A Jiu Jitsu Heart With A Gypsy Soul – Interview with Heather Raftery

“Travelling was my first love, jiu jitsu my second.”

She is nicknamed the jiu jitsu gypsy, and for a reason! Heather Raftery (team Atos) has travelled the world, and trained jiu jitsu wherever she went. She got her black belt under Andre Galvão, and has started making a name for herself in the black belt competition scene. We sat down with Heather and talked about travelling, mixing jiu jitsu into her work as a social scientist, and more!

First things first: where did you start jiu jitsu?

I started in 2009, under Josh Hinger. He is now an Atos black belt too, but at the time he was a purple belt. Throughout my jiu jitsu career I have been living in different places and trained at different gyms.

The reason I trained at so many different places, was because the jiu jitsu scene wasn’t so big at the time. To get in as much training as I could, I trained at all kinds of schools. Hence the nickname jiu jitsu gypsy haha. There were a few of us actually, who were doing that. We were all gypsies haha.

So you received your belts from different instructors?

I received my purple belt from two instructors, Steve Hordinski and JJ Pugsley, who are from two different academies. That was a really cool thing, receiving my purple belt from them jointly. My brown belt was given to me in Miami, in Fight Sports Academy (Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu.)

After Miami, I wanted to go back west. So I got a Volkswagen bus, got my cat, mr. Fleabags, and drove all the way from the east coast to the west coast. It took me 2 weeks haha. Now I’ve trained for the last two years at Atos HQ with professor Andre Galvao.

“I have trained in at least 60 different academies, on 4 different continents.”

You’re still living in the Volkswagen bus?

Yep, still am!

How many places have you been?

I think I have trained in at least 60 different academies, on 4 different continents. Travelling was my first love, so after I started jiu jitsu, I kept doing it, and just always included jiu jitsu into my travel plans.

Heather’s Volkswagen van and home.

Are there any places you still want to go?

Absolutely, I’ll never stop travelling! I haven’t trained in Asia nor in Australia yet. So those are on my bucket list.

Seeing so many different academies must have given you a lot of perspective. What is in your eyes an aspect that definetely shows it is a good academy?

The coolest thing about travelling is seeing a lot of different styles and techniques. But think it’s hard to judge an academy after visiting only once or twice. It’s like a snapshot. Having said that, one thing I really like to see is that whenever the professor is teaching, everyone is paying attention. And the other way around too: when people are training, the professor is watching, and investing him or herself in the students’ growth.

One time I visited an academy and the professor was just sitting in a corner, on his phone. I was not so impressed by that.

“Competition class at Atos is never the same. One day we’ll do a ton of drilling, another day several long rounds, or a lot of short, intense rounds, or King of the Hill. You never know what to expect, and this keeps you on your toes.”

Atos HQ, in San Diego.

You train at Atos, a team that seems to be growing rapidly and getting great results. Why did you choose for Atos? 

I am continually so impressed by Atos, by everything they do there. The atmosphere is positive, the classes are well-structured, and professor Galvão is the hardest working person on the mat.

Also, since Atos attracts so many people from all over the world, you get to see so many different styles. My growth as a competitor as well as a practitioner has gone to a whole new level. I couldn’t be happier.

How did it feel when you received your black belt?

Wow, it was amazing. I enjoyed every single belt I’ve been at, but this was a whole new thing. I definetely believed in professor Andre Galvão’s belief that I deserved my black belt. But I did think to myself: “I don’t feel like I know enough to be a black belt.”

Since at Atos you’re surrounded by so many good jiu jitsu athletes, who have such a vast amount of knowledge, you can’t but compare yourself. And when I compare myself, I don’t think I’m near their level. So I was a bit terrified at first, haha. I felt like I had to step up.

“I think that was professor Galvão’s motive – he wanted me to step up.”

