Shy but friendly, Katie Freeman is not your average 11-year old. Tiny, mischievous, and playful, she likes many of the same things that kids her age do, like playing with her dog or hanging out with her friends.
Katie also likes to run really fast, skip, twirl, and jump on a balance beam, and try to submit her JiuJitsu teammates. She's also credited for pushing her father, adaptive athlete Brian Freeman, to take up the sport, and is a regular in his corner during his matches. In short, Katie is a baby baddie, a prodigy preparing to take on the world and show exactly why female athletes should be represented and respected.
Her life is a little different than what most pre-teens would experience. While she attends school and her extracurriculars on a regular basis, it's who she's around that stands out the most. The likes of Renzo Gracie, Jeff Glover, Chael Sonnen, Chris Weidman, and Rilion Gracie are just a few of the legendary athletes that her father is friends with. The proud papa's Facebook is filled with pictures of Katie trying to submit Renzo or videos of her playing dodgeball with Glover (who manages to bop her on the head with a massive red ball). While her dad is the one with the connections, it was Katie's choice to for the two of them to train JiuJitsu in the first place.
Brian, a navy veteran who suffered a paralyzingly spinal cord injury, was concerned about his health and worried about Katie's future. He decided to put her in martial arts at the tender age of 6 as a way for her to learn discipline, self-defense, and life skills to protect herself. Little did he know it would be a matter of time before she would be bringing him with her.
"It was all her," Brian says. "We were playing around at home and she told me, 'Hey if you can do this, maybe you should try JiuJitsu.' Well I couldn't argue too much with that, and now here we are." With a wide smile, her father describes her as as a firecracker, well-known for being rambunctious and very convincing. Freeman goes above and beyond in trying to support his daughter and would do anything for her, including allowing her to bend his arm at uncomfortable angles or utilizing the other submissions that are a part of the sport.
The blue belt and his "Princess Backpack" as she is so affectionately called (for her penchant for climbing onto people's backs to submit them) found their lives completely revolutionized by the gentle art. While at first hesitant to try, Brian and his team at Royce Gracie Academy in North Carolina found a way to make things work. Brian went on to lose 40 lbs and incredulously found some muscle return, so that he is now able to move himself around better. Inspired by what he was able to accomplish, he made it his mission to seek out other adaptive athletes and encourage them to fulfill their life dreams. It was in this way that he came across his many friends, including the powerful life enthusiast and adaptive athlete, Ian Matuszak.
"Ian was fighting all kinds of things like cerebral palsy and cancer, but he loved JiuJitsu more than anyone I've ever met. I saw just how powerful the sport could be for anybody. It really is for everybody. I felt like I needed to spread the word and show that anyone in any circumstances can be a part of this. When he unfortunately passed, I added his mission to my back and wanted to reach out to as many people as I could. That's why watching Katie do this, and especially since she does it so well, just makes my heart swell. I am inspired every single day by my daughter and she reminds me more than anyone else to never give up." Both father and daughter are sponsored by DeuS Fight Co and use the brand as another way to spread the capability that all people have within them.
The petite weapon is an accomplished martial artist in her own right--trophies from Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Brazilian JiuJitsu litter her room. For someone who is not yet in high school, she already has the mentality and focus of a young adult. Perhaps even the musical tastes of one, with preferences to Run DMC and the Chainsmokers over Justin Bieber or One Direction. As Katie's confidence grew by leaps and bounds, she found herself testing other sports beyond martial arts. Along with training JiuJitsu, her sights are now set on gymnastics, with her first competition in just a few weeks.
"I want to be an Olympian," Katie says firmly. While she had been giggling previously during our conversation, at this topic she becomes very serious. "I think it's really cool that we have really good athletes and that the women are getting some attention." Citing the "Final Five" from the summer Olympics as inspiration, it's Katie's intention to be there herself as a gymnast in the upcoming years.
"I love sports, but I like being a girl too. Sometimes people think you can't be a real girl if you do sports, but I want to prove them wrong. I want to show that women are tough too, just as tough as men. We can do the same things they can, and we can do it just as well. My favorite thing is grappling, but I also think it's important to teach others how to do it. The more people that know, the more people I can train with! I started with my best friend, my dad, and here we are! He taught me to always do my best, and that's what I'm going to do. I want to make him proud."
It would seem like they are both working for the same thing.
All photos courtesy of Brian Freeman. Stay updated with Brian and Katie's adventures on Brian's Instagram at @wheelchairjitsu