[Nico Ball recently left her life as a teacher to train mixed martial arts full-time in Brazil. Originally from Pennsylvania, she attended George Mason University in Virginia and got her Masters degree studying the impact of martial arts-based social projects. She's now living the fighter's life and pursuing her dream to become a pro mixed martial artist, but has found a way to continue her interest in creating social change by helping organize The Tererê Kids Project, a nonprofit for the children living in poverty in the favela of Morro do Contagalo. The project is centered around jiu jitsu star Fernando Augusto da Silva, widely known by his nickname Tererê, who used the Gentle Art as a way to escape a life of crime. We asked her to send us periodic updates of how the Project is going.]
New Years is generally a time for fun and festivities but here in the favela of Cantagalo/Pavao/Pavaozinho, there has been no shortage of work. The Terere Kids Project ended the year in quite an epic fashion as we prepared to send our first sponsored athlete abroad to compete in IBJJF Pan Kids in California. The IBJJF is like the FIFA federation of the jiu jitsu world.
14-year-old Jhonathan Marques aka Moicano (Mohawk) has been tearing up the local BJJ competitions as an orange belt, but unfortunately, the 16-year-old age minimum keeps him out of most of the major IBJJF competitions and out of the major rankings. Pan Kids is the junior version of the Worlds and one of the most prestigious competitions for a kid Moicano's age. With only a month to go until the competition, we have been working nonstop to try to get him there, but it's not as easy as it may seem.
Competing in Worlds, Pan Ams, or Pan Kids requires a U.S. visa and acquiring one is a very expensive and time-consuming process. Brazilian athletes are often denied entry even after paying an extremely expensive and nonrefundable application fee. Then, on top of the visa fee, there's still the cost of plane tickets, accommodations, and other extraneous factors like making sure the kid gets fed.
It was my dream to spend 2016 organizing things at the project and getting the sponsorship necessary for him to compete in 2017. Ever since I started working for Terere, my life has boiled down to one miscellaneous adventure after another. So naturally, things didn't turn out how I planned.
One day as he was strolling out of the academy on his way to grab some Acai with some friends visiting from abroad Terere causally turned back.
"Oh yeah, I found a friend to pay [for] Moicano's ticket for Pan kids". I just stared at him shocked. It was the last thing that I expected him to say.
"What?" he laughed, "You think you're the only one hustling around here?" Then, just like that, he disappeared out of the door leaving me to gather my thoughts.
Never in a million years would I have thought that the project would be able to raise a couple thousand dollars in the few months leading up to February, but then again, when Terere sets his mind to something, he generally finds a way to make it happen. With the plane ticket taken care of and Terere's blessing bestowed, I went about finding ways to finance the rest of the trip for Moicano and his chaperone Professor Julio Nogueira.
Finding the rest of the sponsorship amongst friends in the jiu jitsu community to get Moicano to the U.S. turned out to be a lot easier than I thought. The FT academy receives a substantial amount of gringos that pass through while on vacation and Moicano has been systematically dismantling their guards and mercilessly berimboloing them. So when the time came, people from U.S., Australia, Poland, Germany, and France all clamored to help raise the US$700 that we needed to pay for the trip.
It was 2:30 A.M. in the morning before New Years Eve when I received the text message from Moicano.
"My name's in the brackets!"
And sure enough there it was, written out in point 10 Times New Roman: Jhonathan Pestanha Marques.
A lot of kids in Europe or the U.S. might take those three small words for granted but for a 14-year-old kid that comes from a single family home in a poor community it was the fruition of a lot of hard work and struggling.
With finances taken care of, I thought the hard part was over, but I was wrong.
It wasn't until I returned back to Rio for the holidays that I discovered that there is a thin line between creating a monster and the next world champion. While I had been training MMA in Curitiba, Moicano had been getting together with his friends and teachers in the Cantagalo community and training 2-3 times a day. With so much on the line, the holidays were rendered irrelevant.
New Year's day in Rio was a perfectly sunny summer's day. The previous weeks of rain finally gave way to a cloudless sky and Ipanema beach was packed with Gringos toting selfie sticks and unfortunate transients fighting over recycled beer cans. A few kids from the project were competing in an upcoming tournament, so we arranged to meet up for an afternoon training session to start off 2016 the right way.
I made my way to the project around 2 P.M. When I arrived, Moicano was already there talking with Caio Marques, Gabriel Barcelar (Moleza), Pablo (Navega) and Marcelinho. They were all 16 or under, but despite their tender age, they were all seasoned competitors.
I heard a loud bang as I was pulling on the pants to my kimono and looked up to see Moicano closing the academy door. It was also about the time that I realized the fans had all been cut off and the windows were securely latched down.
I calmly started to secure my belt around my waist. At least I think I looked calm because internally I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I was about to catch a serious beating from some teenagers.
We paired off and Moicano set the timer for 10-minute rounds. In Rio they have a common saying ninguem merece, or "no one deserves this". No one deserves 10-minute rolls, especially not in 90-degree weather on New Years day with the doors and the windows barricaded.
My first roll was with Caio Marques. Caio is 14-years-old and we're about the same size, but he is ridiculously strong. Normally we go neck and neck vying for position, but today that was not that case. I can't even blame the beating on last night's festivities because we were both at the same New Year's party at Terere's house, and he stayed up way later than I did playing Grand Theft Auto with Terere's nephews.
After 10 minutes of clinging to my dignity with every last ounce of my being, I bumped fists with Caio and sprawled out on the floor. Moicano told everyone to get a drink of water at which point Marcelinho, who recently received his blue belt, made his way towards the door to get some fresh air.
"Where do you think your going!" Moicano demanded. He was all smiles, but we all knew he wasn't kidding. Marcelino turned back and we resumed our training.
Up next was Pabalo aka Navega. Navega used to train with us at the project when I arrived two years ago, but he eventually opted to switch to the Checkmat social project run by Rico Vieira. Politics and team names may mean a lot to some people in Brazil, but Terere has always opened his academy up to all of his students, independent of what team they represent. Pablo, Moicano, and Moleza are often heading off to competitions together to help corner each other when they can't find any other adult or professor to go along with them. Now they are all in the process of trying to get their passports and visas so that they can travel to the U.S. and Europe and follow in the footsteps of local Cantagalo idols like Fernando Terere, Alan Finou, Bruno Matias, and Jackson Sousa.
After two more rolls we ended training. Moicano finally opened the door, letting in a refreshing burst of fresh air. Moleza went running towards the fans. When I asked why the hell he would set 10-minute rolls he just looked at me and smiled.
"Don't worry you won't even feel the conditioning in class anymore".
I was kidding.
At 14-years-old he was determined to be a World Champion and willing to make sacrifices that would waiver the determination of most adults. I couldn't have been more proud of them all. Like most people from the favela, they were born with the odds stacked against them, but instead of using poverty as an excuse to be mediocre they focused their energy on jiu jitsu, the sport that they have come to love.