Don’t Stop Till You Reach The Top – Livia Gluchowska (Interview)

“Once I decide on something, I want to see it through till the end.”

All the way from Australia, Livia Gluchowska (Team Absolute MMA Australia) travels to compete everywhere in the world. And she does not play around. 3x World Champion, Copa Podio winner, 2x Asian Champion, are just a few of her many titles. We were lucky to meet Livia at the IBJJF World Championship 2017. In this interview, we talk about being a fresh black belt, competing, cutting weight and fighting and dealing with injuries. 

You’re a brand new black belt, having received your black belt in May this year. How did that feel?

It’s awesome and wonderful and scary all at the same time. It feels like a really nice achievement, because I have put a lot of work into my training over the last 7.5 years. Yet at the same time, nothing really changes – I just keep on training, learning and trying to improve every single day. I make mistakes and get tapped by a lot of people, just like everyone else. I received my belt from Lachlan Giles, my new fiancé, and he’s pretty harsh with the gradings. Even when I won brown belt IBJJF Worlds last year, he said: “So you just have to win it again.” That’s why he surprised me a lot with this. It was such an amazing and joyful day, surrounded by all my teammates, family and 15 black belts that have been a massive part of my journey.

Livia receiving her black belt from Lachlan Giles. Picture: www.livjiujitsu.com

This year will be your first time competing at IBJJF Worlds in the black belt division. How does it feel, being a brand new black belt and competing at Worlds?

I fought black belts before in Abu Dhabi and ADCC Trials, but Worlds is a little bit different. It’s pretty special, as I have been looking forward to this moment since I’ve started jiu jitsu. I feel great and well prepared. I’m usually very nervous, but now I’m just excited and calm. It will be fun.

You’re fighting in the light-featherweight division this time. Last year you competed in roosterweight. What made you change?

Last year was the first time I ever did roosterweight. (Read more about this on Livia’s blog!) It was a really hard cut, and in the end I walked around with 8% body fat. Actually I did try cutting to roosterweight for this year World’s again, but I also competed at the ADCC trials in the -60kg division just 2 weeks ago. I weighed 54kgs, and after cutting for 2 weeks I was still 4kgs over. Then I decided it wasn’t healthy or worth killing myself over.

Livia fighting Kristina Barlaan at the IBJJF World Championship 2017 female black belt light featherweight division. Picture: www.macofoto.com

“I’m excited and calm. It will be fun.”

Do you still consider doing Worlds in roosterweight next year?

I’ll see. I don’t know yet. I’d like to do roosterweight once at black belt, because I really like fighting that division. The guards are super technical and the women are fast and sharp. At the same time, the older I get, the tougher cutting gets. I still need to train, coach and work and all that takes a lot of energy and is already a selfish pursuit. I don’t like not being nice to people around me, which is quite hard not to do when you’re food deprived and hungry. But who knows, I might do it next year if my body and mind is up for it. I don’t get out-strengthened in the light-featherweight division, so that’s never a bad option.

In one of your other interviews, you say that it “takes you some time to get back to normal eating after cutting to roosterweight.” How is that?

I was a gymnast for 12 years and I guess that supported disordered eating as a teenager. When I started jiu jitsu, I promised myself to be never crazy about food again. That’s why I just eat really healthy, and if I feel like having dessert or a snack, I eat it. I don’t over-eat, I don’t under-eat. I just eat when I’m hungry, so I have enough energy to fuel my body. Drastically cutting weight makes me constantly think about food and my next meal because the body goes into starvation mode. I did what was required of me to drop the weight, however it is probably not healthy to do too many cuts like this. Naturally I am quite muscular and lean already, and I don’t have much body fat to lose.

How long did you cut for?

Last year I cut for 5.5 weeks. It’s not a massive amount of time. It took an enormous amount of self-discipline and meant no milk in my coffee, no avocado, no sauce on any salad, no oil, no bread, pretty much no anything. You go into extreme deprivation and it’s quite difficult not to give up.

Cutting down to roosterweight. Picture: www.livjiujitsu.com

What kept you going?

