Bulloch Academy junior Kyra Samuels might not seem imposing at first sight as she just barely scrapes the five-foot mark.
But don’t try to tell that to any of her opponents on the jiu-jitsu mat.
Last weekend, Samuels travelled to Irvine, Calif. to compete in the Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship - a prestigious international competition. With three submission victories in as many matches, she claimed the tournament championship in the Blue Belt, Rooster division.
The victory wasn’t exactly what she was expecting when the event began. After several competitions where she entered as a junior, Samuels headed to California to compete in the adult division, putting her at an age disadvantage with all of her opponents.
“I really wasn’t all that confident,” Samuels said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my first match, my opponent was really good and had the advantage most of the time. I tried to stay calm and focused. She finally made a mistake and I was able to turn things around.”
That sort of patience and mindset played a key role in delivering Samuels a championship.
In jiu-jitsu, there are no arm or leg strikes. That eliminates the possibility of an instant win via knockout that is seen in boxing or other martial arts-related competitions, but the highly technical nature of the discipline makes any mistake or opportunistic move just as vital as any key punch or kick could be.
In order to be well-rounded enough to compete in the likes of an international event, Samuels routinely trained her craft for three hours each day, adding in several miles of running or other exercises on top of her technical preparations.
“It takes a lot of training to prepare,” Samuels said. “I also went down a weight class, which made keeping up my strength and stamina even more difficult. I think that ended up paying off. I worked hard to get myself ready for this tournament and all of the training helped me to stay focused in the middle of matches.”
Samuels acknowledged after the fact that — having proven herself against some of the best — her tactics and skill outweighed any size advantage and that she’ll likely move up to a weight class more natural for her when she competes in her next competition.
As impressive as the scope of her victory was, Samuels has also climbed to the top of her discipline in a relatively quick amount of time.
Her father also practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu and introduced the art to Samuels when she was young. Kyra showed some early interest before taking a break from the sport, only to come back as she was preparing to enter high school.
“When I was about 14, I decided to give it another try,” Samuels said. “I did it for about a year in Statesboro and then I started training in Savannah every day.
“I like that it’s a little different from what most girls do. I entered a few small competitions and did well, and that convinced me that if I kept training hard, I could really do well at this.”
With her recent victory, Samuels is now setting her sights on the World IBJJF Championships, to be hosted in Long Beach, Calif. June 1-4. Her possible move up in weight class will make for new and stronger opponents, but a win in her first tournament in the adult division seems to have provided a shot in the arm moving forward.
“In this sport, you definitely can’t get down on yourself or think you’re going to lose,” Samuels said. “I had to fight through that first match when I wasn’t sure about things, but after that I felt like I kept getting stronger and better.”