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The world champion of “chess with bodies”

Rebecca Annan rolled her eyes when she was first told jiu-jitsu would change her life.

It was three years ago, when she’d been working out in a kickboxing gym, and a bloke suggested she try jujutsu (as it’s traditionally called - or jiu-jitsu if you’re a follower of the Brazilian version, like Annan).

But she gave it a crack, and from her first try she was hooked. And that bloke, Fabio Durello – a visiting Brazilian instructor - was right.

Annan, 32, is now the blue belt world champion in three divisions, after the sport jiu-jitsu world championships in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Annan won gold in the lightweight (under 66kg) gi and no-gi divisions, and in the openweight no-gi.  

For those unacquainted with this martial art, the gi is the traditional uniform – a heavy cotton jacket and pants. Gi divisions allow grabbing of the clothing; no-gi is grappling in shorts and a rash guard, with no gripping on to clothes permitted.

Annan was also second in the openweight gi and moved up to a purple belt during the competition.

Now she has her sights set on going one better next year and winning all four world titles that will be up for grabs. She also has her fingers crossed the sport is accepted into the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“I think every Kiwi kid grows up dreaming of one day being an Olympian,” she says.

Early on in Annan’s life, she dreamed that she would make it to the Olympics as a swimmer - a sport in which she won national titles and competed internationally. But as she grew tired of staring at the bottom of a pool, she turned to triathlon.

A busy life eventually put the brakes on that but, as she’s submerged herself in jiu-jitsu, Annan has also improved her life-work-train balance.

“It’s changed my mindset about what I can achieve in a day. It’s not about how much you train but how you train,” the Aucklander says.

Annan is passionate about her sport, loves the community aspect of the training and competing that goes with it, and is happy with how her work as a pilates teacher fits in, and even compliments, her jiu-jitsu.

She talks about how she is “the point of the sword”, and her coaches, Rafael Turnbull and Paulo Sorriso, are the knowledge and power that make up the blade.

“They are wonderful teachers who lead by example. They are a living example of how you should be, so they are inspiring to work with.”

Though she only took up the sport three years ago, Annan has raced through the belts while also slowly perfecting her own competitive style.

Jujutsu is a Japanese martial art, developed so an unarmed combatant might defeat the armed samurai. ‘Ju’ can mean soft, gentle, flexible or pliable, while ‘jutsu’ means art or technique.

Brazilian, or sport jiu-jitsu, was developed by Mitsuyo Maeda, a celebrated Japanese judo exponent who brought the martial art to Brazil in 1914. It’s this iteration of the sport that Annan follows and that the Olympics may embrace.

She likens it to a combination of judo and wrestling, or “chess with bodies”.

“It’s an intellectual challenge. It’s like 3D chess. It’s the sort of art you have to do every day to be good at,” she says. “You can do it a little bit, but if you want to be proficient, you have to train a lot.”

Annan trains at least once every day, which is why she has raced up through the belts and is now not only the national champion, but the world’s best in her belt and weight division.

“If I’m going to do something I will do it the best that I can,” she states.

Lightweight fights last six minutes, with heavyweight bouts a minute shorter. You can win by accumulating points, or forcing your opponent to submit.

Annan prefers the submission route, especially when she confronts much heavier women in the openweight division, and says her tactics involve self-control and “moments of explosive aggression”.

She smiles at the suggestion she doesn’t look like a fighter, countering that by saying she’s always been competitive and likes to win.

There is a fading purple hue across the bridge of her nose that testifies to the physicality of her sport, while a broken arm suffered in 2016 is evidence of what can happen when things go wrong.

But things have generally gone right for Annan. Six months after she broke her arm, she won a national title, and there seems little doubt she will go as far as she can in the sport.

Having enjoyed her time being part of the 50-strong New Zealand team that finished a very respectable fourth at the world champs (which featured 3000 fighters), Annan is excited about returning to Los Angeles for next year’s championships.

“Like so many of our sports, the skill level in New Zealand is very high. It’s why we do so well,” she says.

“And to represent New Zealand is such a neat thing to be able to do. The guys are already talking about having our own haka for next year.”

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