Untappable: A Blue Belt’s Journey From Multiple Strokes & A Car Accident To The World Master Championship

Image Source: Alia Garcia-Valadez

Everyone’s first day of martial arts is tough, but Alia Garcia-Valadez finished off her first day at the gym by leaving in an ambulance. Now a BJJ blue belt, Garcia-Valadez started her martial arts journey fluctuating between 325 and 345lbs. A trip to the mailbox would leave her running out of breath, and stepping her exercise up to an actual martial arts class led to her passing out multiple times. But if anyone thought that such a harrowing first experience would be enough to scare her away, they were sorely mistaken. “I showed up the next day and just never really stopped showing up,” she says.

Garcia-Valadez trained striking for about a year and lost some weight in the process. She would sometimes stay to watch the jiu-jitsu classes, promising herself that she’d give it a try one day. “It had been on my list of goals for the year, but I just kept putting it off,” she says. “And if I’m completely honest with myself, it was mostly because I was scared. The whole idea of someone forcefully invading my personal space kind of freaked me out.”

To someone on the outside, it would look like Garcia-Valadez’s determination was putting her on a one-way path to success. Behind the scenes, though, she was dealing with far more than getting punched in the face. “There were a few years there that I was pretty sure I was living a Lemony Snicket story,” she says. “I was in the process of getting a divorce that timed perfectly with a company-wide layoff in a corporate job I was at for ten years. Right around that time, my oldest was struggling with addiction, overdosing, was homeless for a while, and I was living the life of a parent of an addict where you keep your phone next to you in fear that every call at all hours is the one where they tell you your child is dead. All of that, combined with ridiculously high blood pressure that had gone unchecked for too long, was the recipe for disaster.”

Despite weighing over a hundred pounds less than she had in fifteen years, Garcia-Valadez suffered her first stroke. It was a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), which is caused by a blood clot in the brain. Patients can temporarily lose function in their limbs and face, and Garcia-Valadez was stuck in the ICU for weeks after receiving a high dose of blood thinners so the clots would break up. “If it hadn’t been for my sister and brother-in-law acting quickly and calling 911, I wouldn’t be here. I regained mobility pretty quickly with physical therapy (and some good ol’ tough love from my ICU nurses) and jumped right back into training as soon as I could.”

The stroke was what finally pushed Garcia-Valadez to “kick it up a notch” by trying jiu-jitsu in December 2015, knowing that if she didn’t start it then, she never would. Like many newbies in the sport, she struggled through the first year, especially with what she describes as “being able to differentiate between my left and my right while being squished by people stronger than me.” She’d attend local tournaments to cheer on her teammates with no intention of jumping into the fray herself, but after a while, she began to feel like she was missing out. Never one to pass up a challenge, she signed up for her very first tournament… only to have no one to compete against.

Frustrated, but undeterred, she signed up for a second tournament. This time, she had opponents, but lost all of her matches. The losses, however, couldn’t override the joy that the experience ultimately gave her. “All three of my kiddos were there to watch. They had seen the disappointment of me not having anyone for the first one. How bummed I was that no one would agree to a match and how much the comments I heard that day affected me: ‘She’s just too damn big.’ ‘I didn’t sign up to be smashed.’ They saw the prep work involved for the second one. How happy I was that I finally had an opponent. And watched as their mom froze a little, stayed on bottom, and never moved from there.

“But I didn’t give up. I just kept fighting. And afterward, one of my kids posted a picture with the caption, ‘..mom lost. But we aren’t upset..we’re damn proud..she did it with a smile on her face..she had fun..and that’s all that matters to us.’ Those words, from my most introverted child who hands out praise so sparingly, made ALL of it worth it.”

With her kids’ support behind her, Garcia-Valadez continued to compete, traveling between Corpus Christi, Houston, and San Antonio to take advantage of every available opportunity. Rarely, though, did she get the chance to test herself against a competitor who shared her weight and rank. Here, too, she’s found ways to adapt. “After my first one where all I wanted was at least one match but instead went home with a refund, I’ve learned that it helps to network with other ladies beforehand and check brackets early on,” she says. “I’ve offered to go with the guys. But it’s always been a no. Most of my training partners over the years have been men. But I understand why promotions wouldn’t allow it. I’ve offered to go with upper belts. Even knowing that I very well could lose. I’ll go with whoever will agree to a match.

One of my top favorite matches ever was with a purple belt in the Gi. I lost via sub but had a blast rolling with her. I’ve even had black belts offer to roll with me at the tournaments just so I didn’t make the drive out for nothing. I’ve had people flat-out say no to me joining their bracket because of my weight or my age. In smaller tournaments, I’ve been super heavy for women anywhere between 185+ or 205+. I compete between 280-305lbs. I can empathize with why they would say no once they see me or find out my weight. Doesn’t make it any less frustrating to be rejected, though.”

