New Jersey 14-Year-Old Eyeing Jiu-Jitsu World Championship Has Even Bigger Goal: Get More Females to Compete
Sophie Sharp practices seven days a week in hopes of becoming the best in the world. She’s found she’s one of a few girls on the mat. “Even though it is a male-dominated sport, that doesn't mean women can't thrive in the sport,” Sophie said.
For 14-year-old Sophie Sharp, grappling on a mat, often with men of varying ages and skill levels, is second nature. Watching individuals engage in jiu-jitsu can at first be a startling experience. Especially watching their bodies intertwine in what from the outside appears to be uncompromising positions. But Sophie’s a natural. And she’s eyeing a world championship.
“She's in here to try to achieve a goal of being the best in the world,” her coach, Jay Regalbutoat, at Studio 84 AJJ and MMA in Cream Ridge, New Jersey, told Inside Edition Digital.
- <em><strong>For more on Sophie, watch the video at the top of the page. </strong></em>
Sophie’s not far off. She recently won the gold medal after competing at Grappling Industries against a 24- and 31-year-old in the adult women’s division, despite being a teenager. It’s a big change for her since turning 14, the age that qualified her for that next level in competition.
“Going into the women’s [division] this year is a lot different because they have their own women's strength. Being able to get that first place and getting the gold medal tells me that I am getting stronger, and my jiu-jitsu is evolving,” Sophie said.
The gold medal is one of dozens hanging proudly in her Ocean Township, New Jersey, bedroom that she shares with her 6-year-old sister, Stella. The silver and bronze wins are hiding in a closet. Sophie thinks of them as “bad memories.” “It shows ‘you sucked’ that day,” she explained.
Her determination to succeed at the sport started at age 10. Her older sister Emily, 16, had wanted to wrestle and like any sibling might, Sophie wanted to follow in her footsteps. Their mom, Sarah Sharp, found nearby jiu-jitsu classes in which they could enroll. Emily didn’t stick with it, but Sophie was hooked.
“She didn't like the boys on top of her,” Sophie said. “It's not the sport for everyone, but I fell in love.”
“We didn't know where it was going to go,” Sophie’s dad, Evan Sharp, said of his daughter’s early passion for the sport.
“My daughters have never done normal sports that kids generally do, like baseball and soccer. They tried it, but they've always just kind of gravitated towards combat sports. I mean, she was 6 when she started taekwondo,” Sarah recalled.
What Is Jiu-Jitsu?
Jiu-jitsu is described as a modern martial art. “Jiu-jitsu is combat. Jiu-jitsu is self-defense. Jiu-jitsu is protection,” said Guitano Mione, Studio 84’s owner, noting he feels everyone has their own interpretation.
Sophie trains seven days a week. “It's not the type of sport where you're like, ‘I'm going to go do jiu-jitsu.’ You have to be a certain type of person that will allow the contact of another person on you,” Sophie explained.
The matches in which Sophie competes are between five and 10 minutes each. Points are awarded for certain positions and sweeps. There are advantages for submission attempts or making the opponent “tap out,” often achieved after putting too much pressure on one of the joints, such as an elbow, shoulder, knee, or ankles, or carotid arteries.
“I'm not a fan of being at the tournaments at all,” Sophie’s mom Sarah Sharp admitted.
“I'm literally sick walking around the tournament venues. Just fingers crossed we walk out of there the same way we walked in,” her dad Evan said. “We've left tournaments and gone straight to the emergency room.”
But for Sophie, fear of injury is not what’s worth focusing on. “That never crosses my mind,” she said during a sit down interview for Inside Edition Digital’s “On the Rise” series. Her comments came as she nursed a small, red cut under her right eye, an injury caused accidentally by her classroom opponent’s long fingernails.
What a Typical Day for an Aspiring Jiu-Jitsu Master Looks Like
A typical day for Sophie starts with an intensive bedroom workout routine. Sophie grabs her 25-pound kettlebells and sets off to complete 100 sit-ups, 100 squats and 100 clean-and-presses within an hour. During the school year, she wakes up at 6 a.m. to fit such a workout into her day.
Then, she makes herself breakfast, often a plate of four scrambled eggs and toast. She’s trying to reach 135 pounds by November. It’s a big hurdle for a teen whose life has been filled with them.
“I'm 105 [pounds] right now. And that's a very, very big weight gap. Women have women strength. I'm still slowly getting that,” she said. “I'm not a big eater. I always feel sick eating before practice or in the morning. But it's part of the sport and it's something that I have to get used to.”
In the afternoons, she’s off to the gym, where she takes classes and coaches younger kids. It’s a 50-minute drive to the studio with her dad. In the car ride over, she often scrolls through Instagram or TikTok, watching random videos like any other teenager.
Then, it’s time to get down to business.
Being a Female Jiu-Jitsu Influencer
She’s one of a few girls on the mat, she said. But that shouldn’t deter those girls and women who are interested in jiu-jitsu. “Even though it is a male-dominated sport, that doesn't mean women can't thrive in the sport,” Sophie said.
One misconception she says is that some believe “girls can’t hold with boys and the sport.”
“I hate to break it to you, but it's not true,” she said firmly.
Sophie knows first-hand how unsure someone can feel in the first months of practicing jiu-jitsu. “It’s a little weird grappling and a guy just gets on top of you,” she said. “But after a while, you get used to it. In competitions, you both are fighting for the same thing, so you're not really thinking about that part.”
Her first match when she was 10 was up against a boy. And she won. “Ever since then, gender was never a problem for me,” Sophie said. “I've [heard] boys say, ‘Oh, she's a girl, I can beat her.’ And then I get on the mat and submit them in a couple minutes. I've gotten some boys that cry because of it.”
“She wants to be in the limelight as a role model for young girls and women,” Evan said proudly.
Sophie agreed, noting, “As I'm getting older, I’d like to be an influencer in the sport. I love to try and get more women and young girls on the mat.”
“If you were to pick a single age group that jiu-jitsu sometimes can be difficult for, I think teenage girls is probably the most difficult,” Regalbutoat said. “And not only does she rise above that stereotype, but she does it, in my opinion, one of the toughest rooms on the east coast, in the professional classes.”
Sophie’s long-term mission is to become a world champion jiu-jitsu athlete, but she may not have to wait long. She’s now training to earn a spot in November’s The ADCC Submission Fighting World Championship trials. The biggest tournament in the sport in the entire world, it is widely considered the Olympics of jiu-jitsu.
“It is where you basically fight for your life,” Sophie said. “If you win, that means you've beat everyone in the entire world.”
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