Amanda Diggins was 23 years old, working two jobs and pursuing a zoology degree, when she walked into Portland’s Straight Blast Gym International (SBGi) for the first time. “I thought they were doing karate,” Diggins says. “I was like, I should probably try some karate, too.”
As it turned out, SBGi doesn’t teach karate; the gym specializes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), a full-contact martial art that consists largely of grappling and ground fighting. Although she had no idea what to expect, that first class left Diggins hooked. She came back again, and again, and again. Less than two years later, she quit her jobs, dropped out of school, and began pursuing jiu-jitsu full-time, teaching classes at SBGi and training up to 30 hours per week.
“Jiu-jitsu is a great tool to learn how to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions,” says Diggins. “It’s a puzzle you’re always trying to solve and simplify.”
Her hard work paid off. It typically takes more than a decade to become a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Diggins achieved it in just five years, becoming Oregon’s first female BJJ black belt in 2014.
These days, Diggins still trains and teaches at SBGi, which is located just off Sandy on Northeast 43rd Ave. It’s the gym where she met her husband, fellow BJJ black belt John Diggins; the gym that coached her to a Master 1 World Champion title in August; and the gym that, unlike certain other BJJ facilities, allows her to coach students of all ages and genders.
“There are still a ton of women coaches that [aren’t allowed to] teach co-ed classes,” explains Diggins. “I love that at our gym, the women are on the same level as the guys. We have equal rights.”
Perhaps because of this feminist attitude—not to mention Diggins’ pioneering success—the number of women training at SBGi has increased tenfold since Diggins’ first class in 2009. For some of these women, jiu-jitsu is as much about empowerment and personal safety as it is about fitness. It’s an idea that Diggins can relate to.
“When I was 17, I was sexually assaulted,” she says. “I wish that I had the information and confidence that I know now, because I really feel like it could have been prevented or stopped. I think it’s super important for young girls.”
Whether you’re seeking fitness or self-defense skills (or both), Diggins encourages Portlanders to give jiu-jitsu a try. SBGi offers foundations classes six days a week, but you’ll need to be there at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to learn from Diggins herself.
Ready to get started?
SBGi offers a free 45-day trial to new members. Here are six things you should know before you go, courtesy of Amanda Diggins.
- “You can do this. We have beginners classes where it doesn’t matter if you have no background or you sit at a desk all day.”
- “Keep an open mind. Some things are going to make a lot of sense right away, and some things, you’re like, ‘Why would I ever want to do this?’”
- “You don’t have to get in shape first. A lot of people are like, ‘I’ve got to get in shape before I take your class,’ which is super funny to me. You’re coming to a gym to get in shape.”
- “You’re probably going to be a little tired, and you’re going to be a little sore. You’re going to get sweaty. You’re in a gym. It’s not a big deal.”
- “You’re going to be in close contact with people, and sometimes that can feel a little uncomfortable.”
- “Like any relationship, communication is key. I’m big on my students making sure they’re able to talk to each other. They can talk to me if they feel weirded out by something or someone in particular.”