In about a year, three Tucson kids have gone from Brazilian jiu-jitsu novices to world champions.
At the end of October, instructor Marc Monaco took seven students from the UFC Gym North Tucson to Long Beach, California for the Sport Jiu-Jitsu International Federation's World Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
The students competed in both no gi and gi competitions, the latter of which is more technical and has belts affiliated with it, said Eddie Castro, who also does Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His 15-year-old daughter, Mia Castro, took gold in her division's gi competition. Celina Volz, 12, and Zane Almond, 15, took gold in their no gi divisions. Divisions are based on age, weight and belt color, Monaco said.
Collectively, the group brought back three gold medals, six silver and one bronze medal.
That's an impressive haul for this group of kids, many of whom have only been training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the year the gym has been open.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a ground-based martial art that emphasizes techniques that allow a smaller opponent to overcome a larger attacker.
It is one of several martial arts offered at UFC Gym North Tucson, 8330 N. Thornydale Road, which opened last fall.
"Our main goal is family fitness, not traditional martial arts," said Derek Cruz, a sales rep at the northwest gym. In addition to offering martial arts and boxing classes for kids and adults, machines, weights and group fitness classes give grownups something to do while their kids train. In his youth classes, Monaco teaches kids ages 6 and older.
The winners at the world championships aren't strangers to victory — many have also won titles at state and local levels.
"It has helped my confidence," said Celina, who boxed for a few years before getting into Brazilian jiu-jitsu last fall. "I guess my patience, too, by being patient with a technique if I'm not getting it."
She said her coaches and teammates are probably her favorite part of the sport. Winning isn't too bad, either.
Zane started taking classes about 10 months ago and said he has seen himself "evolve all around."
Mia said her father's background in the sport piqued her own interest about a year ago.
"It has made me more confident in everyday life," she said. "I'm normally shy, but here I can be open."
Her dad, Eddie, echoed that.
"She has confidence in herself and knows what she can and cannot do," he said. "She has started helping the little kids. She is becoming a leader."
Mia's younger sister Maci is also taking the youth class. With about a dozen students in the class Wednesday evening, most were boys. But Eddie believes Brazilian jiu-jitsu is also valuable for girls to learn, with its focus on defending against larger opponents.
"They can defend themselves..." he said of what his daughters are learning. "It's not strength, it's technique."