Betty Broadhurst describes her life as two halves of a whole. There’s the sensible, traditionally accomplished Betty who wandered through various life milestones before her fifties: a UNC Chapel Hill graduate and multi-sport scholar-athlete who became a successful pharmacist and mother of two.
Then there’s the Betty who blossomed after age fifty-four: the wide-eyed white belt, the eldest member of her local jiu-jitsu class by decades, who – a decade later – would earn her black belt on an IBJJF podium after conquering Masters’ Worlds at brown belt.
“It’s been overwhelming in such a positive way,” says Broadhurst. “I had no idea that just being an old person doing jiu-jitsu could be such a positive thing, but I guess to me, I was just doing something that I wanted to do. I didn’t realize that it was that big of a deal. In my world, and in my mind, I was just going after something I wanted – but some of the messages people have sent me about how I’ve inspired them have been so rewarding. I’ve actually tried to take the time to respond to everybody because I remember what it meant to me when people would respond to me.”
Warm and effusive, Broadhurst loves sharing her experiences with other jiu-jitsu practitioners, particularly those with less experience, or athletes who hesitate to get more involved in the sport due to perceived barriers of age or gender. “I’ve been doing [jiu-jitsu] for twelve years, and when you start pulling little pieces of it out and sharing it with people, they’re so grateful,” she tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I like showing people that I’m active – I train four days a week, and I’m adding wrestling on no-gi nights,” she adds. Chuckling, she smiles. “At sixty-five years old, I’m kind of just living my best life, traveling and training.”
Broadhurst didn’t always have her sights set on a black belt – much less a world title. Once upon a time, Broadhurst was simply a fifty-something divorcee with grown children in college, still feeling too young for AARP and retirement, and bored out of her mind by common leisure activities available to women in her age group. “When you enter your fifties, you notice that people are starting to talk about things like where they want to retire, or downsizing their homes, and I’d be like, ‘God, I don’t want to talk about that kind of stuff,’ you know?”
Broadhurst laughs. “I hate to say it, but it was starting to get kind of depressing. I was like, ‘I’m not ready to throw the towel in!’” She’d also dipped her toes back into the dating pool: “Not that I was looking for love or a relationship, but I still felt healthy and young; I thought I was still attractive.” So, open-minded to the option of a second chance at romance, she’d go out from time to time with men her friends set her up with.
Then, one day, she went out with a man who – when Broadhurst politely declined a second date – refused to take no for an answer. Instead, he began following her incessantly to her home and work.
“I guess bad things do have a silver lining if you’re strong, and you get through them,” says Broadhurst. “But this was a bad situation. I was around fifty-three, fifty-four, and I had a stalker. This person was stalking me from work, parking outside my house at night. I had to have my phone number changed.”
Though Broadhurst was able to obtain a restraining order, her stalker persisted. “Let me tell you, there is nothing more terrifying than when you try to explain to someone that you’re being followed,” says Broadhurst. “And a restraining order is nothing more than a piece of paper. Even though a judge may hand you a restraining order, if that person wants to get to you, and they are crazy enough to violate the law, it’s just a piece of paper. They’re going to come knocking at your door – and this person did.”
Increasingly frightened, Broadhurst considered buying a gun, but never truly felt comfortable with depending solely on a firearm for her safety. When she saw a flyer for a women’s self-defense class offered by her local jiu-jitsu academy, Broadhurst decided to attend, figuring that the extra education certainly couldn’t hurt.
There, Broadhurst, along with the other women in the class, learned the basic trap-and-roll, bear hug escapes, and other basics of day one jiu-jitsu for self-defense. “It seemed so effortless,” says Broadhurst. “There was no face-punching. There was no kicking.”
However, as a lifelong athlete, Broadhurst quickly figured out that if she wanted to be able to apply the skillset the class taught – particularly under duress – she’d have to practice it, and practice it repeatedly. Training muscle memory, after all, requires more than just a few reps in a single class. “It’s like learning jump rope or playing tennis,” Broadhurst observes. “Unless you do it, you’re not going to remember it.”
Broadhurst explained her situation to the instructors, who offered her a few free one-on-one lessons at their local academy: Evolution BJJ, a Nova Uniâo affiliate based out of Wilmington, North Carolina. Sure enough, when she took them up on the offer, she found that her skills improved with practice. That hooked her. “I want to do more of this,” she remembers telling Jeremy Owens, a Renato “Charuto” Verissimo black belt, and the head instructor at the time. Broadhurst was promptly invited to the academy’s group classes.
