Julia Parkins didn’t intentionally set out to become a jiu-jitsu champion.
Her initial interest in the martial art centered on fulfillment.
But in March in Kissimmee, Fla., at the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation’s Pan American Championship, Parkins accomplished the rare feat of capturing two gold medals in her age, weight and class category. Since taking up jiu-jitsu nearly four years ago, the Harrisburg-area resident has competed in about seven similar tournaments.
“Competition has always been a part of my life, but it’s more about me putting my skills to the test,” she said. “If I’m going to put my heart and soul into something, I want to see how it holds up. I always want to improve and learn. I have the most fun when I’m learning from different people.”
A 41-year-old married mother of three boys, Parkins suffers from type-one diabetes. The challenges associated with balancing the extensive training required for jiu-jitsu competition and her home life are no less intense than the ones she faces on the mat against skilled opponents.
“At first it was like, ‘Let’s try it—why not?’” Parkins said. “I remember the adrenaline dump and sort of blacking out and coming to during the match. The adrenaline dumps affected my blood sugar. I just remember the feeling after the match.”
Jiu-jitsu can serve as both a means of exercise and an outlet for competition. Parkins’ training regimen leading up to a competition can include weightlifting, sparring, hiking, running, dieting and resting. She often trains at Deepwater Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Colonial Park, usually around five times a week.
“When you say ‘jiu-jitsu’ to most people, they think of karate,” she said. “What I do with it, jiu-jitsu is a sport. You start standing, and you try to get the other person on the ground, and you fight on the ground. It’s making good use of your skills and using the other person’s body weight against them. But there is no kicking or punching.”
In 2019, in her late 30s, Parkins sought out jiu-jitsu as a way to lose weight, stay healthy and learn self-defense. It didn’t take long for her competitive nature to kick in.
“Jiu-jitsu changed my life,” she said. “The initial change was I lost 70 pounds. I became super aware of my health and my body. With the confidence it gives you, you essentially learn how your body moves in space. It kind of opened a door for me.”
Or re-opened one.
Growing up, Parkins was an accomplished, three-sport scholastic athlete in basketball, softball and field hockey. After graduation, she matriculated to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where she became a member of the Hawks’ Division One rowing team.
That may have been the first time in her life that she stepped out of her comfort zone to stoke her competitive fire.
“When I first signed up for jiu-jitsu, I asked very specifically, ‘Do I have to compete to move up the belt rank?’” Parkins said. “That’s how it was until they offered this really fun in-house tournament. Then I was hooked. Something clicked. Something happened. I’m just highly serious about things.”
It’s a seriousness that can be molded and channeled into positive energy. That’s a skill that Parkins has learned as she has evolved as a jiu-jitsu competitor.
“When I’m ‘in the bullpen’ 20 minutes before fights, I’m usually doing my breathing or listening to music that makes me happy,” she said. “What makes or breaks these fights is your mental state. My fight face is much different than my everyday face. Some people say it’s mean, but it’s not. To me, it’s super focused.”
An ancient martial art, jiu-jitsu dates back to 16th-century Japan. But more recently, interest has spiked, in part, through the increased popularity of mixed martial arts and ultimate cage fighting.
“I think it used to be obscure,” Parkins said. “But jiu-jitsu is growing, and more people know about it. I’d like to think jiu-jitsu can be done at any age, and there are people starting in their 50s, 60s and 70s. But it’s hard on your body when you’re rolling around on a mat. It’s not for everybody.”
For Parkins, the novelty has yet to wane. But how much longer she can continue to pursue it may depend on her training, the recuperative powers of her body, and her ability to balance her life.
“My life very much revolves around my children, but, for me to be healthy, I had to carve out something for myself,” Parkins said. “The short-term goal is to continue to compete. I know I’ll always do jiu-jitsu, but I don’t know if I’ll always compete.”
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