Soldotna jiu-jitsu champ is just 15 but she's got a choke-hold on her sport

A 15-year-old Soldotna girl is crushing the jiu-jitsu world and she's not done yet.

Elisabeth Clay, a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, recently won two gold medals at the Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF championship, the largest jiu-jitsu tournament in North America.

Now she is preparing for the most prestigious tournament in the world — next month's the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation's World Championships.

While other teens her age are just hoping for a passing grade on their next algebra exam or wondering who to ask to the next school dance, Clay pursues jiu-jitsu with a single-mindedness that puts her in the training room for as many as eight hours a day. Since learning jiu-jitsu in 2012, she has logged more than 3,000 training hours. Her coach, George Grossman, said Clay trains like a professional athlete.

That's one reason why the purple- and blue-haired champion regularly faces competitors who are older, heavier and higher-ranked — and wins.

"She's a very driven individual," Grossman said. "She trains very hard for her age. She trains like a professional athlete would.

"She loves jiu-jitsu, which is one of the reasons she's been able to go far with it."

Clay started taking classes at Soldotna's Redemption Mixed Martial Arts when she was 12.

She had spent time in gymnastics before then, but the classes weren't offering enough for her, said mom Stephanie. And so Clay looked for another sport to pursue.

"My older brother wanted to do MMA and I had recently quit gymnastics, so we were looking for something to do," Clay said. "So, we were looking around for somewhere to do MMA, and we found Redemption MMA and I ended falling in love with the jiu-jitsu there."

It didn't take long for her new-found love to reward her with hardware. Within a year, Clay was competing and winning medals. She has collected more than 10 medals in the three years she has been competing.

"My first tournament I competed at was state, and I got second," Clay said. "And then I competed in U.S. Opens the same year (2013) and I got first."

Jiu-jitsu is a form of martial arts that specializes in grappling, Grossman said. Competitors used techniques and moves to get to a position where they can use a "finishing move," such as a choke or joint lock, to force their opponent to tap out.

Clay progressed quickly through the 13 belts available for youths. Athletes aren't officially allowed into the adult ranks until the year they turn 16, but by the time she was 15, Clay was competing against adults when it was permitted. She even beat an opponent with a purple belt, the third belt in the adult progression.

Early last month at Anchorage Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Clay tested for her adult blue belt, the second belt in the adult ranks. The final challenge required her to go through what's called the shark tank.

Shark tanking is as rough as it sounds — the athlete must face numerous opponents in six-minute rounds with little break time. Every new opponent comes in fresh.

"It helps prepare you to push through even when you're completely exhausted," Clay said. "You're still having to use your technique because when you're that tired, you're not going to have hardly any strength left, so it's all technique."

Surviving the shark tank and receiving her promotion was a long time coming for Clay, who had been competing above her belt ranking for months. Two weeks before her promotion, she won two blue-belt golds at the Pan Am championships in Irvine, California.

The Pan Ams were her biggest challenge to date. Clay won her first gold medal in the juvenile heavyweight class and claimed her second one in the open division, where she faced competitors from all weight classes, including the super heavyweight division.

"I was super happy to be competing because I'd (hurt) my calf like two weeks before, so I hadn't done any jiu-jitsu for that entire time," Clay said. "So first of all, I was happy to just be able to go out and do jiu-jitsu, much less win double golds.

"And the trip overall was the funnest trip that I've been on as far as traveling out of state to competitions.''

Even when she's in the gym for eight hours, Clay doesn't get bored or too tired, Grossman said. And the nature of the sport allows athletes like Clay to train long and hard without hurting themselves.

"As opposed to other martial arts, particularly striking martial arts, we can train hard every night and not get injured," Grossman said. "If you were training in kick boxing or a karate, or things like that, you can practice the moves, but you can't really hit each other as hard as you want to every night because you would die.

"In jiu-jitsu, we can train all of our moves as hard as we want to any night of the week. We tap out, start over and no one's the worse for the wear."

That works for Clay, who can't get enough jiu-jitsu. When she isn't training, her other hobbies and activities are connected to the sport. She is learning Portuguese in school to prepare for potential competitions in Brazil, and she cross trains by practicing Muay Thai. She also helps coach younger athletes at Redemption MMA.

Though the June 1-5 world championships in Long Beach, California, will mark Clay's biggest competition to date, they are not her final goal.

"I'd love to do jiu-jitsu professionally and do it for the rest of my life," she said. "One of the goals is to get to black belt and be a world champion, but jiu-jitsu is a lifelong thing. It's not like a lot of other sports (where) when you hit your 20s or 30s you kind of stop.

"Jiu-jitsu is my life."

Stephan Wiebe

Stephan Wiebe writes about all things Alaska sports.