch the 8:30pm Jiu-Jitsu class. “Training is my main outlet. I can’t imagine going home after a long shift and not training.”
After training she goes home and picks up her dog from the neighbor’s house. It’s no exaggeration to say Ivy loves animals. Particularly, exotic ones. Her dog is not her only pet. Ivy and Discianni also share their home with a pet raccoon, a pet skunk and a rabbit.
“It’s a crazy fun lifestyle, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I hate being bored. If I’m not doing something, I’m napping. I just want to stay busy.”
The incredible rise of women’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that we are currently experiencing is largely due to the fact that – over a decade ago – a few very determined trailblazing ladies took upon themselves to transform the landscape of the male-dominated sport and fight not just for titles but also for the respect female athletes deserve and for equal opportunities in the sport. Along the way, there were many men who supported women’s Jiu-Jitsu and helped pave the way, facilitating training and opening doors that weren’t available before.
Cathryn enjoys the same support from her boyfriend. Jiu-Jitsu is not only a huge part of her life but it is also a cornerstone of their relationship. AJ Discianni is a brown belt who trains at Paramount with Cathryn, teaches and also competes at major tournaments such as Fight2Win. She credits him for first introducing her to BJJ.
When training with your significant other at such a high competitive level, things get intense. There are always ups and downs. For Cathryn and AJ there has definitely been more ups. She describes what it’s like to train with him.
“He is by far my biggest supporter and source of inspiration. He started Jiu-Jitsu about a year and a half before I did and much of my game has developed from his game. Whenever there is something new that he learns, he shares that with me and I work it into my game. He is the number one person who is always in my corner hyping me up and getting me ready.”
“Sometimes I actually think it’s pretty funny because I follow women’s grappling networks on social media and many of the women whose husbands train say that they can not roll together. It’s not good for their relationship. For AJ and I, we roll really well together. He’s a more compact guy comparatively so there isn’t a huge size or weight difference. And he knows intuitively how to roll with me.”
“We do have our days when maybe we are both getting ready for tournaments and we are both feeling more aggressive, sometimes we get mad at each other but for the most part, everything has been great. I depend on him. If I go train or for some reason compete without him it’s really hard because he is my favorite person to have there.”
Besides the pets, the home life of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu couple isn’t much different than what they experience at the gym.
“When we’re not training at the gym, we are training at home. We have mats setup in our basement so we can train and go over stuff whenever we want to. We’re both really lucky that we are on the same page and passionate about Jiu-Jitsu. If we weren’t, I don’t think we could make it work. We both want to open a gym together one day. We’re both very active competitors, and this is definitely a significant part of our life together.”
When it comes to her BJJ game, there are a few things Cathryn is really focused on in hopes of elevating her strategy and technique this year.
“I’m smaller. I fluctuate between 110lbs and 115lbs and I find myself on the bottom all the time, not by choice. Last year, I feel like I really focused on learning how to be strong on the bottom and in all kinds of lesser positions that most people don’t want to be in. I focused on finding opportunity. A big part of my game now plays off on having excellent defense skills. I can defend most attacks and from there come back and attack. That makes me a very reactive player. I like to attack off of other people’s missed opportunities and that’s what I’m focusing on.”
Being in the trenches as a nurse, particularly this past year as a world pandemic broke out, has prepared Cathryn for the battlefield that is Jiu-Jitsu. However, how does a nurse balance these two very contrasting aspects of her personality? During the day she is taking care of people, being loving, compassionate and nurturing. Then after hours, Cathryn turns on the necessary aggression to perform well in this sport and the warrior wakes up ready for battle.
“I’m a pretty bubbly person to begin with but I definitely get frustrated and overwhelmed, just like anyone else. And nursing, especially this year with a pandemic, has obviously been challenging. I spend a lot of time with patients who aren’t getting better, instead they are getting sicker and some of them are not the nicest people. That’s when I have to be extra compassionate and at the end of a tough shift, I’m feeling emotionally drained and stressed out, I honestly can’t wait to train. I’m so ready to flip over because Jiu-Jitsu helps me release everything I felt during the day.”
