F2W 153 Competitor Heather Raftery: “It’s Vitally Important To Travel & Visit Other Academies”

Heather Raftery has been around the world and back again. Tonight, her journey will take her back to Dallas as she competes against Talita Alencar for the black belt no-gi flyweight title at F2W 153. It won’t be her first time competing against Alencar, but in the middle of a tumultuous time, she’s just happy to be competing again.

The road here has spanned over a decade, beginning shortly after Raftery graduated from the University of Arizona and had already begun traveling internationally. Her dad was worried about her safety and suggested (and Raftery puts quotation marks around the word “suggested”) that she take up martial arts to learn how to protect herself. Raftery took him up on the “suggestion” and found an MMA gym close to her school, starting off with cardio kickboxing until one day, she noticed a jiu-jitsu class going on at the same time.

“I had no idea what jiu-jitsu was, or even what MMA was, and thought that looked fun,” she told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “My dad was a wrestler when he was young, and my brother and I would sometimes wrestle/fight when we were young. My first few classes were taught by Jason Bukich, and when he left to teach in Taiwan, he invited his friend Josh Hinger to take over the jiu-jitsu program. Josh was a purple belt at the time.”

Raftery received her blue belt from Hinger after two and a half years of training almost every day, continuing her time on the mats in Denver when she went to grad school. From there, she moved onward and upward, receiving her purple belt from Steve Hordinski and JJ Pugsley, then moving to Miami and getting her brown belt from Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu, then finally earning her black belt from Andre Galvao himself following a move to the West Coast.

Raftery has obviously done some traveling, and for her, all the moves and changes weren’t a burden, but an opportunity. While living in Miami, she became intrigued by the idea of being a bit of a nomad and living out of a van.

“I guess the lure of vanlife was multi-part,” she says. “I didn’t really want to pay rent anymore, and I had already seen others living the ‘vanlife’ (before it was really big), and thought, ‘That’d be a cool experience.’ Plus, I love the idea of minimalism and being able to just pick up and leave whenever I wanted, and stay for as long as I wanted, without having to worry about ‘coming back’ anywhere. Traveling was always my first love, jiu-jitsu a close second.”

While such an unconventional lifestyle might seem outlandish to some jiu-jitsu practitioners, Raftery says that living out of her van (affectionately named “Bonnie Clyde”) helped her keep the disciplined, simple schedule she needed to stick to in order to succeed as an athlete. “Because I had to pee early in the morning, I just got up and went to the gym (where they had a bathroom) and while I was at it, I’d train,” she says. “Then I’d find a coffee shop to get some work in (I was still working full-time doing freelance writing, research, and marketing) for a few hours, then go train at Atos (usually the competition classes, which are ALWAYS SO INTENSE), shower at the academy, then find another coffee shop to get some more work in before I maybe went to a yoga class (where they had a shower), before I went to bed and did it all over again.”

Make no mistake, though — vanlife does have its challenges, and for Raftery, the biggest one was finding new “parking spots” every day. “Technically, living in your vehicle in San Diego limits (and most counties) is illegal,” she says.

Raftery has since bought a house in Tucson to be closer to her family and spends much of her time training and teaching at Undisputed Tucson and 10th Planet Tucson. Though she’s no longer living the van life full-time, she still has Bonnie Clyde, and she credits her time living on the road with helping her save the money she needed to put a down payment on her home. She still uses her special van to go on trips and travel to California for training camps.

Raftery finds it difficult to name a specific place that has captured her heart more than others during her travels (though she names Colombia as one of the locations she hopes to return to as the years pass), but she is firm in her belief that traveling and jiu-jitsu go hand-in-hand.

“It was because of my love for travel that I found jiu-jitsu in the first place! But throughout my jiu-jitsu journey, I’ve never hesitated to bring my gi or no-gi gear and find a local place to train,” she says. “I’ve always been warmly welcomed, no matter where I went or what language they spoke. Especially now, as I see a lot of practitioners who’ve never left the four walls of their own academy talking sh*t about other practitioners at other academies, I think it’s vitally important to travel and visit other academies. It helps people see how really similar we all are, regardless of our differences, because we share this passionate love for the gentle art.”

As Raftery looks ahead to her F2W match tonight, she expresses no signs of nerves or insecurities — she’s just happy to be back to doing what she loves. “Sure, some people can say I’m the underdog, but I don’t feel like it. I’ve fought Talita a few times and she’s a great competitor. I’m just excited to be competing again! The title is just an added perk. I’ve never done jiu-jitsu for the belts, the medals or the accolades. I do jiu-jitsu because I love it. I compete because it’s fun and it forces me to grow.”

Don’t let her happy-go-lucky approach fool you, though — she’s in this match to win it, and she’s been training accordingly in preparation for her big challenge on the stage tonight. “Since moving back to Tucson, I’ve been working with some awesome people in the local community, especially the team at 10th Planet Tucson,” she says. “Anthony Birchak (who, funny enough, I grew up with!) runs the academy and has really been helping me with my wrestling and leglocks. I’ve brought the Atos training mentality with me, and the so the comp classes have become this awesome hybrid Atos-10P creature that I think has really helped me develop as an athlete.” 

As she looks toward the future, Raftery has plenty of goals she wants to accomplish on the mats, but it should come as no surprise that she’s looking far beyond just one area of focus. “I’ve always believed in being a really well-rounded person. I’ve accomplished a lot in jiu-jitsu, mostly because I’ve typically say yes to every opportunity that presents itself. I’ll continue doing that, whether that means competing, teaching, traveling to teach, or whatever!

“I recently commentated at a Submission on the Shore event, which was a ton of fun. But I’ll also be pursuing things outside of jiu-jitsu, too. I have both a BA and an MA, and I’m looking to get my PhD. Wherever that journey leads, my jiu-jitsu journey will subsequently evolve with it. I guess you can say I’m a bit Taoist in that way.”

You can watch Raftery vs. Alencar, plus many other exciting matches when Fight 2 Win 153 streams live on FloGrappling tonight!


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