Interview & Portrait with Sweaty Betties Founder Mollii Khangsengsing

Mollii Khangsengsing is a dear friend, but more so she is a role model. She is one of the pillars of Northern California's women's Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community who's dedicated countless hours to uplifting women in the sport and providing training and education for countless people. She recently receive her black belt from BJJ legend Leticia Ribiero and I had the honor of taking her portrait and interviewing her. Thank you for being a true friend and inspiration.

When and where were you born and where do you currently live?

I was born in Laos. However, my date of birth is unknown. My first name and last name as well as my age on the official papers are approximated. I am first generation refugee whose family escaped persecution in Laos after the Vietnam War by trekking through the jungle to Thailand and gaining refugee status in the U.S. In those times in Laos, birth certificates were not kept and birthdates were not celebrated like here. 

What year did you start training?

I started Jiu-Jitsu in 2007. 

Jiu-jitsu is a close-contact grappling martial art that places technique over strength. A smaller person can use technique, leverage and timing to fight off an opponent who is stronger and bigger with submissions like a chokehold or hyperextending the limbs. This makes JJ one of the most effective applications for self-defense.    

What were your first impressions about BJJ and have they change at all?

I was not a fan of JJ when I first tried it. The first technique I learned was a triangle choke from the mount position. Being a shy person with zero exposure to contact sport, having my crotch near a stranger’s face and vice versa was extremely uncomfortable. After class, I literally confessed to my boyfriend at the time that I may have cheated on him! I stopped going back to the class. Two years later after much convincing from a friend, I gave JJ a second chance. This time, I was hooked. Now JJ is an integral part of my life. I train and teach JJ. 

What were some of the largest obstacles you encountered while training and how did you overcome them? 

My JJ journey has been an love affair full of ups and downs, physically and emotionally. As victim of PTSD with a stature of 4’11” and weighing 92 lbs, JJ has not been easy for me, particular at the beginning. First, I was one of only two women at the gym. All my training partners were much much stronger and bigger than me. The style of JJ taught was to use weight to pressure and smash your opponents. Training in those conditions, my body sustained injuries, including an on-going lower back, elbow and knee problems. When my back went out 5 years ago, It forced me to stop training for a while. After a long break, I realized I wanted to find myself back to JJ. So I started training, feeling my way and making sure to be more mindful with how I train and who I train with. 

JJ does not come without emotional challenges, but with practice and an incredible support system, I learned to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, understand and accept my own limitations, confront my deepest fears but also continually striving to grow and evolve in spite of them. 

When did you get your black belt and from whom?

I got my black belt in 2017 from Leticia Ribeiro.   

Who are some of your biggest sources of inspiration?

One of my biggest inspiration is my mom. She's an epitome of resilience and strength. She gave birth to 11 children. All but one, she delivered on her own without pain medication. She trekked on foot mostly at night through the jungle of Laos in the midst of war eight months pregnant. Her husband died in the refugee camp in Thailand, leaving her with eight children and two grandchildren to care for. She left everything she knew behind and took the giant leap from her world to the US, where the language and culture is foreign to her. 

Another huge sources of inspiration for me is Leticia Ribeiro, the leader of one of the best female JJ team, a 10x World Champion black belt and the owner of two Jiu-jitsu academies in San Diego. She is a leader with a big heart who inspires others by her own example. 

Another is Lori Bruzenas, a black belt and one of the founders of the Sweaty Betties women’s JJ group. She chose JJ and her life over alcohol. She is a courageous soul who give more than she takes. I have the privilege to watch her grow and expand into an amazing human being using JJ as her guide. 

What is your favorite technique(s)?

Chokes, in particular, the bow and arrow choke

How has women's BJJ changed since you started?

The women’s JJ has changed drastically since I started. For examples, when I began few women practiced JJ. Women’s only classes did not exist, let alone women’s seminars or camps. Women teachers were rare and there were definitely no female academy owners. Furthermore, women’s JJ was not encouraged or supported. In fact, it was common to hear from male teachers and others that women shouldn’t be doing JJ at all. 

In terms of tournaments, females were limited to only two categories, white and blue belts in one category and purple, brown and black belts in another. The weight divisions were only two, as well. Today, each belt has their own division with various weight categories. Some competition venues are starting to pay their competitors, whereas, back in the day, that was not the case. 

What pieces of advice you would give to women just starting?

  1. Your training partners are an integral part of your JJ journey, for without them you can not progress. With that said, be grateful, respectful and take great care of them. 
  2. There will be many cycles in the JJ process, stormy days alternating with clear days. Just stay with it. The rewards are well worth it. 
  3. Have realistic expectations. Don’t compare your beginning with someone’s middle. Instead, measure your progress with yourself. Ask the question, “Have I learned/grown/progressed today compared to a week/month/year ago? If the answer is “yes”, you are going in the right direction. 
  4. Remember to take care of yourself. Eat well. Sleep. Hydrate. Take time off to recover or nurse an injury. 
  5. You’re going to be clumsy and, at times, overwhelmed with new techniques. It's natural. Drilling will help perfect them.
  6. Focus on the fundamentals. Techniques like mount escapes are applicable from white to black belts. 
  7. Learn how to breathe and RELAX. Not only will it help you reserve energy, it will also help you register what is going on around you and break it down afterwards.

Who are the Sweaty Betties? When did they start, why etc…

The Sweaty Betties is one of the first women’s Jiu-Jitsu communities that provided free training and workshops for women from all over the country. Currently, there two Sweaty Betties groups: Oakland, CA and Maui, HI. 

Sweaty Betties was started by myself and Lori Bruzenas. We wanted to create a safe and supportive Jiu-Jitsu community where women can come together to share, train and support each other. 

What are the current projects you are working right now?

I have two projects I am really excited and passionate about. Together with Ellen Sparks and Chrissy Winograd, we are working on a documentary film series called WOMEN WHO ROLL. The film series showcase some of the most important female figures in Jiu-Jitsu history. 

I feel a great part of our society places value on how women look. Jiu-jitsu, instead, teaches women to appreciate and value what their body is capable of. That said, another project I care deeply about is spreading JJ, particularly self-defense JJ, to women and children. Currently, I teach kids and women at a non-profit gym called the Guardian Gym and Four Elements Fitness in Oakland. 

I believe our relationship with JJ is very personal. Each of us learns JJ for various reasons, psychological and emotional, to develop physical strength and body awareness, etc. To me, JJ is therapy. It has been an excellent avenue to learn about myself. In many ways JJ has brought cleansing, strength and calming to my heart, mind and body. For example, in the beginning, the sparring sessions mimicked the violence I had faced growing up, triggering a massive PTSD episode. The stress and anxiety began on the mat, but soon it seeped into my daily life and spread into my nights. I lost sleep. I lost a sense of self. 

For a while I kept at it, forcing myself to go to class until I felt like I didn't have it in me to continue. After a year of struggle, I called my teacher to quit. He ignored me. Instead, he redirected me to a better option. He helped me start a women’s JJ group, which became the Sweaty Betties. Overtime with the support of Sweaty Betties, my teacher and close friends, I learned to sustain a presence in the midst of my suffering, learned to be comfortable in uncomfortable conditions and learn how to find appropriate solutions to my challenging situations. Much like the way of Jiu Jitsu. 

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