Jiu Jitsu For Everyone – Iris Van Der Zaag (Interview)

“I think everyone is the same, and I like it that jiu jitsu treats people that way.”

What if you are blind, but you want to do jiu jitsu? No question, you just do it. Iris van der Zaag (21, white belt, Gracie Barra Groningen) has impaired vision, but chose to let nothing get in her way to train and compete in jiu jitsu. Read her story here. 

How much can you see?

I can see the difference between day and night. That’s it. So basically nothing. I was born with impaired vision, and when I was very young I could see about 8%. Then my vision deteriorated more, making me completely blind from the age of 6.

How did you start jiu jitsu?

I did judo for about 10 years. I did a lot of competition, till about the age of 15. After that I wasn’t allowed to compete in the qualification tournaments for Nationals, because I’m blind. If I wanted to compete in judo, I had to register for tournaments in which only blind people could participate. In the Netherlands, there are almost no tournaments like this, so I competed less and less.

When I competed in a Ne-Waza tournament, I ran into some people who did jiu jitsu. I asked them what it was, and it sounded interesting, so I thought: ‘Let’s give it a try.’ I called the trainer from the local jiu jitsu team, and asked if I could start training. He said: ‘Sure’, so that’s how I started. That was 2 years ago, and since then I stuck with it.

“I wasn’t allowed to compete in the regular judo tournaments, because I’m blind.”

I remember my first jiu jitsu class – and I have a Japanese jiu jitsu background – as having no clue what was going on. How was that for you? 

In the beginning I was thinking: ‘What is happening?’ I had trouble with a lot of movements, I couldn’t even do an armbar from closed guard because I didn’t understand how to do a hip escape. But I really liked it, so I just kept training.

“In jiu jitsu, it doesn’t matter who you are. You can just join.”

Iris fighting at the NNK BJJ in the Netherlands. Picture: NNK BJJ.

Is training different for you than for other people?

No, not at all. If there’s a new technique, my training partner explains it to me and then I feel how it works. If I don’t get it, then the trainer explains it to me again. That’s it, it’s no different for me than for anybody else.

And you compete: local competitions as well as IBJJF. How did that start?

That was no problem. In judo, people get separated into different categories, based on anything: if you are blind, if you are deaf, if you have a low IQ. In jiu jitsu, it doesn’t matter who you are. You can just join. So I did.

How do you start the fight? 

When I started competing, I began the match with the pre-set grips the referee gave me. Since my first IBJJF tournament (European Championship, January 2017), I don’t do that anymore.

Why not?

Before already, some people would say it wasn’t fair to give me the advantage of already having grips. IBJJF told me I was allowed to start with pre-set grips, but only if everyone I would fight would agree with it. That would mean I had to go up to the girls in my category and ask if they would agree to start like that. Bearing in mind previous comments, I didn’t want to have a fuss about it before, nor after the fight. Maybe someone would say after the match that on second thought it wasn’t fair.

To avoid such a situation, I decided to just start without grips. Besides that, I don’t always like the pre-set grips I was given. I don’t always want the collar with my right hand and sleeve with my left hand. So that was also a reason. Mostly, I want to fight like everyone else fights. So that’s why I start without grips, like everyone else does.

“Jiu Jitsu is no different for me than for anybody else.”

Working for the takedown. Picture: NNK BJJ.

And that works for you too, right? 

Yes. After the referee says “fight”, we slap-bump hands and then I try to immediately make a grip on my opponent. Then I work from there.

But what if you can’t get the grip straight after the slap-bump?

I’ve only had that happen to me one time. Then I thought: ‘Oh no, I’ve lost her.’ But I was able to hear her feet on the mat, so I could locate her.

Still, what if you’ve completely lost your opponent?

It’s not a huge problem: my opponent has to grab me anyway in order to do something. I try to stand steady by leaning a bit forward, ready to react.

What is your favourite game?

I always try to go for the takedown and I love passing. These days though, I get more into playing guard as well. I used to get passed fast, but now I start getting better at it. Submissionwise, I like chokes, namely bow-and-arrow.

You’ve done some international competitions. What were your results?

I competed in the IBJJF European Open Championship 2017, and after that Munich Open and London Open. At the European Championship, I won the first but lost the second fight. In London I lost the first fight. In Munich I got bronze after three fights.

Bronze for Iris at the IBJJF Munich Open 2017. Picture: IBJJF.

What things do you find hard in competition? 

Sometimes it’s hard to react fast enough if people throw me off balance. Sometimes I’m too late.

Do you know other people in jiu jitsu that have impaired vision?

I know two people who do, and they compete as well. But really, I don’t care so much about that. I think everyone is the same, and I like it that jiu jitsu treats people that way.

FloGrappling made a post about you when you competed at the Europeans this year. What did you think of it?

I was surprised! They made a post about me winning my first match. I liked it on the one hand. But on the other hand, I actually didn’t. The post was made not because I won, but because I’m blind and I won. That was apparently special to them.

Visually impaired athlete Iris Van Der Zaag just advanced to the next round at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation European Championships. #awesome

Geplaatst door FloGrappling op dinsdag 17 januari 2017

Check out a full recap of the IBJJF European’s 2017 Day 1 here

“The post was made not because I won, but because I’m blind and I won. That was apparently special.”

Do you get that more often: people applauding for the fact that you are blind and do jiu jitsu?

Yes, people sometimes come up to me at tournaments and tell me how good they think it is that I’ve won a match. Or even when I don’t win, they still come up to me and say I did a good job because I’m blind. I don’t like that.

Why not?

Because for me it doesn’t feel as if I have a limitation. So in that sense, why is it special to other people that I win, or lose?

If you would be able to see, would you want to?

It might sound weird, but I’m used to this. I can do anything I want. I  can go anywhere I want with my dog. I like it, I think it’s good like this.

Iris with her dog Zion.

Thank you for your time Iris! 

More interviews? Check them out here



Rose is a black belt at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy Amsterdam (Checkmat). Besides being one of the co-founders of Ladies Only BJJ, she is a junior doctor MD and holds a MsC degree in Sports Sciences.

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