At just an inch over five feet tall and 115 pounds, Elena Barrios might not cut a towering figure, but she’s a walking example that it’s never a good idea to judge a woman by her size. The petite powerhouse is an award-winning karate black belt and jit jitsu blue belt who’s been practicing martial arts for well over half her lifetime.
Growing up in southeast Los Angeles in a close-knit Mexican-American family, Elena realized at a very early age that she had an innate interest in martial arts. “I was raised on martial arts movies that my dad showed me,” she says. “I watched Kickboxer and Bruce Lee movies and I would mimic what I’d see on TV.”
Since then, Elena has competed against both girls and boys, garnering a collection of medals and trophies, including several first-place titles at The Pan-American Championship — the largest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament held in North America — as well as two first-place medals in judo, silver in the Silver State International Jiu Jitsu Open and most recently, third place in the Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
We spoke with the 20-year-old about her already long career in martial arts, how getting physical is a great way to strengthen your mind and battle bullies, plus what every woman needs to know about self-defense.
How long have you been learning martial arts?
I’ve been learning martial arts for 15 years, since I was five years old.
What degree belt are you?
Level one black belt in karate and two stripes on blue belt in jiu jitsu.
What is your area of expertise?
Jiu jitsu, karate, kickboxing and judo.
You practice multiple forms of martial arts. Which specific practices do you find most helpful from each?
Judo helps with your stand-up game because most jiu jitsu practitioners will just pull guard in competition. Jiu jitsu helps because mostly every fight ends up on the ground and you can end a fight with a submission. Kickboxing and karate also help with your stand-up game and teaches you how to move.
Tell us a bit about the process of becoming a black/blue belt.
I started karate at age five. Every year they would promote the students up a belt level. I got my black belt at 12 years old. I proceeded to specialize in jiu jitsu and started straight jiu jitsu at 12.
Were you ever bullied? Do you think martial arts is a good way to handle being bullied?
Yes, in middle school I was bullied in the PE locker room by a tall girl. She kept pinching me and wouldn’t stop, so I grabbed her neck and slammed her against the locker and she said ‘We’re cool’ and then I let go.
I think martial arts is a good way to handle bullies because they like to pick on people they’d least expect can fight. You need to know how to defend yourself, especially if you’re the type of person people like to pick on.
Does having a black belt mean you can pretty much beat up anyone who messes with you?
Well, I’m pretty well-rounded so I’d say I’d definitely be a challenge.
How important is it to train your state of mind as well as the physical aspect?
It’s very important because your mind can push you harder when the body feels like giving up during hard trainings.
How has martial arts impacted your confidence?
The martial arts have always been something I’ve excelled in better than average. I can beat a lot of guys and the upper belts at my gym will surely tell you I give them a heck of a fight. Some will even say I’m very strong.
Do you feel more confident walking down the street knowing you can defend yourself?
Yes. I fool everybody by my size and weight. But everyone is always surprised with my technique and strength.
How does martial arts positively affect other areas of your life?
Without it I’m not me. I’m a much happier person with the confidence it gives me. Also I’ve made my best friends training.
How do you get your mind focused and centered before a match?
I like to listen to music with my earphones and block out the noise of my surroundings or get pep talks before my match from my teammates.
When you are on the mat in the middle of a competition, what’s going through your mind? What are you thinking about?
Most of what I do is reflex and I work so fast that sometimes I surprise myself with my own skills. But sometimes I just think about what I do back home at the gym and all I’ve learned and remember that it’s just like another day at the gym.
Why did you begin teaching young girls martial arts?
I was looking for a new job and everybody likes to find something they’re good at and to be able to say they like their job. I found a company that was looking for a martial arts instructor and I ended up getting the job. Happy to say I enjoy teaching and seeing my students improve. It’s very rewarding.
Is there one move or technique that women need to know about when it comes to self-defense?
I tell women who are just starting to use flexibility to their advantage because most males aren’t flexible like us.
What do your friends think about your pursuit of martial arts?
Most of my friends are in the martial arts themselves. The few i have outside of it think it’s really cool and say that I’m making my way up.
What are your future goals with martial arts? Do you want to continue pursuing higher level belts?
I plan on becoming a sponsored athlete, getting my black belt in jiu jitsu and becoming a world champion.
Is there one form of martial arts that you think works for every woman?
Jiu jitsu because it’s very technical and works well against strength.
Finally, please share any advice you have for other young women and girls who are thinking about martial arts.
Women are the future. We are also making more of an appearance in a male-dominated sport and kicking butt. It’s good to feel like you’re a weapon.