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What do you say about the greatest moment in your jiu jitsu career? No words can ever fully capture the emotions I have right now. Eight and a half years ago I fell in love with this thing called jiu jitsu. In that time, so many incredible people have put a part of themselves into my journey, into my jiu jitsu, and into my heart. To receive my black belt from one of the greatest people in the history of the sport, someone I admire so much both on and off the mat, is beyond words. I want to thank everyone who has played a part in this journey, who have paved the way for this moment. A special thank you to a few people who have done more for me than I can ever repay: to my dad, who wanted his headstrong daughter to be able to defend herself and to know no limits to her achievements, and to my mom who showed me what a strong woman looked like and what she could do with passion and drive; to Professor Jason Bukich, who gave me my very first taste of the gentle art; to Professor Josh Hinger, who laid such an incredible foundation and instilled in me a love for the competition mat; to Professor Steve Hordinski and Professor JJ Pugsley, who helped me shape the beginnings of my own game; to Master Roberto Cyborg Abreu and Professor Denis Mitchel, who took me to an entirely new level and helped me believe I had a place among the best; and to Professors Andre and Angelica Galvao, who have opened their doors and their hearts to me, who have showed me how much higher I can reach, and who inspire me every day to become better than I was the day before. The next chapter of my journey begins today, and I can only hope that I can make my team and my family proud as an Atos Black Belt!!! 💛⚔️🛡|| #greatestmomentofmylife #bjjblackbelt #atosblackbelt

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How has competition been as a black belt?

I am still finding myself as a black belt competitor. My first tournament at black belt, I was happily surprised to see I could handle myself well in that division. But I’m still learning so much every competition and every day.

Becoming a black belt has made me reach a new understanding of myself as a jiu jitsu practitioner. And it’s a wonderful and humbling to see myself learning.

You faced one of the legends of our sport – Michelle Nicolini – at No Gi Worlds. How was it to fight someone who has been out there for so long, and now facing each other on the same mat?

My fight with Michelle Nicolini is probably the highlight of my career. Not because I beat her. But standing on the same mat, and fighting someone I looked up to my entire career, that was amazing.

Did you feel like the underdog?

Yes, I think everyone saw me as the underdog, including myself! That made it such an interesting experience. Nobody thought I was going to win. On the bright side: I felt absolutely no pressure. I wasn’t even nervous! I’d never experienced that before.

“I didn’t even think I was going to win.”

How did you feel when you won?

Honestly, the coolest thing about that match was just being in front of her, and shaking her hand on the competition mat. Everything else was just bonus.

I won, but had it been another day, it could have been another story. It doesn’t mean my jiu jitsu is better than her, I definetely don’t think that. Maybe that day was my day, and not her day. The next time I face Michelle, I’m sure it’ll be a far different match.

Is that how you deal with wins and losses?

Pretty much, yes. I will always celebrate my wins, and I’ll also definitely throw myself pity-parties when I lose. But I try not to stay too focused on my losses. It doesn’t do me any good to waste energy on something like that. I learn from losses, and then I take those lessons to the next day.

“For me, win or lose, for me I’ve won just because I had the courage to step on the mat.”

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Losing isn't easy for me – it's not easy for anyone – but I've never feared it. My losses have proven to be mirrors, through which I'm able to clearly see where I am at, and what I need in order to be where I want. I lost my first match yesterday against a tough competitor. I had three solid submission attempts, but was unable to finish. That is on me. At this level, there is no room for error, and no excuse for failing to submit, not once, but three times. I need to step up my game. And I will. Because I know it is in me to do so, and I know I have the right support behind me to make it happen. 👊🏻|| #becomemore #thepassionthatdefinesyou #togetherweareatos #ibjjfnogipans2017 #bjj #jiujitsu @atosjiujitsuhq @galvaobjj @angelicagalvao @performance360 @virusintl 📸 @banejitsu

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Will you keep competing?

I love competing and being out there. It’s an exhilarating experience. Stepping on out on the mat is important for me. You have to face a lot of self-doubt when you compete: I’m putting my jiu jitsu out there in front of the world to see, to criticize, or judge.

A lot of people don’t compete, because of that reason. But I’ve always forced myself to face my fears. And I’ll continue to do so.

Being a jiu jitsu gypsy, will you stay in San Diego?

Right now, I am involved in a social project in Arizona. It’s a non-profit that basically utilizes jiu jitsu, grappling, boxing, and other activities to help kids learn positive values, such as resilience and hard work, and also simply gives them something to do, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. I’ll be involved in coaching, as well as gathering and analyzing data, and try to show the effectiveness of these types of programs for youth, in the hopes of expanding it to other cities, nationally… Globally even, who knows? Haha.

While I love competing, I don’t consider myself as a professional athlete – that’s not the direction I see myself going with jiu jitsu. But with my skills as an educator and a social scientist, as well as my passion for jiu jitsu, I feel like I can contribute something special to the world. I believe my work with this non-profit will allow me to do that.

Thank you Heather, and good luck with your future plans and travels!




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.