The Women of Evolution BJJ & Muay Thai: Strength and Empowerment Through Martial Arts

          To study martial arts is to study the art of combat itself. The path of a martial artist is one of the most transformative and empowering journeys one can go on, whether it’s for self defense, personal fitness, or the thrill of competition. Martial arts aren’t just about learning to defeat your enemies, in fact some would argue it isn’t about that at all. It’s about learning to battle the conflicts you have within yourself. To master your emotions, to encourage growth, and be the best version of yourself you can be. It’s also why combat sports are some of the most beautiful and intense events you could witness. Whether it’s 12 rounds of boxing for a coveted world title or a fencer making a last second attack to break the tie and win the match. To see two athletes pushing their bodies to the absolute limit and to test their physical strength, the knowledge of their art, and psychological endurance against one another is almost as compelling as any book or movie. If not more so. The bond shared between teammates and competitors alike, is unlike any other. It’s a bond that knows no border, or race, or gender. However, in honor of International Women’s Day, we look at a pair of incredibly strong and empowering women. Their journeys in life are different, but they share a bond through their love for martial arts.

            Lisa Bennett is a purple belt who currently trains with Evolution Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) & Muay Thai in Petawawa, Ontario. She began her athletic pursuits training as a ballerina, which she pursued for over 13 years. Unfortunately, she suffered multiple injuries after getting hit by a car on two separate occasions in her life. By the time she was in her 20’s her career in ballet was over. At the time she was living in Nova Scotia, and having just entered her 30’s, Lisa made the decision to join the military which she admits she never foresaw herself doing. However, it’s this decision that sent her down the path of a martial artist and it’s what introduced her to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. “My friend Meghan asked me to go to combatives with her, she double legged me, I fell, and I said I would never let that happen again.” She laughed, “I don’t like losing. Turns out I’m very competitive.” Coincidentally this interview took place mere minutes after Lisa won silver in the Olympian Bear at Dundonald Hall in Petawawa, Ontario. She was the only woman to compete in the tournament that was comprised of men from the Canadian Armed Forces. As we sat and talked, she beamed with pride at bumps and friction burns that covered her cheeks, nose, and lips.

            2022 was also a tremendously successful year competitively for Lisa. She placed in several gi and no-gi grappling events throughout the province winning a multitude of bronze, silver, and gold medals. She also brought home not one, but two championship belts to add to her plethora of hardware. She thanked her coaches for the success she saw throughout the year and touched on what makes Evolution BJJ & Muay Thai such an amazing team to be part of. “They always support each other. We have such a great community and everybody’s really close. You get support for what you’re trying to do but you also get to help other people do better as well.” Lisa then spoke about the impact Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has made on her life, “It’s created a different level to my fitness. It also teaches my kids that it’s never too late to do something. I started when I was 37, and it’ll give you what you put into it. You can’t hide it. It’ll show if you’ve done the work or not. It keeps you focused, it helps you deal with stressors that you may have, and you get to meet new people.” She also spoke on the impact BJJ has made on her kids, “My child is non-binary. So, it definitely helps build their confidence and creates new social connections. Everybody always makes sure that they’re welcome and gives them respect. Being non-binary, it can be harder to find accepting places to go. Evolution BJJ & Muay Thai is inclusive and respects their pronouns.”

          Richelle Sanderson is blue belt with Evolution BJJ & Muay Thai. Although she’s been practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for around 7 years, she has been part of the club for over a decade performing administration tasks such as providing information to parents for the youth classes. Having participated in a number of sports throughout the years from basketball to gymnastics, her inspiration to pursue Brazilian Jiu Jitsu stemmed from her kids and her husband participating and bonding over their mutual love for the art. Her husband, Scott Sanderson, is a brown belt and instructor with Evolution BJJ & Muay Thai. “My kids were training twice a week, and my husband was going to 5 different classes a week. I was starting to get upset because my spouse wasn’t home,” she laughed “so I sat down and said to myself, I can be that person that is mad and upset about it, or I can get involved in something that they have a passion for.” Similarly to Lisa, Richelle’s life and that of her children has been positively impacted by their journey in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. From losing weight, to finding mental strength, and the ability to defend yourself in dangerous situations, the benefits of martial arts are far reaching and extend beyond what you do on the mats. It’s also touched the lives of all people who pass through the doors of the Army Fitness Center, where the club has made its home. “We’ve had transgender people train with us. We’ve had non-binary people train with us. Straight, gay, single, divorced, military, ex-military, OPP, civilians, people from all walks of life. This is what brings us together.”

            Richelle is also the coach for the Women’s Only BJJ classes. As a coach, Richelle has witnessed firsthand the effects martial arts has on the women she trains with, “There’s just this amazing feeling of what you can do. You can see it even after their first class, we have some women say, oh I’ll never be able to do this, and then when they make someone topple over, they’re like, oh my god! That was amazing!” Richelle couldn’t hold back her tears as she spoke. The pride she takes in her work was on full display as she discussed what it’s like to show women the amazing things they can do regardless of age, weight, or athleticism. “There’s this sense of empowerment that comes with knowing what your body can do. If nothing else, if they never compete, if they never do a co-ed class, or even go to an open mat session. Sparking that passion that they have for finding out what they’re capable of, it’s a gift. It really is.” Richelle continued as she explained her belief that every woman should be involved in martial arts, “I’ve had a 60-year-old woman with osteoporosis train with me. I’ve had women with autoimmune diseases, women with physical disabilities, women with ligament problems. I myself have a ligament problem. We’ve had pregnant women, young women, large women, women on the spectrum, all of those things don’t make you who you are. You can sit with us, my class is free, it’s one hour every week on Saturday. Come in. Bring a friend, bring six friends. There’s no judgement here at all. It’s about being able to provide a scenario where you’re comfortable getting on the mats, and if you never leave the women’s class that’s fine.”

            Richelle touched on the amazing examples that her fellow teammates Lisa Bennett and Kayla Taylor provide at Evolution BJJ & Muay Thai, “They really show you that it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can get into this. Lisa is 42, I’m turning 40. We both started this later in our lives, you’re never too old to do it. Kayla is also the most down to earth, humble, woman, mother, friend, wife, teammate, and advocate for other students. Kayla is the poster child of amazingness, and Lisa is the poster child of fierceness.” As our interview came to a close Richelle addressed the women who may be nervous about starting their own journey down the path of martial arts, “Everybody’s journey is different. From the moment you decide you might like to try BJJ, your journey has started. You’re in control of your whole life. I think that falls into the empowerment of knowing that the fear is okay to be there, but knowing I have complete control of what I do. I think that’s what a lot of people seek out in life, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu allows you to have that. You can take away every object, every possession that I have, every person in my life, but you can’t take away the fact that I have control over me.


  • Evelyn Giroux
    March 7, 2023 at 9:22 am

    That’s a wonderful article. It is very interesting. I didn’t know this was offered in Petawawa.

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