Adjusting to the idea of group classes took some time. Broadhurst would be the oldest member by far, as well as one of the very few female students – and the other women were all college-aged. “I wasn’t hesitant about the touching,” says Broadhurst. The close contact aspect of the sport didn’t faze her. However, she did contend with another source of anxiety: her age, and whether it would create barriers to social acceptance within the gym. “I think that when something happens to you, like a divorce, your kids leaving [for college], all these things that happened in the previous year – and then you have somebody who’s stalking you! – your self-esteem starts leaving,” Broadhurst confesses. “Your self-confidence disappears. You’re scared when you go to work. You’re scared when you look in the back seat of your car. And that’s no way to live.”
Broadhurst recalls arriving an hour early before Saturday classes for private lessons, at first. The instructor, savvy to her concerns, would invite a training partner from the class – usually a colored belt, sometimes male, sometimes female, but always a variety of body types – to work with Broadhurst. By the time Broadhurst was ready to take the dive into true group classes, she’d already worked with eight of the regulars. “I’d built this thing up in my head like I was going to be the wallflower,” says Broadhurst, “but it was the most welcoming environment. The people I rolled with all remembered my name, and I’d already been working with most of them, so I wasn’t afraid of the close contact.”
And pretty soon, she was in love – with jiu-jitsu, that is. “It was the perfect environment for me to grow my love of this sport,” Broadhurst remembers. She recalls those early days with a grin. “I was working full time, so I would go to night classes.” Slowly, but surely, her confidence returned. Broadhurst had honed a new weapon – and this one, unlike a gun, couldn’t be taken away: “I finally felt like I had some tools that I could use. Just like when you read a book, it’s the knowledge that can’t be taken away from you. I knew how to choke somebody, I knew how to kneebar somebody.”
Did Broadhurst ever have to apply her newfound skillset against her stalker’s advances? Thankfully not. “After eight weeks or so, this stalking problem took care of itself,” says Broadhurst. Her unwanted admirer had finally, apparently, lost interest. “But I continued to take the class because I really liked it! It was a good physical workout, and I wasn’t one for going to a gym and just standing on a treadmill and running. I didn’t realize it at the time, but jiu-jitsu was also meeting that social need I had – that social interaction with supportive people who were helping me be stronger, not just physically, but mentally. It rebuilt my confidence. Suddenly, you’re a part of something that’s hard to describe, where even though you’re older, you didn’t feel old around these people. In fact, I felt younger!”
While, in the end, she may not have been forced to use her jiu-jitsu knowledge for physical self-defense, Broadhurst obtained something equally valuable: true passion. Instead of floating half-heartedly through book and wine clubs, or nodding along politely to AARP plans, Broadhurst consumed jiu-jitsu knowledge with a physical and intellectual hunger befitting her background as a scholar-athlete. “I started reading about it,” Broadhurst remembers. “Because I wanted to learn where it came from. I loved academia anyway – I’d gone back and gotten my master’s degree in public health administration when I was raising a two-year-old and a four-year-old, during nights and weekends at Chapel Hill – and I’d always liked long-term goals.”
Broadhurst would see teammates with blue belts, thinking wistfully to herself – like many a fresh white belt – that she’d “never get that good.” Still, seeing those blue belts gave her a tangible goal to work toward.
Sure enough, Broadhurst’s interest in goal-setting eventually led her to the tournament scene. Broadhurst began noticing small groups of students who would stay longer after training – students who seemed to be a cut above the others, skill-wise. This, she discovered, was her academy’s competition team. She asked for the coach’s permission to join.
“Do you think you’d ever want to compete?” he’d asked her.
“Well, I’ve been a competitor all my life,” Broadhurst responded. It was true – after all, she’d been a high school and collegiate athlete. “So why not try it?”
The coach agreed, believing that a tournament here and there would sharpen Broadhurst’s skills and help her progress in the sport. Still, Broadhurst’s competitive career wasn’t an easy one. Very few other competitors – particularly female competitors – could be found in her age bracket, even in the masters’ divisions. Her opponents were typically far heavier, far younger, or both, but Broadhurst wasn’t deterred. As she recalls, the first girls she ever faced at white belt were in their late teens or early twenties – she didn’t have a viable master’s opponent at the time – and while Broadhurst ultimately lost, she was also delighted with the experience. “I just felt alive,” she remembers, grinning. “This was like being at the Olympics for me!” Laughing, she adds, “I was probably the happiest loser you could ever see at a competition – because I was winning, just by being out there.”
