Kristina Barlaan – Journey to become a World Champion

Kristina Barlaan is a black belt under the Caio Terra Association in San Jose, California.

“A female, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt on her journey to become a World Champion and to INSPIRE others to become Champions on the mat and in life.”

Today, the Jiu-jitsu Times talks with Kristina about her quest to become a world champion, her training wisdom, her advice for women in BJJ,  and her philosophy of jiu-jitsu and life.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Kristina, can you tell us how and why you got started in Brazilian jiu-jitsu? Who were your main professors and how did each of them influence your jiu-jitsu? What got you addicted to BJJ?

Kristina Barlaan: I was first introduced to jiu-jitsu when I started training Muay Thai at the Cesar Gracie Academy. My Muay Thai instructor saw how flexible I was, so he decided to show me some moves. Since it was no-gi, it didn’t really make any sense to me.

I didn’t understand how technique could overcome strength and size advantages. I pretty much decided that jiu-jitsu wasn’t for me. It took me a year to try jiu-jitsu again.

My teammate convinced me to try a class, letting me borrow his gi top, and I was hooked. The addition of the grips made a huge difference in how I understood the movements and techniques. I wanted to do more classes, but since I couldn’t afford it, Cesar let me clean the mats and lead stretching classes in exchange.

When I was able to officially sign-up for classes, Cesar brought Caio Terra in as the new head instructor. I remember being in disbelief when first seeing Caio because he looked to only be a little bigger than me. Watching him sweep 200-pound men with ease quickly turned that disbelief into awe.

Cesar taught the old school mentality of training hard through tough rolls to get better and the introduction of Caio’s modern and very smooth, technical style I believe gave me a good balance right from the start.

While Cesar’s “just train” approach to teaching is what got me hooked, it was Caio’s style of “technique conquers all” teaching that really made me fall in love with jiu-jitsu. Caio’s attention and appreciation to detail really made me believe in jiu-jitsu and myself.

After Cesar and Caio promoted me to blue belt, I moved to Arizona and was then under Gustavo Dantas, who would promote me to purple and brown belt. I owe a lot of my success in jiu-jitsu to him and his teaching.

All three of my instructors played different roles in my jiu-jitsu. Toughness, technique, and tenacity. These are the main qualities that I have learned from them and what I try to exemplify in my own jiu-jitsu.

Jiu-jitsu Times: You have a long list of competitive championship victories:

4x IBJJF Pan Jiu-Jitsu Champion
7x IBJJF American National Champion
ADCC Veteran (Beijing 2013)

Talk about your goal and dream of winning a world championship. Why is this goal so important to you?

Kristina Barlaan: I believe it is every athlete’s dream to be able to call themselves a world champion. I have always been naturally competitive, so I have always worked hard to be able to stand with and be one of the best.

A world title, for me, is a validation of the years of hard work I have invested in myself. And this extends far past jiu-jitsu.

Even before I started training jiu-jitsu, before I even knew what it was, and before I even set foot into a martial arts gym, I have always striven to be at my best in whatever I put my time and attention to.

Whether it was: ballet, b-girling (breakdancing), painting, or music, I wanted to be my personal best.

I’m always in competition with myself, so a being a world champion for me doesn’t mean that I’m better than the other competitors; it means that on that specific day, I was able to overcome all of my own personal obstacles and challenges to be the best version of myself at a competitive level.

Smooth moves by Kristina Barlaan BJJ

Jiu-jitsu Times: What are your preparations for a major competition like? Describe a typical week of training getting ready for a big tournament? What sacrifices do you have to make to prepare for a major competition?

Kristina Barlaan: When it comes to preparing for major tournaments, I don’t feel that I do anything that’s particularly special.

Training 2-3 times a day 5-6 days of the week, meal prep and dieting, and adding strength and conditioning I feel is the standard for any athlete competing at a high level. What I feel is different from most is that I live an hour away from the gym and I also teach in three different cities, all of which are not close to each other, throughout the week.

What this means, on top of lots of mileage on my trusty Honda Civic, is that I barely get to spend time at home with my family or even sleep on my own bed.

Having a sit down meal with my family has become a rarity. I do all my meal prep and pack my clothes for the week into the trunk of my car.

On a Monday, I will drive an hour to the gym to make it to strength and conditioning in the morning. Midday will involve at least 2 hours of competition training.

I’ll get a couple hours to rest before having to teach at night and then immediately go back to more training. I’ll top off the night with either more drilling or doing judo.

Now, instead of driving an hour home, I will drive 30 mins instead to sleep on my student’s couch. Their living room will be my bedroom for the next 3 days.

This is, more or less, my daily routine. There are even days where my amount of driving and teaching will rival my amount of training.

I teach 7 days a week, so finding personal time is also a challenge, but I always make sure to take care of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally somehow.

Jiu-jitsu Times: As jiu-jitsu grows all over the world, more women are becoming involved in a sport that has been mostly made up of men. Can you talk about your efforts in helping grow women’s BJJ? What advice do you have for an academy that wants to grow their women’s jiu-jitsu program?

Kristina Barlaan: When I was a purple belt, I started a project in Arizona called Inspire, which is an all-female open mat that allows women to come together and not only train, but to help empower, motivate, and strengthen each other.

Like many other women in this sport, I didn’t have many female training partners when I first started.  I didn’t mind it so much, but I still wanted to be able to have female teammates who I could connect and share experiences with that would be different from my male counterparts.