Even though it was really hard to have energy for training and to roll well, I knew that I would only have 2-3 fights at the championship. I also knew that no matter how hard the actual competition day would be, I have been through much worse at training. I also have an enormous amount of self-discipline and drive. Once I decide on something, I want to see it through till the end.

Do you think there is a mental side to cutting weight? Do you think it makes you feel stronger when you have been cutting?

I think cutting helps you being very disciplined. For example last year, I was so desperate to win, because I knew what I did to get there. I had sacrified so much. Also, it’s easy to say that competing in a lower weight class is better, after you win. But if I happen to lose the first round, I could have said that that was the wrong division for me. Since every time I’ve cut I’ve won a major title, it tricks your mind to thinking that to win you have to lose weight. Which is not true. So you have to be careful with it. It’s not the weightcut that makes you win, it’s your jiu jitsu.

Livia winning the brown belt roosterweight division at the IBJJF World Championship 2016. Picture: www.livjiujitsu.com

“It’s not the weightcut that makes you win, it’s your jiu jitsu.”

Your ACL was torn 5 weeks before the Copa Podio Grand Prix 2016. Still, you decided to go there and fight. Being a physiotherapist yourself, how did you come to this decision? 

It’s not really something I would have advised my patients to do. Usually when you tear an ACL it’s very likely that you fracture the bone which the ligament attaches to, and also tear your meniscus or other ligaments. My injury was quite low-force, so I was ‘lucky’ to just tear my ACL and nothing else. After not being able to walk for 3 days, the swelling went away and I had good range of motion in my knee. I consulted my sports physician, who confirmed the full tear, but also asked me to consider conservative measurements and not going through surgery. My function was pretty good – a week after the tear I could run and jump. We had a lengthy conversation outlining the risks and possible outcomes, but it was decided that if I could manage to keep my knee safe by changing my game, I could risk it and go to Brazil. I had to pass certain fitness criteria and make sure I could roll before I made my final decision, 1 week before I was due to fly out. I did not take this decision lightly and had a great team of experts to help me make the most informed choice, without jeopardising my long-term health.

Livia fighting Emilia Tuukkanen at Copa Podio Grand Prix 2016. Picture: Flash Sports

“I decided to risk it. It was just 1 fight.”

How did you prepare for Copa Podio, given the situation with your knee?

I couldn’t do any jiu jitsu for about 1.5 weeks. Every day, I followed my rehab program, which included activating the hamstrings, quads and getting some movement in the knee. I then worked hard on strength, balance and proprioception as well as changing directions. I only managed one competition roll before Copa Podio. My knee would give way from time to time, and made me have minor panic attacks, but somehow I got through it. It was a massive unknown situation. In the end though, I learned just how tough I can be as my mental and physical strength was pushed to my absolute limits.

Having a knee that is unstable can be really scary, especially knowing you have to fight with it. What got you through mentally?

I talked to my sports psychologist and we concentrated on things that were in my control. Such as my sleeping patterns, rest and recovery. I have been an athlete for many years and this wasn’t the first time I competed with an injury. Last year at brown belt Worlds I tore my LCL 5 days before the fight. I competed with a broken hand (with doctor’s permission) and with other minor niggles over the years. I would never do anything that would put me at risk of permanent injury, and I always consult an expert in the field. However, once I step on the mat, I don’t think about anything else but jiu jitsu and of what is required of me to have the best chance of winning. In the end, if the worst thing that can happen is that I tap, that’s ok with me.

So you went to Copa Podio.. and you won!

Yes, it payed off. I probably didn’t play my best game, but I couldn’t handle being on top for too long. So I played guard and only came up when I had to. My knee held up, and I won. I was very happy and relieved and it was a wonderful experience.

Read Livia’s story on Copa Podio here!

Livia wins the Copa Podio Grand Prix 2016. Picture: Flash Sports

And you decided not to have surgery after Copa Podio? 

