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'You either win or you learn': A tale of resilience

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Timothy Kim
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

She traded tax forms in a sterile office for strikes and grapples in an auditorium surrounded by peers cheering her on.

Mariah Johnson, a value-added tax (VAT) officer with the 52nd Force Support Squadron, took the first step to making the sport of jiujitsu her own Feb. 20, when she entered her first competition.

"Jiujitsu has been the most helpful thing in my life," she said. "It's taught me how to stay calm in any situation and to stay positive. With every bad thing, there's always something good that comes out of it."

Johnson works for the squadron’s VAT office, an agency on Spangdahlem Air Base that handles the relief program that offsets the difference of what Airmen pay overseas compared to the U.S.

When not pushing papers, she practices jiujitsu in a free class on base. After her first jiujitsu fight at the Submissao competition in Karlsruhe, Germany, she received a belt promotion.

From a friend's recommendation, Johnson began practicing in November. Initially, she viewed it as a stress reliever; but soon realized it was not just a routine workout, but as something more meaningful in her life, she said.

Resilience is a crucial concept the Air Force encourages its Airmen and community to practice. Johnson continues to practice this despite a challenge she recently faced.

"When I first started (jiujitsu), I was going through some hard times in my personal life that were dragging me down mentally and physically," she said. "Jiujitsu taught me different coping mechanisms. No matter what life threw at me, there would always be a way to keep moving forward and essentially fighting for what I want and getting to the place where I needed to be.

"If I gave this up, I don't know what I'd do," Johnson added. "Even if I never win, I'm fine with it, because this is what I love to do, and I'm helping people do what they love as well. Without me continuing to compete or fight, others won't be able to compete or win a match or learn something from me."

Johnson also pointed out that the class isn't just for stress relief; it also provided a community that makes her feel welcomed.

"Every single training partner is a part of my family," she said. "I can be around the people who I love because they go through the same struggles and know how it is. They are my family. We're all doing the same sport, we're all training the same way. We may be at different belt levels, but we were all once white belts, so there's always a mutual level of respect. After a sparring session, we become friends again and say, 'Thank you for teaching me something new.' Jiujitsu is my therapy."

Johnson said she learned a lot about remaining calm and focused during sparring sessions. But, through practice sessions, she learned something else from the sport.

"You don't really lose; you either win or you learn," she said. "Failure is not an option to me."

Johnson stated that jiujitsu focuses not on strength, but on technique to overcome an opponent. Mind games, Johnson said, are a major factor during a match as competitors must remain calm and think about their next move even though they are being choked out.

"When you panic, your mind clouds, and your judgment goes out the window," she said. "You start thinking about the worst-case scenario, but there's always a way to get out of a submission and to submit your opponent. In life, things get thrown at you. Are you going to panic or accept it? The key is to deal with it and to move on."

For Johnson, jiujitsu is not just a sport or a martial arts class she attends to stay physically fit, but a way for her to keep herself in tune with herself to practice resiliency and fitness in all aspects of her life.

"If you love what you're doing, then don't stop," she said. "If you fall, get right back up. Continue whatever you were doing, struggle with it and just continue. There's always a light at the end of the tunnel.”