Inspire was my way of bringing the female community together so that we would never have to look at each other as competition, just companions on the same journey.

When I saw that Inspire was so successful, I then moved on to promoting Copa Bela, a women-only Jiu-Jitsu tournament that featured a $1000 prize to the Brown/Black belt absolute winner.

I wanted to give the female jiu-jitsu community a tournament that could showcase just how powerful and beautiful women’s jiu-jitsu is.

When I moved back to California, Copa Bela continued to flourish under GD Jiu-Jitsu Events and I made sure to introduce Inspire events to the Bay Area.

The very 1st Copa Bela in 2012 had 36 competitors and this year, the 4th installment had grown to 91 competitors.

I haven’t been able to promote an Inspire event since 2014, but from it’s start from 2011, the event has grown from 55 participants to over 120.

Outside of starting these events, I also teach 2 women’s BJJ classes (in 2 different schools) a week.

I believe that any academy that adds a class that caters specifically to their female students will notice a considerable difference in not only their morale and technique, but the overall camaraderie of the gym will also strengthen.

To want to grow a program means that you want to grow your school. So, whatever you are willing to invest on any of your other classes (kids, beginners, etc.) give that same passion to women.

Have an instructor that is not just excited about teaching jiu-jitsu, but excited to take a role in empowering and inspiring women to be more than just good practitioners of the art.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Can you give some advice for young women who are starting to train Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Can you share a principle or training practice, (or training advice or philosophy, tips on nutrition, attitude etc.) that worked for you in your training? For example, drills, attitude to rolling, or conditioning.

Kristina Barlaan: It’s really common to hear, “Don’t be afraid to mess up, fall down, fail, or lose”, but I like to advise, “Don’t be afraid to shine, succeed, and kick butt”.

It’s so easy to imagine all the things that can go wrong, so actually imagining things going right is much scarier.

It means that we must have hope and expectations for ourselves and hardly ever do we want to be disappointed when those dreams don’t come into realization quickly.

Jiu-jitsu is a journey that never ends. It’s consistent and continuous, just like breathing or the flowing of time.

So enjoy every moment of it. Enjoy the fall and the rise. Embrace and take ownership of your insecurities, so that they don’t own you.

Fall in love with the process of building yourself up, falling apart, and then building yourself up again.

And remember to always breathe. More often than not, you are going to be the smallest person in class and it will be easy to think, “Who will want to train with ME?”, but always tell yourself that you are still a valuable training partner.

When you step into the mat, you not only make yourself stronger, but you make others around you strong as well.


Jiu-jitsu Times: Can you talk about your philosophy of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, martial arts training and life? What place does jiu-jitsu have in your life? How do the lessons in the gym carry over into the rest of your life?

Kristina Barlaan: Jiu-jitsu has helped me to accept and love myself for who I am.
Jiu-jitsu is the only time I can honestly say that I can be unapologetically me. From my struggles with anxiety and depression and being able to embrace my femininity, to overcoming traumatic experiences and an unhealthy self-image, jiu-jitsu has taught me that I always have the choice to either accept my circumstances or fight for something better.

I have also learned that sometimes, you don’t need to force things into fruition. Sometimes, patience and finesse will give you what you want.

I have referenced him before, so I’ll reference him again: Bruce Lee said that the goal of martial artists is to honestly express themselves. To express oneself honestly doesn’t just mean saying what is on your mind or saying what your feelings are. It means to be as you are and to live as a person free of limitations.

That is what jiu-jitsu has done for me and for that reason alone, I have fallen in love with it.
As I said before, jiu-jitsu is like breathing for me. It feels natural and right and I must admit that I have no idea where my life would be if I didn’t have jiu-jitsu.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Are there any exciting projects that you are currently working on? Any competitions or events that you are preparing for or programs in your gym?

Kristina Barlaan: Currently, all of my efforts are focused on competing at the highest level this year, especially since it is my first year as a black belt.

Worlds is only a few weeks away, so my time and energy is being spent on being the best competitive version of myself.

Once Worlds is done, I would like to bring my attention back to promoting Inspire events and also put together women’s training camps.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Can you tell us something interesting about yourself that most Jiu-jitsu Times readers would not know?

Kristina Barlaan: I’m not actually sure what would qualify as interesting, lol.
Something along the lines of liking non-alcoholic piña coladas, long walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, assembling puzzles while sipping on a cup of hot tea, and breakfast in bed on a rainy day?
Just kidding 😉

Before martial arts came into my life, I was very dedicated to dance. At one point, I thought I would do ballet professionally.

I’m a huge nerd. I love watching anime and if I had enough time, you would definitely see me cosplaying at a comic convention.

I love learning. People always tell me I’m talented because I know how to do a lot of things, but really I just like to dedicate time to things I want to learn and be proficient at. If I want to possess a skill, I’ll sit and learn how to do it.

I’m a big foodie. Being Filipino means that I love eating and feeding the people around me. If for some reason I couldn’t do jiu-jitsu anymore, I would seriously consider having my own food business.

If people only see me as a badass athlete, they are missing out on who I really am: a dancing nerd with a penchant for art, music, and food and happens to also like lifting heavy things, assembling IKEA furniture, and cuddle fighting.

Kristina Barlaan: Triangle from the Inverted Guard


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