She emphasizes that trust in your teammates and feeling comfortable where you train is one of the key elements necessary to succeed in Jiu-Jitsu. “I trust everybody at my gym and we can go hard if we want to, or flow roll, they’re down. And when I get there, it’s time to roll. I actually feel like it’s the easiest thing for me to flip the switch because I’m so excited to be able to let loose and train with my friends after a long day at work.”
Some women, particularly in the beginning, struggle with feeling comfortable with the level of controlled aggression required to learn BJJ. They are afraid of getting injured or hurting their partners, as a result, they end up training too lightly. Cathryn’s advice is to trust the process and let go of fear. “It’s important to find support and build trusting relationships with your training partners. It definitely starts at your home gym and the culture behind it, because if you don’t feel comfortable there, it’s only going to get harder to learn and grow.”
“Personally, I make it a point to know when we have new women come in to train or really anybody new come in. I’m super welcoming. I want them to be happy and comfortable on the mats. I want them to take things slowly, learn some of the etiquette and the discipline of Jiu-Jitsu. But then I also want them to know that when we start drilling, you can definitely hold your own when I attack. I want you to do what you can to defend yourself and fight back. You’re not hurting me. Technique is something we build up over time, and I don’t think most people are just able to jump into that until they have developed some level of trust with their teammates. It’s essential that your gym is a place that makes you feel safe and at home.”
In male-dominated environments, complaints of sexual harassment and gender discrimination are part of the panorama. Although Cathryn has never felt herself a victim, she has an experience to share that other Jiujiteiras may have come across and offers her advice on how to navigate it.
“Personally, I haven’t had any uncomfortable experiences with male coaches or training partners. I never felt harassed or discriminated against but interestingly enough, I did have some issues with wives of students. It’s a situation where the wife doesn’t train and due to a lack of understanding of the gym culture and the nature of the physical closeness of Jiu-Jitsu she worries something more than just training is going on between her husband and female partners or coaches. I’ve been in a serious relationship for the entire duration of my BJJ career, to me that jealousy doesn’t exist but for others whose partners don’t train, it can be a real issue. Some people aren’t very trusting.”
“My advice for ladies who have experienced harassment or discrimination is to be mindful of their interactions with males at the gym, especially a white belt woman who is just starting out and still learning the landscape. If you feel uncomfortable during training, the best course of action is to not roll with that individual and immediately tell someone in charge. It’s essential that your concern gets escalated so it can be dealt with and people understand that what they are doing won’t be tolerated.”
On the mats, this creative athlete plays a dynamic game of takedowns, guard passes and sweeps but she admits that she is not the best at going for points. Cathryn considers herself a submission player. “I would rather sit back for a leg lock and come up to pass if that lends itself to a better submission opportunity then win by points any day. When I win by points, I don’t even feel like I won as opposed to wining by submission.”
Although this strategy has been serving her well, Cathryn is ready to work on getting better this year at points and pursue her plans of participating at more big tournaments.
“I am so excited for the future! I’m more of a NoGi player and my plan for this year is to hit up all the big competitions. I’ve never been to World NoGi and I really want to go. I also want to compete at American National. Other than that, I’m trying to make my game more well-rounded. I want to continue to level up and grow the women’s program at my gym.”
Cathryn has a final message to all the Jiujiteiras out there, who may want to learn more about her journey or want to train – send her a message via her IG: cathryn_ivy. She loves the sisterhood of Jiu-Jitsu and wants to travel to at least 50 different gyms this year to train and meet other fellow Jiujiteiras.
“I love getting to know women in the sport. I love the sisterhood we have in BJJ and I love visiting other gyms. I want to get myself out there, meet new people and see what their gym cultures and communities are like, share with them what I got and learn from them as well. And if you are ever in the Chester County area, stop by our gym and get some training in with us.”
Cathryn also wanted to make sure to take this opportunity to send out a shout out to her coach Professor Brad Court and sponsor Hyperfly.
We hope to see Cathryn at a gym near us very soon. Perhaps she will bring her handsome and fluffy pet raccoon, Rocket, along with her and we can roll with him too!
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