'You either win or you learn': a tale of resilience

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Timothy Kim
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
She traded tax forms in a sterile office for strikes and grapples in an auditorium surrounded by peers cheering her on.

On Feb. 20, 2016, Johnson realized that she took the first step to making the sport her own. She entered her first Jiu-Jitsu competition.

Johnson gripped her opponent's collar. She could feel the girl struggling to wrap her legs around her neck; an incoming triangle choke. Instinctively, Johnson applied the countermeasures to keep it from happening. A success.

She held on tight and rose to lift her opponent off the ground. Then, something happened.

Johnson looked up at the fluorescent lights as she tried to keep her chin under the leg that was suddenly sprawled across her chest. What was happening?

"Get out of the arm bar!" she heard her coach screaming.

"Oh no." Panic began to set in. She struggled, she tried to move, and alleviate the tension on her arm that seems to be getting tighter with every passing second.

"Don't panic, Mariah. Breathe," she told herself in her coach's voice. She remembered the training. The weeks of cutting, running and being choked out.

She inhaled and oxygen began to clear her head. Johnson mustered up a quick burst of strength and began to roll forward. Her mind was clear; she knew what she was doing.

A pop echoed through her body, starting from her arm. She stopped. She raised her free hand up to her opponent's leg and tapped out. The match was over.

Her opponent's hands flew up, held by the referee. The winner was declared.

Johnson hugged her opponent and thanked her for teaching her something new. She walked toward her team, bowing out as she left the mat, and into the arms of her family, her Jiu-Jitsu family.

They knew. They've all been there. They've all had that loss. But none of them would be there to greet her if they hadn't displayed the same strength of heart she displayed that day.

Johnson stood stronger. Better. Learned.

Most may know Johnson, a value-added tax officer from the 52nd Force Support Squadron VAT office, an agency on base that handles the VAT relief program to offset the difference of what Airmen pay here compared to the U.S. But they may not know that she also practices Jiu-Jitsu in a free class on base. She competed in her first Jiu-Jitsu fight and received a belt promotion at the Submissao competition at Karlsruhe, Germany.

From a friend's recommendation, Johnson began practicing in November 2015. Initially she viewed it as a stress reliever; but soon realized it was not just a routine workout, but as something more meaningful in her life.

"Jiu-Jitsu has been the most helpful thing in my life," Johnson said. "It's taught me how to stay calm in any situation and to stay positive. With every bad thing, there's always something good that comes out of it."

Resilience is a crucial concept the Air Force encourages its Airmen and community to practice. Johnson continues to practice this despite a challenge she recently faced.

"When I first started BJJ, I was going through some hard times in my personal life that were dragging me down mentally and physically," Johnson said. "Jiu-Jitsu taught me different coping mechanisms. No matter what life threw at me, there would always be a way to keep moving forward and essentially fighting for what I want and getting to the place where I needed to be."

"If I gave this up, I don't know what I'd do," Johnson added. "Even if I never win, I'm fine with it, because this is what I love to do, and I'm helping people do what they love as well. Without me continuing to compete or fight, others won't be able to compete or win a match or learn something from me."

Johnson also pointed out that the class isn't just for stress relief, it also provided a community that makes her feel welcome.

"Every single training partner is a part of my family," Johnson said. "I can be around the people who I love because they go through the same struggles and know how it is. They are my family. We're all doing the same sport, we're all training the same way. We may be at different belt levels, but we were all once white belts, so there's always a mutual level of respect. After a sparring session, we become friends again and say, 'Thank you for teaching me something new.' Jiu-Jitsu is my therapy."

Johnson said she learned a lot about remaining calm and focused during sparring sessions. But, through practice sessions, she learned something else from the sport.

"You don't really lose; you either win or you learn," Johnson said. "Failure is not an option to me."

Johnson stated that Jiu-Jitsu focuses not on strength, but on technique to overcome an opponent. Mind games, Johnson said, are a major factor during a match as competitors must remain calm and think about their next move even though they are being choked out.

"When you panic, your mind clouds, and your judgment goes out the window," Johnson said. "You start thinking about the worst-case scenario, but there's always a way to get out of a submission and to submit your opponent. In life, things get thrown at you. Are you going to panic or accept it? The key is to deal with it and to move on."

Johnson stated that she thought she was going to feel angry or sad when she tapped out of the match, but surprised herself as her mind was flooded with the thought of how she actually competed in a match; something a lot of people wouldn't want to do. She became overwhelmed.

"Rickson Gracie (Gracie Jiu-Kitsu 8th degree black and red belt and retired mixed martial artist) said, 'True strength is not always shown through victory. Stand up, try again and display strength of heart,'" Johnson said. "That's what I did, and that's what I'll continue to do."

Like most before Jiu-Jitsu, Johnson said that she used to struggle with issues and concerns in her life. But after having joined the Jiu-Jitsu class, she's learned many things from the art that have helped her deal with her problems.

"I'm a lot more confident in who I am," Johnson said. "I can achieve something whether it's winning or gaining knowledge. Either way, I feel like I can achieve something and I can grasp onto it quicker. My brain isn't as clouded when I'm placed in a sticky situation. If someone throws something on me, I feel like I can handle it."

For Johnson, Jiu-Jitsu is not just a sport or a martial arts class she attends to stay physically fit, but a way for her to keep herself in tune with herself to practice resiliency and fitness in all aspects of her life.

"If you love what you're doing, then don't stop," Johnson said. "If you fall, get right back up. Continue whatever you were doing, struggle with it and just continue. There's always a light at the end of the tunnel. When problems arise I am more focused on staying calm and understanding I cannot control what is thrown at me I can only control how I solve the problem and how I react to it under stress."