Penny Thomas, SA’s first South African Girl in Gi and BJJ Blackbelt
Original article by Sharicka Long-O’Neill (Girls in Gis)
Imagine having all of your ambitions lined up: a career in the IT industry in full swing and job security but a desire even greater than that. We all dream about quitting our mundane careers, taking a detour from the regular to follow our passion but few of us have the intestinal fortitude to take the plunge. Enter: Penny Thomas. This South African powerhouse black belt eats, sleeps, and bleeds Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Penny, at 21 years of age, stumbled upon a group of guys training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in South Africa. She wasn’t sure what this martial art was but she had a strong desire to protect herself after becoming the victim of a violent assault a short time prior. Interestingly enough, these guys she happened upon were Kung Fu competitors who got their hands on a VHS tape of Carlson Gracie demonstrating Brazilian Jiu Jitsu technique. They banded together to start the first official Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school in South Africa (The Novagen Jiu Jitsu Academy). This goes to show that BJJ isn’t just a sport, it’s a movement!!!
While Penny concedes that her bank balance would be a bit more luxurious if she had stayed in the IT industry, she would follow her passion ten times over. Peace of mind, a love of life and friendships truly have her feeling blessed.
Though she gave up everything for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it’s worth noting that she didn’t enjoy Jiu Jitsu so much at the beginning. She was a Junior Olympic gymnast and had always been strong and athletic. Getting rolled up and choked was a bit frustrating! She eventually started to understand, relax and enjoy learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She continued to train with Micah and the Novagen crew for 5 years before heading to America to compete in 2006. She moved to Maui and trained under Luiz Heredia at Maui Jiu Jitsu for a couple years until receiving her black belt in 2008. With most of the competitions being in California, Penny jumped at the opportunity to stay with Leticia Ribeiro in San Diego and train with a Gracie Humaita Girls team full time! She stayed in Cali for 5 years before moving back to Maui, where she currently resides and teaches at Maui Jiu Jitsu. At Maui Jiu Jitsu, she is focused on their women’s program, the Hawaii chapter of the Sweaty Betties.
As with many of us, life tends to happen. Penny is currently focused on buying a house in Maui, which doesn’t leave her with as much time to train and compete. She be back out there soon.
“But once it’s all done I want to make another run at Worlds. Make it 5 wins!!”
Penny’s long term plan is to set up training and wellness camps in Maui. Teaching Jiu Jitsu, self-defense, yoga and nutrition while allowing people to take in the beauty that the Hawaiian Islands have to offer would be her ideal life!
Penny has done achieved so much on the mat. Her proudest moment was at ADCC 2007. Her final match was with our Girls in Gis friend and resident bad-ass, Lana Stefanac. After 30 minutes of battling, her hand was raised at the end! She was able to share this moment her fellow South African teammates who began the journey with her.
“A weekend I will always look back on with a big smile!”
She implores us girls to keep at it!
“Take the pressure off yourself, relax a little and it will all start to come together!”
Many of us want to teach and spread the magic that is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu all over the globe. Penny would rather get out there and feel the burn of competition. There really is nothing like it.
Penny is currently working on her guard passing technique and fancies herself a choke aficionado, bow and arrow particularly being her specialty.
As with most jobs, hobbies and passions, we tend to look to people for inspiration, direction and possibilities. Penny credits Micah Atkinson and Leticia Ribeiro as her mentors. Their undeniable passion for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and teaching made her the person that she is today. Her inspiration comes from the younger at heart competitors like Megaton and Franginha; never giving up and never letting go, always learning, always testing and always competing. They are who inspire her to compete for another World title. 2016 is looking like the year for this powerhouse.
Many of us competitors find ourselves looking for the perfect competition prep. I know it’s a question that I ask of every competitor that I come in contact with. The reality of it is that different things work for different people. You adopt what works for your psyche and purge what does not. Penny does a lot of mobility stretching, ensures that her body stays warm and focuses on herself and her reasons for being in the competition. Penny also staves off injury by watching her diet and incorporating Yoga and Ginastica Natural into her strength training routine. She advises that eliminating stress from your life has untold benefits.
“…don’t be afraid to make the changes for a healthier you.”
There are opposing views with regard to BJJ women who show “too much” skin in photos. When pressed about her viewpoint, Penny was clear to say that people should focus on their own stuff. You’re not going to be encouraged or supported by everyone, unfortunately. She points out that women in other sports show and embrace their bodies. Essntially, you should be beautiful no matter what you are wearing.
If penny could motivate one girl to start training or give one girl the will to keep going to class she’ll be happy.
“Chase your dreams, we’re not here for long so make the most of your time, do what makes you happy and try to leave things in a better state than when you found them. One love.”
Girls in Gis staff writer
Sharicka Long-O’Neill, is a blue belt with the Kompound Training Center out of Littleton, CO. She has been a jiu jitsu practitioner since July of 2012. She is a mom and a ten-year veteran of the United States Navy. Her hobbies include fitness, cooking, and traveling with her husband of five years.