When Broadhurst’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Broadhurst moved to a rural town in North Carolina to be closer, which also meant switching jiu-jitsu academies. A blue belt by then, Broadhurst became the first female student at an – at the time – all-male academy forty miles outside of town.
She wouldn’t, however, be the last. “The wives of the men I trained with had an interest in this strange woman out there competing and training,” Broadhurst explains. “I became friends with one of the wives because her husband was one of the few training partners I had who was under two hundred pounds! They also had a daughter in the kids’ program, so she was around a lot. We got to chatting, and I had dinner with them a couple of times.”
Eventually, Broadhurst invited her new friend – still comparatively youthful at thirty-five – to join her in training. While the other woman demurred at first, Broadhurst finally convinced her: “Your husband’s a brown belt, and he competes,” Broadhurst pointed out, “and your daughter’s doing it too. You’re the only one not doing it, and I need you.”
Broadhurst smiles, remembering their first time in class together. “I was so happy, because she told me that she’d wanted to try jiu-jitsu, but had been afraid – and a lot of her concerns were similar to mine: that it was a man’s sport, with a lot of contacts. So I partnered with her until she started feeling more comfortable, and before you know it, she’s out there, rolling hard with the men!”
It was like opening a floodgate. Soon, another woman joined, then another. Before long, the formerly all-male academy in that rural North Carolina community was a coed jiu-jitsu gym.
Broadhurst went on to earn her purple belt at that same academy. Her mother’s little North Carolina town, however, wasn’t the last stop on Broadhurst’s particular jiu-jitsu journey. After her mother recovered fully from cancer, a new job brought Broadhurst to the Virginia area, where she began training under an affiliate gym.
As the highest-ranking woman in the gym, Broadhurst found herself stuck in a tricky position. On one hand, she wanted to develop her own competitive resume, and continue growing in the sport. On the other, the gym owners recognized her as an ideal mentor for brand new women on the mat. While Broadhurst enjoyed working with the new girls, devoting the majority of her time to bringing them up to speed also limited her time and energy for working on her own game.
In the end, Broadhurst had to pick her priorities – and ultimately, she chose the Virginia Beach-based Ares affiliate academy run by Diego Bispo, who was known for training multiple female world champions and other serious competitors. “I knew Diego from different competitions,” Broadhurst explains. “I met with him to explain my situation, because changing academies is a big deal, and I didn’t want anybody mad at me, but I was at a stage where I only had X number of years left in me, and I needed to use that time to grow – and I just wasn’t growing where I was at.”
Bispo believed in Broadhurst from the start. He trained her with the intent of molding them into another one of his world champions and told her as much multiple times. “I can’t say enough good things about his coaching,” Broadhurst enthuses. “He kept telling me, ‘you’re going to be world champion one day.’ And I kept saying, ‘I don’t know, Diego, I just want a match.’”
Nothing prepared Broadhurst for the moment when Bispo’s prediction came true.
A brown belt woman in her sixties who’d never competed before – but who’d had extensive experience in training camps – had been matched up against Broadhurst. Broadhurst, for her part, was delighted at finally having an opponent her own age. “I was so thrilled to have a real match,” says Broadhurst. “And I was so grateful to her for stepping up.”
After both women took automatic golds in their respective weight classes, they met on the mat for the absolute match. “My professor got part of the match on tape, but he was so excited, he dropped his phone,” Broadhurst remembers with a chuckle. “So, number one, I’m on this high that I’ve got a match and that we’re going to be the oldest competitors in the event – there’s a pride in that alone that maybe no one else can understand, to know that you are not only older but also high-ranked in jiu-jitsu, that you’re a brown belt competing as an older practitioner. I was proud that I’d put in a lot of time and miles of travel and effort to get there, and I thought, ‘This is it. I might, might win.’”
“I’d always lost in the past, to be honest,” confides Broadhurst. “I always took silver.”
This time, not only did Broadhurst win her gold medal match – she won by submission. “My opponent was good – she was very strong,” says Broadhurst. “She pulled guard, which I wasn’t expecting. She went for a sweep, but I managed to find my balance and pass the guard. I was able to get the Americana from side control.”