Garcia-Valadez’s fights off the mats weren’t over either, though. Despite the stress relief and exercise she was getting from training, her life away from the gym had her working three jobs to house and feed her family. “I was burning the candle at both ends, and the medical bills kept piling up,” she says. “Next thing you know, I’m back in the ICU.”

The second stroke, another TIA, happened right in front of Garcia-Valadez’s mother and two daughters. Her daughters reacted quickly, having learned about “BE-FAST” (Balance, Eyes, Face, Arm, Speech, Time) from her first stay at the ICU, and once again, she survived — but the road to recovery was far more difficult the second time around.

“This one hit me like a ton of bricks. My hospital stay was longer. Regaining mobility took much longer than I wanted. I had noticeably more cognitive & physical deficiencies from this one than in the first one. Mood swings. Memory loss. Speech slurring. Mix-ups with sequencing and order,” she recalls.

Still, Garcia-Valadez returned to training, albeit with a weakened left side. “I had to relearn how to throw jabs. To have my brain tell my arm to tell my hand to move. Same for lead leg kicks,” she says. “My power was gone. Or so I thought.”

Basic actions most of us take for granted, like flipping a light switch or opening a water bottle, became major victories. Training sessions that were once filled by striking and kicking were spent gripping the lapels of a makeshift “opponent” that Garcia-Valadez’s teammates had created out of a kick pad, gi, and belt. “The toughest was re-learning how to tie my belt,” she says. “It was one of the most exhausting and humbling experiences. Much like jiu-jitsu, now that I think about it. It was all supposed to be temporary, but here I am a few years and three more TIAs later and the deficiencies still rear their ugly heads sometimes.”

To make matters worse, one of the blue belt’s strokes was brought on by another traumatic incident. Garcia-Valadez had recognized that she needed help and decided to move closer to her family for herself and her kids, hoping for a change that would reduce the stress in her family’s life. Then, right before she moved, she got T-boned in the car. She describes the accident as being “the icing on the already f*cktastic cupcake.” Suddenly, she was without a car and unable to work. “As if having to deal with a fractured clavicle and bruised ribs as a result of [the accident] isn’t enough, I go and have another stroke while I’m in the hospital dealing with it. Stress is a killer, ya know?” she says.

Ultimately, it was a second-year resident who’d recently attended a stroke conference who found out what was really causing Garcia-Valadez’s strokes: an autoimmune disease called Anti-Phospholipid Syndrome (APS). She’s now on blood thinners and will be for the rest of her life, but should her stress levels increase again, she could end up returning to the ICU.

Despite everything she’s been through, this Texan still has a can’t-stop-won’t-stop attitude. She has, however, learned to seek balance and prioritize her health, and in addition to moving closer to her family, she’s also left her high-stress corporate job despite knowing that she’d have to make some financial sacrifices as a result. “I’ve learned to live by the saying, ‘Know when to push. Know when to pause.’ It’s so easy to fall back into the go-go-go mode that I’ve always been about on and off the mats. I just can’t anymore,” she says. “My kids, unfortunately, had to grow up much faster than I would’ve liked because of the help I needed while going through PT. I’ve had to learn to just roll with the flow and pick and choose what I worry about. Whereas before, I’d be super stressed over the most minute things that quite honestly shouldn’t have warranted more than a few minutes of my attention.”

Thanks largely to a difficult conversation with her doctors, family, and coaches, Garcia-Valadez has also applied her “push-pause” mantra to her time in the gym. She now only trains jiu-jitsu, having reconciled with the fact that her longevity on the mats — and possibly her life — depended on her giving up striking. In jiu-jitsu, she’s stopped “training until she puked” and began to focus more on defense… which, of course, includes tapping earlier, especially when it comes to chokes.

“Do I miss striking? Of course,” she says. “Every single day. I still have all my gloves, shinguards, and hand wraps, and admittedly I get a little misty-eyed when I see Glory matches or people hitting pads. My school has a heavy bag, though, so I do get to dust the gloves off and knock it around every once in a while. And that helps. Muay Thai will always have my heart, but jiu-jitsu has a tight choke on my soul.”

Now, Garcia-Valadez is (healthily) pushing herself out of her comfort zone once more. In just a few days, she’ll be competing in her biggest tournament yet: the IBJJF World Master Championship. The preparation has been intense, and the cost will be a strain (though you can help by contributing to her GoFundMe here), but what it represents to her is priceless. “It means I’m here. It means I’m alive & capable. This all began because I wanted to push myself. I live for that push. Just pure competition with myself and the person I was yesterday.”

She, of course, has her sights set on a medal, but she’s also excited to have some fun and meet all of the online friends she’s made in the community over the years. “I’m also stoked to check out the local taco scene!” she says with a wink.

Thankfully, Garcia-Valadez now gets to throw herself completely into her passion. She works at the gym and is able to train every day of the week. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my years on Earth,” she says. “I will be a black belt one day. It may take me longer… but I WILL get there.”

Editor’s note: At the time of this post’s publication, the GoFundMe campaign to help Alia fund her trip to World Masters is still over $400 shy of its goal. Please consider contributing to the cause here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here