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Grappling With Fitness
Suzi Johnson's fitness regimen to her workout clients includes weightlifting, stretching, yogi, aerobics, and now Gokor Chivichyan's Hayastan grappling!


Personal trainer Suzi Johnson has spent many years developing her own personal methods of physical conditioning. A physical education major, and a self-admitted "army brat," Johnson was able to experience many different methods of fitness training from the many countries her father was stationed in. "I always thought it was strange that some people lived in one place for so long," Johnson recalls. "We moved so much, and went to so many different countries, that I actually felt sorry for kids that were stuck in one place."

An admitted "tomboy," when growing up, Johnson recalls wrestling with her brothers on a regular basis. "It was more like fighting, actually," Johnson laughs. "Just kid stuff, but I remember that I didn't hate the contact." I thought about doing some type of formal training in wrestling, even back then, but at that time wrestling for girls was just something that you didn't see."

Always an "athletically oriented" person, it seemed natural to Johnson that she would major in Physical Education when she enrolled in college. "I always did well in school," she says, "but I just could never see myself tied to a desk eight hours a day, working on the same thing, and just doing paperwork. I wanted to be exercising because it was just something that I liked. I didn't want to get into something that I would hate."



Finishing her education, Johnson moved to California and began a career as a personal trainer. "It seemed like the natural thing for me to do," Johnson says. "I had taken yoga for a long time, which is a wonderful all-around fitness and health activity, by the way, and then I had always weight-lifted and done aerobics, so I just put them all together and started training people. I immediately loved it. Here I was helping people feel better about themselves, get healthier, and improve the quality of their lives, and I was getting paid for it. California is such a good place to do this because people here tend to be more into physical appearance - I guess because it's never cold here so you don't get much of a chance to hide under a winter jacket!"

As happy as Johnson was with her career and lifestyle choices, she was soon to move to "another level" when a girlfriend of hers at the gym suggested that they visit the Gokor Hyastan Grappling School that was right around the corner from where she lived. "I think she was surprised when I immediately agreed to go. When we went into the school, I immediately liked it. Gokor was very helpful and friendly and everyone in the school was the same way. There was no attitude from anyone. And I'm not saying that just because I'm a woman. Everyone who comes in, even people from different styles or different schools, are treated the same way. If you're there to learn, then Gokor is there to teach."

If people in the school expected the fit but slight Johnson to be hesitant about rolling on the mat, they were in for a surprise. "From the first day, I didn't have a problem rolling around with the guys in the class. Maybe because of all the time I spent with my brothers, I wasn't intimidated or scared or had a feeling of awkwardness about getting on the mat with them."

Gokor himself agrees wholeheartedly. "I'm telling you, from the beginning, she just went for it. She didn't know a lot at first, but she wasn't shy about mixing it up. And she caught on quickly. She was in shape and flexible and had a desire to learn. So when she started to get a little knowledge she actually started beating some of the guys. I know a lot of people are not going to believe that, but it's the truth. Good grappling is more dependent on how active you are, how quickly you respond to your opponent's position changes, and how well you recognize a particular attack than it is on strength. Of course, strength can help when you use it within the correct framework of a move or a position, but it can hurt you, too, if you rely on it too much. So she is able to catch the guys with a submission every now and then.

An added bonus to Johnson was the presence of legendary grappler "Judo" Gene Lebell as part of the instructional team at Gokor's school. "It's really a phenomenal combination when you think about it." Johnson says. " Gene teaches there on Monday nights, and also many times when Gokor is out of town for an evening or a seminar. Both of them must know a thousand submission holds. Just when you think that you've learned it all from them, they'll throw another 10 or 20 at you. Anyone who lives anywhere close to Gokor's school, or is just visiting in the LA area, should make a point of stopping by and taking a class."

"A lot of people think Judo and grappling is just for men," says Lebell. "but it's not true. There's a women's judo category in the Olympics and some of the women are so technical that they can beat bigger and stronger men. If a woman can save themselves in a dangerous situation just once, then the time they spend training is well worth it. Plus, it's just plain fun. I had a woman student named Sofie who was 86 and who worked out everyday with me in Judo and grappling. One day a reporter came in and was vocally doubtful that a woman her age could be effective. So he grabbed her lapel, just to make the point, and she instinctively went into a bent-wrist flex, and broke his wrist. I felt bad but I also laughed like hell. I guess he learned first hand about how effective a woman can be when taught correctly."

Now going into her second year of instruction, Johnson is as enthusiastic as ever about her grappling. "It's funny because my girlfriend who initially got me interested in training here doesn't come as much anymore because of her work schedule. So when she asks how I'm doing, and I tell her I'm still training, she just shakes her head and says, 'I've created a monster!'"

Now incorporating some of LeBell's and Gokor's grappling exercises into her personal training sessions, Johnson appears to be in the sport for the long haul. "I just plan on doing this forever," she says. "It's fun, it's a great workout, and it gives you confidence. Pretty good combination, I'd say!"


Reprinted courtesy of Martial Arts & Combat Sports (CFW Enterprises).