A teammate snapped a photo of Broadhurst’s expression the moment she tapped her opponent: a look of pure surprise and elation. “I didn’t even expect a match, and I got a match. I didn’t expect an opponent in my age bracket, and I got that. I won the match, which I wasn’t expecting, and I won with a submission!” She grins broadly at the memory, even now. “What more could you ask for? I was on cloud nine! I mean, I was beaming.”
“I kept thanking my opponent,” she remembers. Broadhurst praises her opponent for being willing to step onto a competition mat for the first time in her sixties – particularly in an advanced skill division, at brown belt. “She was wonderful, and I was so grateful to her,” says Broadhurst. “Grateful for her bravery.”
Of course, as most of the jiu-jitsu community now knows – thanks to the viral nature of social media – a gold medal wasn’t the only honor awaiting Broadhurst on the Worlds podium. “We got the medals and all,” says Broadhurst, “and then all of a sudden, this black belt comes out! And everything was just kind of fog after that.”
Even now, the poignancy of that moment clearly strikes a chord with Broadhurst: “Luckily, Felicia [Oh] got it on camera, because I’m just sitting there like –” Here, Broadhurst self-deprecatingly mimics her own tears of joy. “They were real tears,” Broadhurst continues. “In my heart, I never dreamed that the first class I ever took would lead here. That I would go from just wanting to learn self-defense to reading about the history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and everything it does for weaker people and for women, to moving, and having to drive forty miles to go to a class, and having to change academies, and how through it all, I’ve just kept going and going.”
Broadhurst compares the journey to grad school: “It’s been this long-term goal, and I never knew if I’d get there.”
Competition podiums aren’t the only place where Broadhurst fuels her love of jiu-jitsu. These days, Broadhurst may be retired from full-time work as a pharmacist, but she’s still hard at work promoting her sport of choice. Never one to sit still for long, she’s found herself putting the newfound time on her hands toward a passion project of her own: a small but mighty jiu-jitsu company that she’s christened Roll Forever.
“When I lived in North Carolina, it was so hard for people, money-wise, to get the opportunities to go train up north at Renzo’s, or at Atos, or with the Mendes brothers – any of the big names,” says Broadhurst. “So it was a real treat when people got to have seminars. I thought to myself that this was something I could do – I could start putting on seminars, and bringing in athletes to teach.”
Broadhurst explains, “I called it ‘Roll Forever,’ because I remember someone asked me when I was going to hang up my gi, and I said, ‘I won’t. I plan to roll forever.’ So that’s how it got its name – I didn’t have it incorporated or anything like that, but I started contacting pretty high-level athletes and inviting them to come to do seminars. You just have to make sure you cover their flight and lodging, and you set your admission cost. I’d ask some of the larger gyms to host, but Roll Forever would put on the seminars. So I started having these seminars, and it was a win-win because the athletes made money, and meanwhile, these rural areas in the Carolinas got to be exposed to real world class jiu-jitsu.” Sure enough, students would attend the seminars from over two hundred miles away, which quickly clued Broadhurst into the fact that she’d tapped into a hungry market.
One of perhaps Broadhurst’s most remarkable characteristics, on and off the mats, is her ability to connect with people within the global jiu-jitsu community. In this respect, Broadhurst’s age is an asset. At sixty-five, she shares a generation with the mothers of many of jiu-jitsu’s most promising young competitors. She describes how a chance encounter with Trish Ryan – mother of Gordon and Nicky Ryan – led to a friendship with the family: “I met her at a NAGA in Maryland. I was older, close to her age, and we were sitting together, and she asked, ‘Do you compete? Because you look like you’re my age!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, who are you here for?’ I didn’t know who her sons were at the time – I just saw that one was a tall skinny kid in a purple belt, and the other was a little chubby kid in a yellow belt.”
Broadhurst and Trish hit it off and got to be Facebook friends. Fast forward a few years: Gordon Ryan, then a brown belt, had begun seeing success on the tournament circuit but was still a relative unknown at the time. Broadhurst invited Gordon to North Carolina for a seminar via his mother. Gordon, who’d been traveling to compete anyway, agreed eagerly, happy to make a weekend of jiu-jitsu and take up a chance to earn some money.