I chose to do a really good rehabilitation program for my knee first and see how it would recover. I did sit out of No Gi Worlds, because it would mean 4 fights instead of 1. So if my quads or hamstrings fatigued, there was a big risk my knee would give way. It was heartbreaking, but in the end it was too dangerous and I had to be smart. Instead, I did a lot of strength and proprioception training and in 3 months my knee got really strong and stable. I changed my game during this period: one more torreando pass was going to result in surgery. So instead I learned how to pass on my knees, using a lot of pressure and over-under style passing, which I have now incorporated into my game. My knee is now 100%. I wrestle, I am back to doing aggressive knee cuts and torreandos and I hardly think about my injury.

Have you had any other injuries?

I have torn my MCL and LCL of my knee, I broke my hand, broke my rib, and have sustained other injuries from years of being an athlete. I’ve got a labrum tear in my hip from being a gymnast. My shoulders are not amazing. I’m 32 and I’ve been training for 35hours/week since I was 10 years old. So I think my body is a little bit battered, but that’s what you can expect. If you train for 4 hours a day every day, you’re going to get injured at some point. In all though, I am healthy, happy, fit and strong.

Is that something you keep in mind when picking your training partners?

I’ve changed a little bit over the years. I used to train with absolutely everybody. Now, before competition, I mainly roll with people that replicate the game that I will be playing. To me, there’s no point rolling with a 100kg brown belt man right before my competition, because it doesn’t help my game-specific preparation, and there is a higher risk of injury. I don’t mind when people put a lot of pressure on me, but I avoid reckless training partners. Over the years I’ve started to train with lighter people more often just to save my body. And I always tap quickly in training. I don’t care. It’s just training. But usually when I tap, I go back to the same position and try to figure it out to not make the same mistake again.

“In training, I tap. I don’t care. It’s just training.”

What do you do to prevent injury?

I don’t always practice what I preach. I haven’t lifted weights for a long time: my time is limited, so if I want to do a lifting session, it means I have to give up a jiu jitsu session. In the end though, I think skill is going to help me pass spider guard, not necessarily strength. But in saying that, I think when I return home I will add strength training to my week to keep my body stronger and less injury prone.

The women of Absolute MMA Australia.

And what do you do in training when you’re injured?

If I do get injured, I can still train but I avoid certain things. When my knee was injured, I mainly played guard. When I can’t play guard, I just stay on top and get good at passing. It makes me improve areas of my jiu jitsu that I sometimes neglect. When I broke my hand, I got much better at no-gi and better with single legs and sit-up guard. So it’s always a blessing in disguise in the long term. Of course it’s better not to get injuries, but there’s always something you can work. Obviously, sometimes you just have to stop and rest. There is time and place for everything.

From your whole sports career you seem like someone who just doesn’t stop until you reach the top. Am I right?

Haha. I’d like to think I’ve gotten a little bit smarter over the years, but I don’t know if that’s actually true. I genuinely love training and I love getting better. It’s safe to say I’m a little bit obsessed with jiu jitsu. That probably comes down from my gymnastics training, where we just had to train 6 hours a day under very strict conditions. So when I started jiu jitsu, I promised myself I would never compete. Clearly I didn’t keep that promise, but I don’t do it for anyone else anymore but just for myself. Training and competing brings an enormous amount of growth and joy into my life. Whether I win or lose a competition, life goes on. I go back to work, and my family doesn’t love me any more or less. I’ve gotten a little bit better at being nice to myself and admitting to it when I need a day off. When I’m not motivated to train, I help out beginners, or help the girls and be a training partner for them, rather than for me. And sometimes I just go home and eat cake or drink a shot of whisky. You have to keep perspective, acknowledge this is not a job, and realise that there’s more to life than getting really upset about a sweep.

Ready for battle. Picture: www.macofoto.com

Thank you for your time Livia, and good luck with your future jiu jitsu career! Livia’s next competition will be July 30th: EBI 12 – The Female Flyweights

Want to read more about Livia? Check out her blog www.livjiujitsu.com, or go to her Instagram @livjiujitsu

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Rose el Sharouni

Rose is a brown belt at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy Amsterdam (Checkmat). Besides being one of the co-founders of Ladies Only BJJ, she is a full-time medicine student and holds a MsC degree in Sports Sciences.

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