ALBUQUERQUE – If you need to find national jiu jitsu champ Sarah Souza, you’ll probably find her on the lower level of Cottonwood Mall, working up a sweat throwing people around at the Carlson Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy owned by her folks, Daniel and Gabriela Souza.
Sarah, 13, is a great example of someone whose actions speak louder than words; she’s very soft-spoken in person, but a demon on the mats.
By the way, she’s also a Teen 2 champion, having returned earlier this month to her Rio Rancho home after winning a title at the American National Kids International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation championships in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Her Carlson Gracie kids team also outpointed the field to take home the team title.
Sarah’s only been competing in jiu jitsu since 2018 and said she has no interest in other sports. During the pandemic, she worked out in the family’s garage.
Her primary reason for getting into jiu jitsu was self-defense, but her long-term goal is to change the lives of domestic-abuse survivors, of which she and her mother, Gabriela Souza, are.
“My family and me are domestic-violence survivors,” she said, “so we decided to join jiu jitsu for self-defense.”
Gabriela’s life has seemingly turned 180 degrees, and a recent Facebook post pretty much confirms it: “Anger brought me to Jiu Jitsu. The peace it brings me now makes me stay. It was never about competition for me. I’m already winning in all other aspects of my life. I get too burnt out to compete, but I did this for my husband who is no longer able to compete. I also had my girls with me, which made it that much more fun.”
The abuse for them began when Sarah was in preschool and continued until she was 8 or 9, as she recalls, with household moves from Las Cruces to Albuquerque, and then to Rio Rancho.
She’s a lot safer now with her stepfather, Daniel Souza, a native of Brazil, who owns the academy at the mall with her mother. Daniel has been fighting jiu jitsu style since he was 2 – he’s 47 now.
Sarah, a yellow belt in the Fighting Teen Division, has attended three formal schools, including the Sandoval Academy for Bilingual Education (SABE, in Rio Rancho), but now is being home-schooled as a high school freshman, a benefit for someone who needs time away from a traditional classroom to compete.
Even though she’s barely a teen, she is looking forward to staying in New Mexico to attend college, “so probably UNM, and I want to be a veterinarian and a professor of jiu jitsu,” she said.
The family has five cats and two dogs, so she’s no stranger to four-legged friends.
“I go to school from 9 in the morning to one o’clock, and then I work on jiu jitsu,” Sarah said. Sarah works out at least six days a week, usually for four hours each time. Gabriela, who grew up in El Paso, creates 15% of the curriculum for her daughter.
“She has been ranked No. 1 in the state of New Mexico,” Daniel explained. “We compete in a lot of local tournaments out-of-state, as well – in Texas and Arizona.”
“It’s amazing” to be a national champ, she said. “I couldn’t believe it, when I won and I’ve been trying to be a national champion or an international champion since I was a gray belt.”
IBJJF has the most prestige, Daniel noted, himself a sixth-degree black belt in jiu jitsu, aiming to a coral belt, seventh degree, which will take another six or so years.
“(Sarah’s) next challenge will be Kids’ Pan-Ams in Orlando, Florida,” he said. “It’s kind of like the world championship for kids.”
He estimated the single-elimination brackets at the Orlando 2023 International Open will have nine competitors in Sarah’s division, which considers her a heavyweight.
“I think she’s ready (for a championship),” Daniel said, explaining how his stepdaughter has the three necessary ingredients.
“In competition, you need to put together three keys on a triangle. It is technique, strength and condition and emotional – if you can combine all three, you can perform well.
“If you’re missing one of the three keys, it’s what’s going to determine the outcome of the fight.”
“At the nationals, she wasn’t in perfect harmony with all three of them,” he said, “but in the five years under my watch, it was the best match I ever saw (for her).”
As it turned out, one match was all she had to win to be crowned national champion.
It’s not all jiu jitsu, all the time, Sarah said, with most of her current friends also training at Carlson Gracie.
“She’s got friends here that tell her they’ll take her to homecoming, she goes to Cliff’s with them, we go camping with them, stuff like that,” Gabriela said.
And occasionally, Sarah gets a special treat: drinking a Dr Pepper.