As fate would have it, around the same time, Gordon was sent to replace an injured Garry Tonon at an EBI event – where Gordon’s string of submission victories catapulted him instantly into stardom in the grappling community. Two weeks later, he dutifully showed up at Broadhurst’s gym to teach the scheduled seminar. Broadhurst laughs at the memory: “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, how did you get Gordon Ryan?’ It was crazy! The timing was perfect – these days, I probably couldn’t get five minutes of a private lesson with him for the amount that the whole seminar cost.”
That one Gordon Ryan event – timed via happenstance on the eve of his superstardom – set the stage for Roll Forever’s growth. More and more athletes began coming out to do Broadhurst’s seminars. It’s given her the opportunity to train with the likes of Bernardo Faria, Marcelo Garcia, and Tom DeBlass, to name just a few.
Before she knew it, Broadhurst was getting Roll Forever incorporated, which also got her thinking about other ways she could support the jiu-jitsu community. “I’d been using this money to support athletes in my community pay registration fees to IBJJF and such,” says Broadhurst. “So I told myself, ‘Betty, you need to take this to the next level. You need to sponsor a big athlete, someone who’s upper echelon, and get them to give you some visibility.’” That also meant creating a tangible product – which was how Roll Forever branched into making rashguards, shorts, and other merchandise.
Once again, fate and timing intervened. Shortly after Roll Forever’s business began expanding, Broadhurst crossed paths with Tristar phenoms Ethan Crelinsten and Oliver Taza, Canadian athletes who were training in New York at the time. Crelinsten and Taza wanted to train full-time in the U.S., but due to their Canadian citizenship, couldn’t do so without a work visa.
“Why don’t I be your visa sponsor?” Broadhurst offered. She made good on the deal by contacting an immigration attorney. Soon, she was the proud employer of two new marketing representatives for Roll Forever: Taza and Crelinsten, who just also happened to be world-class competitors. Broadhurst describes the arrangement as a “win-win” situation: Taza and Crelinsten were now free to build their Stateside jiu-jitsu careers and start generating real income, and Broadhurst got to grow her company’s brand via their success.
“They’re good boys, and they’re good friends,” says Broadhurst. “And this is their lives. It’s what they want to do. And I’m so happy that I was able to contribute to that.”
So, what’s the best way to support Roll Forever’s athletes these days? Broadhurst offers three suggestions:
First, gym owners can always host seminars by Roll Forever athletes.
Second, one hundred percent of proceeds from online purchases of Roll Forever apparel and training gear support Roll Forever athletes.
And finally, following Roll Forever on Instagram improves visibility for the company and provides a handy resource for keeping track of events, seminars, and new merchandise in the online shop.
“I didn’t start this company to make money for Betty,” says Broadhurst. “I did it to support athletes. If I had to say one thing about it, that’s what I would say: it’s athletes for athletes.”
When discussing the past decade of Broadhurst’s life, it’s almost laughable to think that the Broadhurst of today – freshly-minted black belt, masters’ brown belt world champion, and beloved entrepreneur working with celebrities of the sport – once looked at a blue belt wandering the mats of her local jiu-jitsu academy, and wondered if she’d ever be good enough to wear a blue belt of her own. Broadhurst, however, grins fondly at the reminder of the white belt version of herself. “It kind of made me smile inside again when you reminded me of how much I was hoping for that blue belt,” she says. “Because it reminded me, ‘God, Betty, you really did make it!’”
Despite her already remarkable accomplishments, Broadhurst remains salt of the earth in attitude and demeanor. However, that doesn’t mean she’s stopped pushing herself. “Now that I’m a black belt, I want to get better at takedowns,” she shares. She’s been working with a college wrestler who recently began attending her academy, a white belt who trades wrestling tips to Broadhurst in exchange for her help with developing his jiu-jitsu.
Outside of developing her own game, Broadhurst has also been training up on refereeing and has confirmed that she will be refereeing the ADCC West Coast trials, the weekend before she competes at Pans.
“I always try my best, even when it’s not that good,” says Broadhurst. “I just want to inspire people. It’s not like I’m some kind of super world champion. It’s just the fact that I want to let people know that this is a lifetime sport – and you can keep doing it, and keep doing it.”
She encourages as much mutual support within the jiu-jitsu community as possible: “There’s a lot you can do to help people out. And the more people we have in the gym, the more people we have to train with, which means the more we’re all going to get better.”
To learn more about Roll Forever and explore ways to support Broadhurst’s athletes, visit the website.
To keep up with Broadhurst’s ongoing adventures in the jiu-jitsu world, follow her on Instagram.