When competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu matches, 11-year-old Claire Patterson frequently displays an uncanny ability to methodically, yet with a sense of urgency, work her way out of any trouble and into more favorable positions before finishing foes via submission.
In July, with just under a minute remaining in a fierce Junior 2 Grey Belt 114-pound title match at the prestigious Pan Kids International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championships, the Lake Fenton Middle Schooler needed to do just that.
Patterson was tangling with Florida’s Jeweliana Jackson, whom she had beaten a little more than a year earlier at a tournament in Atlanta. This time, though, the stakes were much higher.
A Pan Kids gold medal is the biggest Jiu-Jitsu prize competitors aged 18-under can attain and more than 2,500 had journeyed to Kissimmee, FL in pursuit of it.
With roughly 45 seconds remaining and Jackson hanging off the front of her body, Patterson took her to the mat and then to her back for a deadlock-breaking takedown. She then took a seat on top of Jackson with her hands pushing her opponent’s arms back, looking for a submission opportunity, to avoid the match being decided on a points system after four minutes.
Time, however, was ticking away.
“You’ve got 30 seconds,” a voice rang out on a recording of the match.
I cried a bit because seeing those I teach like Claire win titles is more satisfying than any titles I have won.
Ronaldo Candido Coach
Then, just as the same voice yelled “you’ve got 20 seconds,” Patterson grabbed hold of Jackson’s arm, flipped to the side of her, crossed her legs just underneath Jackson’s chin and leaned back while still clutching her arm, forcing a submission with just eight seconds left.
Her hair understandably a bit disheveled, Patterson sprang to her feet, pumped her fists and flashed a smile after completing a dominant tournament run. She needed only two minutes and 54 seconds, total, to win her first two matches before stopping Jackson.
“Well, I kind of expected to be so dominant because I trained so much longer for Pan Kids than last year when
I competed in it the first time,” Patterson says. “I trained hard for the competition I knew I was facing. That helped me stay calm on the mat as I worked toward my goal of winning a championship.”
Flashing his own big grin while giving a thumbs up was Ronaldo Candido, who has trained Patterson at his Ronaldo Candido Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Novi for roughly 16 months.
“I trained the kids we took to Pan Kids hard, especially in the three months right before the tournament,” says Candido, who also guided Patterson’s good friend, Abigail Meyer of Milford, to a title. “I probably felt more strongly than even Claire did that she was going to win a championship because of the amazing way she is dedicated to training and is so teachable. She was prepared for any situation.”
As she celebrated, the best moment was yet to come for Patterson. After finishing second the previous year, standing atop the podium this time was exhilarating.
“I had been super anxious while I was waiting in the bullpen before my matches, so to get through all my matches the way I did, I was super happy to be on top of the podium,” Patterson recalls. “That was my favorite part. I was super proud of myself because, for a year, I had wanted to win gold at Pan Kids.”
I know it will be a challenge to win Pan Kids again at a higher belt, but we’re going to train harder.
Moments like that are why Candido, a Brazil native with a loaded martial arts resume, opened his academy five years ago.
The former MMA fighter and third-degree black belt has won a staggering combined total of 14 world, Pan American, Pan Pacific and state Jiu-Jitsu championships. He has also coached UFC Hall of Famer Jose Aldo in Jiu-Jitsu.
Candido also appeared on the reality shows “Ultimate Fighter” (Season 23) as a coach and Season 24 as a participant, as well as Season 1 of “Dana White’s Contender Series.”
“Seeing Claire atop the podium got to me, emotionally,” Candido says. “I cried a bit because seeing those I teach like Claire win titles is more satisfying than any titles I have won. To see her work hard to the max and improve so much, I feel very honored and proud.”
Following the tournament, Candido, Patterson and other students celebrated with a trip to Hershey, PA before Patterson was presented with the next highest belt (yellow/white) during a ceremony at the academy.
“Congratulations Claire,” Jackson commented on an Instagram video of the presentation. “It was a great fight, and you deserve GOLD. Can’t wait to see you on the mats again.”
Patterson began training for this year’s Pan Kids almost immediately after last year’s tournament ended, determined to turn the experience of winning silver into gold.
That meant one of her parents drove her nearly 40 miles each way, sometimes five days a week, to train at the academy a total of 10-12 hours per week.
Training involves not only perfecting fighting techniques, but weight training and strength work like tossing a heavy ball back and forth to a teammate, lunging while strapped to an elastic waistband and arm exercises using gymnastics-style rings.
“Training with Renaldo and my teammates at the academy like Abi has really helped me a lot because all the little details are worked on,” Patterson says. “They also give me a challenge because we kind of know what each other is going to do. Other times, I trained with people who have earned higher belts to get better. It’s a lot of hard work, but we all have fun doing it.”
The way Patterson embraces training certainly makes Candido’s job easier.
“When Claire trains with us, it’s non-stop when she’s on the mat because she’s so driven,” he says. “We were able to focus on preparing for all the scenarios that can happen in a fight because, obviously, things don’t always go your way. Another important thing was working on the mindset of not waiting for opponents to execute their gameplan but going after them with your own gameplan.”
In addition to her time at the academy, Patterson usually spends another two to four hours per week working with blue belt and 2019 International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation World Champion Kodi Dick at the Genesys Athletic Club in Grand Blanc.
Clearly, all the grinding is paying dividends. Patterson has progressed well since her first Jiu-Jitsu match just two years ago and now boasts a bevy of medals and 29 career wins, the vast majority by submission. She will compete in tournaments closer to home in preparation for two major competitions next year – Pan Kids in late July and Jiu-Jitsu Con in Las Vegas in early September.
That’s not all.
Patterson also plans to wrestle for Lake Fenton Middle School and maintains a list of long-term goals.
“I know it will be a challenge to win Pan Kids again at a higher belt, but we’re going to train harder,” she says. “I know some of the kids who will probably be in my bracket and what it will take to beat them. I will just focus on working on my weakest points and hope it goes well. Wrestling for my school should be fun and I want to do things in the future like becoming the world’s best black belt.”
Candido is clearly excited about Patterson’s future.
“Our focus remains the same – reach one goal and set up another,” he says. “Claire has such a bright future because of her determination to do whatever it takes to be successful and never being content with where she’s at. She wants to become the best version of herself in all aspects of life.”
Patterson is also benefiting from being part of a rare household entirely dedicated to Jiu-Jitsu. Her father (Blake), mother (Sarah), older sister (Elaina) and younger brother (Wesley) train and compete in the sport, as well.
“I love how we all share this love for Jiu-Jitsu, but I can never trust a hug,” Claire chuckles. “I never know what the motive is behind it, and I could end up on my back.”
Claire and her mother bond by training and competing together. Earlier this year, both captured medals at the same American Grappling Federation and North American Grappling Association events.
“Claire is just a very athletic kid to begin with, just a natural for anything that is athletics,” her mother says. “She combines that with a passion for enjoying putting in the work. Claire sets her sights on goals, but even if she falls short, she still loves the journey.”
How far will that journey take her? Stay tuned.