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Taking down bullies

Self-defense: Jiu-jitsu empowers children of all sizes to fight back

Posted: December 9, 2010 10:07 p.m.
Updated: December 9, 2010 10:07 p.m.

Mia’s mother, Rosa Bartolovich, and her sister Aly, 9, of Saugus, watch Mia practice.

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She may be just 60 pounds, but you don’t want to mess with 10-year-old Mia Bartolovich.

The young martial arts student sports a big grin on her face while she takes down a boy 20 pounds heavier with moves during a recent session at Garcia Barra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Studio in Saugus.

“I like this. If someone comes up and kicks me, I know how to defend myself. If someone throws me on the ground, I know how to choke them,” Mia said, a sly smile evident beneath her brown curtain of bangs. 

Mia wasn’t always so confident. Just a few months ago, she was a victim of bullying when a male peer slapped her across the face at Highlands Elementary School.

It was shocking, but not surprising.

According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics School Survey on Crime and Safety, student bullying was one of the most frequently reported discipline problems at school.

Twenty-one percent of elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools and 22 percent of high schools reported problems with bullying in 2005-06.

After the slapping incident, Rosa Bartolovich, Mia’s mother, decided that it was no more Miss Nice Girl for her daughter.
“This little boy picked on Mia because he knew she wouldn’t do anything,” said Bartolovich, a Saugus resident.

“She needed to be empowered to not be a victim anymore,” she said.

The art of jiu-jitsu
It was Mia’s father, an Ultimate Fighting Championship fan, who found Gracie Barra.

The new studio, one of several hundred locations throughout the United States, opened just six weeks ago in Saugus.

Senior instructor Paola Pacana attributes some of its success to the regularly televised mixed martial arts events.

“UFC became really popular in the mid-90s,” he said. “So even during a bad time, such as this economic downturn, we still do well at our schools.”

Gracie Barra teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art and self-defense system that focuses on grappling and ground fighting.

As such, jiu-jitsu is perfect for children of any size, Pacana said.

“Eighty percent of fights go to the ground. Someone of a smaller stature can be trained to fight bigger opponents. It’s all about technique,” he said. “All ages can learn self-defense. This is world-class jiu-jitsu taught in a family-safe environment.”

Jiu-jitsu is also great exercise for a generation that is prone to more sedentary activities.

“Kids now are on the Internet or playing video games all the time, they’re in worse shape than ever before,” Pacana said.

“Jiu-jitsu provides a lot of benefits — weight loss, camaraderie and confidence. It can help keep kids out of trouble.”

Terminology for jiu-jitsu moves, while familiar to UFC fans, may sound intimidating to those who aren’t in the know — choking, strangling, joint locks and submission.

“When my parents first told me that I would be doing this, I was scared I would get hurt. But now it’s just amazing. It’s my favorite thing to do,” Mia said.

Jiu-jitsu students are also taught self-control, which is one reason why Bartolovich likes the sport for her daughter.

“As a parent, I encourage Mia to defend herself. If she brought a bully down, it would be OK, but if Mia started pounding on him that would be excessive,” she said.

Taking the power back
Mia takes part in the Little Champs 2 class held Tuesday and Thursday evenings, where students range in age from 7 to 13.

She is one of two girls in the group, which numbers about a dozen.

Introductory membership at Gracie Barra is $99 for one month, which includes a free uniform and unlimited classes.

After the introductory period, membership is $125 per month.

Relatives watch from the sidelines as the uniform-clad students first run circles on the raised mat, then proceed to crawl, twist, do pushups and line up for combat.

Angie Gracey, of Canyon Country, enrolled her 10-year-old son Christian two weeks prior.

It was his second class at Gracie Barra, but not his first experience with martial arts.

Christian had initially tried karate after being bullied in the second grade.

At that time, Christian would return home from school crying, having spent part of his day hiding in the bushes rather than chance getting beat up.

“There were a lot of bullies at school. It wasn’t just him, they picked on other kids, too,” Gracey said. “We spoke to the teacher, and they did what they could, but it was an ongoing thing.”

Uninspired by karate, Christian gave it up quickly to play football, where he flourished.

Recently, he decided to give jiu-jitsu a try.

“At the beginning of this school year, some kids tried to bully Christian,” Gracey said. “So Christian was watching MMA with my husband and said, ‘Mom, I want to do that. I can learn how to defend myself. It’ll be really cool.’”

Jiu-jitsu seems to agree with her son, who tumbles around the mat with spiky hair and a wide smile.

“It’s really helping him,” Gracey said. “He loves it.”

Bartolovich credited jiu-jitsu for helping Mia in ways that went beyond self-defense.

“It’s a way to let out frustration. There’s school, homework, friends. Even at her young age, there’s stress in Mia’s life,” Bartolovich said.

When Mia gets older, jiu-jitsu will come become an even more valuable tool, Bartolovich predicted.

“She’s going to go off to college one day and I won’t be there to protect her. Knowing Mia has this skill and can get out of certain situations is really comforting to me,” she said.

Gracie Barra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Martial Arts is located at 22961 Soledad Canyon Road, Saugus. For more information, visit or call (661) 670-1248.


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