Since taking up Brazilian jiujitsu a little more than two years ago, Carlos Navarro trimmed more than 50 pounds from his frame, traded fast food for greens and fish, and no longer feels pain in his knees every morning. But before he gets too big-headed, all he has to do is peer into his 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom at the “over a hundred medals” she has accumulated over a similar span.
“She’s a big inspiration that I look up to,” said the 39-year-old bail bondsman from Gaithersburg.
London Navarro, a fifth grader who trains at Form Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore, took first place in the Grey Belt Junior 1 female lightweight division of the Pan Kids International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Jiu-Jitsu championship in February in California. Last month, she captured the gold medal in the same division of the Kids International IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu championship in Las Vegas after winning the Grey Belt Pee Wee 3 middleweight title a year ago.
“It feels amazing,” London said of her victories. “I wasn’t expecting any of that. I was just doing my best, and I didn’t expect to win.”
London’s path in Brazilian jiujitsu began out of desperation. According to her mother Kim, her then-9-year-old son Giancarlo was the victim of bullying by a classmate, who went unpunished by parents and the school. When the classmate began to torment London, who is two years younger than her brother, Kim began searching for solutions.
“We basically hit a wall, and I just decided to look up some form of martial arts that was as close to grappling and ground fighting as possible,” Kim said. “I came across Brazilian jiujitsu, and that’s how it all began.”
Signing up at Infinite Fighting Concepts in Gaithersburg in June 2016, London initially disliked the physical contact and told her mother she wanted to stop after a few sessions.
“I said that because it was really hard, and the people there were hurting me and stuff,” she said. “But my mom told me to stay in it because even though people are bigger, I could beat them.”
In February 2017, London competed in her first tournament and won her division. That showing changed her outlook.
“I felt really confident after that, and I just kept on going,” she said.
Kim, an executive assistant, acknowledged she “was completely scared” about allowing her daughter to enter the tournament.
“Being in competition is totally different from training because you’re going against kids that don’t know your limits,” she said. “They’re out there, and some of them have been training for years, and then here you have a child who has been training for about six months. It’s frightening for a parent. But it was my daughter who said, ‘I want to do it. I want to compete.’ ”
The Navarro family heard that Rick Slomba, a Dundalk native and Archbishop Curley graduate, was returning to Baltimore to start his own academy, and in August 2018, the family moved to Form Jiu Jitsu. Slomba, the 2014 IBJJF world champion at purple belt and a 12-time IBJJF open titlist, said he and fellow instructor Lee Rosenfield worked on a plan of attack with London for each competition.
“She didn’t quite have a mapped-out game plan of what she should be doing each time to win,” Slomba said. “She didn’t really have a clear idea of what the purpose of each fight was. So we kind of gave her a structure of what she’s looking for when she’s out there so that she knows that’s her game.
“Mentally, she would get frustrated quite a bit, which happens with a lot of young athletes that are good and know that they’re good. So we just worked a lot on mental focus with her, learning to breathe when something bad happens to her out there, just learning to accept it and move onto the next step.”
London’s schedule revolves around jiujitsu. She trains Mondays and Wednesdays for two hours each day at her father’s gym, Standard Jiu Jitsu in Rockville. She gets picked up from school by her mother to go to Form on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays in commutes that could take as long as 90 minutes in one direction.
“That is the life we signed up for,” Kim said. “We spend more time at work and the gyms than home.”
But that suits London fine. She said she has skipped birthday parties — her friends’ and her own — and hopped off airplanes to head to the gym and work out.
“I can’t go a day without training,” she said. “I’m addicted to jiujitsu. If the gym is open, I train on holidays.”
Kim said Brazilian jiujitsu has been a godsend for her family. Not only are Carlos, Giancarlo and 5-year-old Brooklynn students in the martial arts, but she said London’s grades have improved and her outlook on life has brightened.
London agreed with her mother that she has changed for the better.
“My skills definitely, my self esteem,” she said. “I can beat everybody instead of them beating me. I beat boys and girls, and I couldn’t do that when I was little. So I feel really confident.”
Slomba said London’s development is slightly more accelerated than usual.
“I would say that she had a lot of prerequisites,” he said. “She is a gifted student. … And I think a lot of times when students first start, they might start a little slower. She’s lucky that her parents support her and are willing to invest in her. So I think she got more experienced and developed faster as a result of her parents’ help.”
Carlos had played baseball and basketball, but took up Brazilian jiujitsu when London asked him to give it a chance.
“And once I tried it, forget about it, I fell in love with it,” he said, adding he has dropped from 223 pounds to 176. “It’s so great, the exercise, everything. It’s not just a sport that you pick up. It’s a life experience. You can take this with you forever.”
Carlos, who competed in this year’s World Master Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF championship in Las Vegas in the Blue Belt Master 2 middleweight division, said his objective is adding another champion to the Navarro household.
“I definitely have to catch up with her,” he said with a laugh. “She inspires me.”
After teasing her father that his collection of medals is “very little,” London said she would be thrilled to share the podium with her dad, whom she called “my hero.”